Joint Principles of Operation of International Non-Government Humanitarian Agencies in Liberia

Originally published
Humanitarian intervention must be guided by the principles of:

Humanity: Human suffering should be addressed wherever it is found. The dignity and rights of all victims must be respected and protected.

Impartiality: Humanitarian assistance should be provided without discrimination as to ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political opinion, race or religion and be guided solely by need.

Neutrality: Humanitarian action is exclusively based on the rights and needs of the population. Neutrality is maintained by not taking the side of any of the parties to the hostilities nor supporting any aspect of the conflict. Consistent with international law, humanitarian assistance should be provided without engaging in hostilities or taking sides in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.

Independence: Humanitarian action is autonomous and is delivered according to the principles outlined here without military, political or economic influence. Unimpeded access to the people in need is a precondition for any assistance.

Do no harm: Humanitarian assistance will not exacerbate existing conflicts or create new ones but will rather contribute to reduce tensions in society. As a minimum requirement, it will not endanger the security of beneficiaries.

Accountability: Humanitarian agencies hold themselves accountable by monitoring humanitarian interventions to ensure their appropriate impact.

Local capacities: Humanitarian agencies should strive to avoid dependency whilst encouraging the building of capacity, sustainability and self-reliance.

1. Mission Statement

The Joint Principles of Operation (JPO) endorsed in this document aim to reinforce the ideals of humanitarian assistance and provide cohesion to international efforts in collaboration with national stakeholders. The JPO are a set of minimum standards to guide our work, agencies can choose to adhere to higher standards as per their own organisational mandate. The humanitarian agencies, while acknowledging the diversity of their individual mandates, agree to work together and in collaboration with the Liberian people. We (humanitarian agencies) will work towards the alleviation of human suffering, the promotion of self-reliance and the enhancement of human dignity of all those affected by the conflict in Liberia, in accordance with the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL). We intend to accord priority to the needs of the most vulnerable, to optimise the available resources to this end and to avoid actions which might contribute to prolonging or exacerbating existing tensions or the creation of new tensions.

2. Humanitarian principles and operations in practice

We commit to these principles recognising that in practice, humanitarian agencies face dilemmas every day related to the operating environment, resource availability, and other factors. When confronted with the challenges of the reality in the field, we need joint principles of operation specific for the conditions in Liberia. Implementing them requires continuous communication and demonstrated mutual understanding between humanitarian actors and other stakeholders. This will be underpinned by a commitment to coordination and coherence in our programming, minimising overlap. We will strive to ensure that our programmes are balanced in the provision of assistance to communities in need.

3. Humanity

3.1 Humanitarian agencies commit to zero tolerance from within our organisations for any type of exploitation and abuse, for example, sexual and child exploitation, fraud and bribes. We accept our role as advocates with other stakeholders (such as local communities, governments and donors). We commit to training our staff and holding them accountable to our policies; informing those that we work with of our policies; and encouraging the reporting of all forms of exploitation and abuse. We will aim to work at the local community level as well as with national institutions to limit abuse and exploitation.

3.2 Humanitarian agencies respect the right of confidentiality of those individuals and communities with whom we work.

3.3 We will ensure that in all our publications and other media, we will represent those that we assist with dignity.

4. Impartiality

Humanitarian intervention is guided by needs and rights. Humanitarian agencies commit themselves to base their intervention on both needs and rights in order to respond to the greatest and most urgent suffering, prioritizing those most vulnerable.

5. Neutrality

Our activities are neutral with regard to political, ideological, religious and military objectives. In simple language, we do not take sides nor discriminate in the delivery of humanitarian aid. We aim to work without bias to a particular community, religion or similar social group. In practice, it means that the status of humanitarian agencies differs from that of others who may intervene in the same areas, mainly military and political actors. The humanitarian agencies' unique position must be transparent, clearly understood and not contested.

6. Independence

6.1 Independence must be ensured in every action undertaken, without being influenced by the media, the parties to the conflict or any other body. If an agency finds itself under any of the above-mentioned pressure, humanitarian agencies have the responsibility to resist individually and collectively, and to continue to intervene.

6.2 Humanitarian agencies must have independent and full access to the population based on need, on IHL and the IHRL.

6.3 Communication/negotiation with the factions for access to areas under their control is transparent and the responsibility of each agency, except when specific agreement between agencies is required.

6.4 Access is non-conditional. The importation of relief items into an area is a tempting target for diversion. Payment and services (influence for recruitment or supplier selection for instance) should not be given in order to gain the right to provide assistance to civilian populations.

6.5 Humanitarian agencies endeavour to limit their use of military resources /assets e.g. helicopters, trucks, as it could undermine the independence of operations.

7. Do No Harm

Humanitarian agencies acknowledge that when resources are scarce the allocation of assistance can cause conflict between those that do receive assistance and those who do not. We accept, that our work may have an impact, positive and negative, upon those with whom we work and members of the wider community. We aim not to prolong or exacerbate existing, or create new tensions, or negative impacts through the distribution of resources and the implementation of programmes.

8. Accountability

8.1 Humanitarian agencies working in the same areas or sectors should encourage sharing of information and results of assessment in order to optimize the responses provided on the basis of needs.

8.2 Humanitarian agencies seek to be transparent with all stakeholders (local communities, governments and donors) in our activities and in our intentions.

8.3 Humanitarian agencies recognise that the most effective basis for our work is in the spirit of collaboration and in the avoidance of duplication and competition.

