Skip main navigation

The principle of humanity and business

Humanity and business
Person in Australian Red Cross vest hugging a woman

The primary purpose of international humanitarian law is to establish minimum standards of humanity that must be respected in times of armed conflict.

The principle of humanity, or reflections of it, can be found in international treaty law, customary international humanitarian law and in the everyday practice of the Movement and other humanitarian organisations.

It is also one of the seven Fundamental Principles of the Movement, which together establish the ethical and operational framework for the Movement. The Fundamental Principle of humanity provides,

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, born of a desire to bring assistance without discrimination to the wounded on the battlefield, endeavours, in its international and national capacity, to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found. Its purpose is to protect life and health and to ensure respect for the human being. It promotes mutual understanding, friendship, cooperation and lasting peace amongst all peoples.
This is the overarching principle that motivates and guides the Movement’s work and serves as a call to action, not only for Red Cross and Red Crescent people, but for the entire humanitarian sector.
However, defining the principle of humanity as it relates to armed conflict and IHL is challenging. At the very least, it signifies a fundamental and universal moral force – the restriction of immorality or inhumanity – that must be heeded by anyone involved in waging war. It is therefore one of several principles that underpin the international humanitarian law framework.
The principle was first derived from the Martens Clause, adopted at the First Hague Peace Conference of 1899. The Clause states,
Until a more complete code of the laws of war is issued, the High Contracting Parties think it right to declare that in cases not included in the Regulations adopted by them, populations and belligerents remain under the protection and empire of the principles of international law, as they result from the usages established between civilized nations, from the laws of humanity and the requirements of the public conscience.
This is also reflected in Article 1 of Additional Protocol I of 1977 to the Geneva Conventions, which provides,
In cases not covered by this Protocol or by other international agreements, civilians and combatants remain under the protection and authority of the principles of international law derived from established custom, from the principles of humanity and from the dictates of public conscience.

The Clause has been interpreted a number of ways, but it serves as a reminder that the principle of humanity, as a customary norm, offers an added layer of protection – and in turn, added obligations and responsibilities – in the regulation of armed conflict, even when not explicitly provided for in treaty law.

Arguably then, the principle of humanity establishes a moral, if not a legal, standard that dictates the ways in which any actor in conflict-affected environments ought to behave – a standard against which businesses should also consider and judge their operations, activities, services and products.

As it relates to the corporate world, the principle of humanity continues to be contemplated and debated in the context of developing fully autonomous weapons, sometimes referred to as “killer robots”. In addition to the issue of new and emerging technologies, including evolving weapon systems, the principle of humanity has broader relevance for corporate actors. For instance, when conducting business or providing services in occupied territories, in exploring and mining land inhabited by local civilian populations, in developing and carrying out telecommunications and surveillance, in procuring goods for supply chains, and in facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid and assistance.

We will explore some of these issues in more detail throughout the course.

This article is from the free online

International Humanitarian Law for Business

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now