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Humanitarian Diplomacy: The ICRC's Neutral and Impartial Advocacy in Armed Conflicts

  • Hugo Slim

As part of a roundtable on “Balancing Legal Norms, Moral Values, and National Interests,” this essay describes the humanitarian diplomacy of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) by comparing it conceptually with other forms of advocacy and illustrating it with the ICRC's recent experience in the Yemen crisis. Humanitarian diplomacy is examined as one particular way of balancing legal norms, moral values, and national interests in the pursuit of greater respect for international humanitarian law (IHL) and principled humanitarian action in armed conflicts. The essay looks back to ancient history for archetypal forms of humanitarian advocacy in various cultural traditions. It then describes humanitarian diplomacy's practice of discreet diplomacy and confidential dialogue with all parties to a conflict, and compares its relatively “quiet” approach with the “loud” approach of outrage activism focused on “naming and shaming,” which tends to be the norm today. The essay argues that there is an important and complementary place for the ICRC's style of humanitarian diplomacy alongside other forms of advocacy even in the face of criticism that the ICRC is sometimes publicly silent about what it knows of atrocities and avoids naming and shaming.

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Although this essay is written in a personal capacity and is not the official view of the ICRC, I use the pronouns “we” and “us” throughout as a shorthand for the ICRC.

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1 The modern human rights method can be traced back to Voltaire's early campaigns against torture in the eighteenth century, the antislavery movement in the nineteenth century, and the work of people like Roger Casement and Edmund Morel in exposing the atrocities of the Belgian Congo in the early twentieth century.

2 Esther,” in The Bible, trans. King, Nicholas (Stowmarket, U.K.: Kevin Mayhew Ltd, 2013), pp. 879–98.

3 Mencius, trans. with an introduction by Lau, D. C. (London: Penguin Classics, 2004).

4 Mencius, p. 38.

5 Davidson, Ian, Voltaire in Exile (London: Atlantic Books, 2004), pp. 86114.

6 Roper, Lyndal, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (New York: Random House, 2016).

7 Slim, Hugo, Humanitarian Ethics: A Guide to the Morality of Aid in War and Disaster (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 3974.

8 International Committee of the Red Cross, “The International Committee of the Red Cross's (ICRC's) Confidential Approach,” International Review of the Red Cross 94, no. 887 (2012),

9 International Criminal Court, “Rule 73: Privileged Communications and Information,” Rules of Procedure and Evidence (2016), pp. 19–20.

10 Slim, Humanitarian Ethics, pp. 208–11.

11 Daniel Shepherd et al., “Influencing Policy and Civic Space: A Meta-Review of Oxfam's Policy Influence, Citizen Voice and Good Governance Effectiveness Reviews,” Oxfam Research Report (2018); and Crisis Action, Creative Coalitions: A Handbook for Change (2017),

12 The image of Mona Lisa diplomacy was used to describe the cryptic demeanor of U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles during the early years of the Cold War.

13 MacCulloch, Diarmaid, Silence: A Christian History (London: Penguin, 2013), p. 34.

14 Zaretsky, Robert, A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2013), p. 84.

15 International Committee of the Red Cross, “The ICRC's External Communication Doctrine (Doctrine 7),” (2016),

16 International Committee of the Red Cross, “Action by the International Committee of the Red Cross in the Event of Violations of International Humanitarian Law or of Other Fundamental Rules Protecting Persons in Situations of Violence,” International Review of the Red Cross 87, no. 858 (2005),

* Although this essay is written in a personal capacity and is not the official view of the ICRC, I use the pronouns “we” and “us” throughout as a shorthand for the ICRC.

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Ethics & International Affairs
  • ISSN: 0892-6794
  • EISSN: 1747-7093
  • URL: /core/journals/ethics-and-international-affairs
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