8.4 Humanitarian agencies hold themselves ethically and financially accountable to all stakeholders.

8.5 Humanitarian agencies commit to ensure the quality of implementation of their programmes.

9. Local Capacities

Humanitarian agencies commit to building national capacity through their staff, local communities, government, local NGOs and other partners. They will endeavour through their activities to assist Liberians towards sustainability and self-reliance.

10. Security/ safety of humanitarian agencies staff and properties

The safety of staff is a self-evident pre-requisite. There are different strategies or approaches to security such as acceptance (e.g. building sustainable relationships) or protection (using protective devices) or deterrence (answering a threat by a counter threat). There are different opinions on the usefulness of these strategies but we believe that a combination of protection and acceptance is most effective in the Liberian context.

Safety in the Liberian context depends on:

- the image and integrity of humanitarian agencies being perceived as one community with the same operating principles;

- the manner in which we conduct ourselves in the field and;

- personal contacts with all stakeholders.

The humanitarian agencies should ensure respect of the principles mentioned above, especially by avoiding the possibility to be perceived as part of the tensions.

In practice:

- Humanitarian agencies have the responsibility to sensitize and disseminate information to all actors (military, political, civilian) about the nature and the objectives of the humanitarian agency present, as well as the humanitarian principles to which it subscribes.

- Aid workers should behave according to those principles to reinforce them and gain credibility. This applies specifically but not exclusively to the issue of sexual exploitation, the abuse of power or lack of respect for basic human rights.

- Agencies should interact with all actors without discrimination to maintain a neutral approach and promote impartiality.

- All actors should avoid words or behaviour that creates confusion regarding the roles of humanitarian agencies and other actors, especially military and political since this can affect acceptance strategies.

- Questions should be continually asked as to whether the current form of humanitarian assistance benefits the parties to the conflict and as a consequence prolongs or exacerbates the tensions negatively impacting the vulnerable populations we serve.

- Payments in cash or kind (bribes) should not be made to enable our work. Payment will inevitably be followed by further demands. For example, payments at checkpoints or bribes. This may result in delays and inconvenience. It may be necessary to turn a vehicle or convoy around and abort the mission to avoid payment and return to negotiations. These demands should not be resisted where there is a threat of injury. However, such a situation should be treated as armed robbery and the incident reported to the police to take action. Other members of the humanitarian community should also be informed.

- Other services to parties of the conflict must also be avoided. For example, humanitarian vehicles should avoid carrying any passengers with exception of those who are seriously injured and needing hospitalization or those concerned with the work of the organization.

11. The specific case of escorts:

Because they interfere with our ability to maintain the public's perceptions of our neutrality and impartiality, and might cause us security threats, the use of military or armed escorts is a last resort for humanitarian agencies. The following should guide the use of military or armed escorts:

11.1 Unarmed escorts should not be agreed as a pre-condition for entry into an area. This will contravene the independence of the agency.

11.2 Armed personnel should not be carried in or on humanitarian vehicles.

11.3 The use of armed escorts, including UNMIL, to accompany humanitarian vehicles should be used with extreme caution. They should never be used without questioning the nature of the humanitarian action, the alternatives, the increased threat to personal security and the possible negative consequences on humanitarian neutrality and independence. It will necessarily involve prior discussion between humanitarian agencies and the JPO steering committee to examine the impact and investigate alternatives.

11.4 The use of armed escorts may lower the risk of property being looted but is likely to decrease independence, neutrality and impartiality along with increasing personal risk for the following reasons:

- By the humanitarian agency being perceived by the factions as being allied with the escort and therefore a legitimate target - either at the time or even later;

- By humanitarian personnel being caught in any crossfire which may occur;

- By the humanitarian agency loosing acceptance of the communities with whom they work.

11.5 It is recognised that any use of military transport by air, land or sea, for humanitarian agency personnel, goods and services, should be avoided by humanitarian agencies except in the exceptional circumstances of saving or protecting lives, however, we acknowledge operational decision's of humanitarian agencies.

JPO Steering Committee

Overall Aim: To act as a consultative forum for issues associated with the joint policy of operations.


1. To support adherence to the guidelines by providing timely support, consultation and advice.

2. To act as an interface with difference actors for specific issues related to JPO as they affect the majority of INGOs.

3. To support analysis, consultation and engagement of key actors on humanitarian principles.

4. To report to the MSG on matters of humanitarian principles

JPO Steering Committee membership should represent a broad range of organizations, mandates and views. Members should be available at short notice to respond quickly to requests for advice.

Key reference documents

- IASC reference paper on Civil-Military relationship in complex emergencies, June 2004 (

- Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross & Red Crescent movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief (

- Sphere Humanitarian Charter (

- International Humanitarian Law (

- International Human Rights Law (

- Secretary Generals bulletin on Sexual Abuse and Exploitation (

- Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (

- JPO documentation and reports (

- Liberia Child Protection Working Group Code of Conduct


The Joint Principles of Operation (JPO) is an initiative that has a long history in Liberia. The conflict in Liberia, has led, at various times, to humanitarian assistance throughout the country being impossible, or extremely difficult, to deliver, due to the armed conflict between factions, and at times with ECOMOG (ECOWAS Monitoring Group) actively involved in the fighting. Some agencies, United Nations (UN) and INGO started using armed escorts to ensure the delivery of assistance. The independence of humanitarian action was called into question. Questions were also raised as to whether humanitarian aid was fuelling the conflict, 'doing harm'.1 Against this backdrop, in 1995, donors initiated a workshop with the United Nations (UN) and International Non-government Organisations (INGOs). This resulted in the 'Principles and Protocols of Humanitarian Operation' being adopted by UN and INGO agencies. The original INGO JPO, a tool for self-monitoring, was in response to the massive looting that was experienced by all agencies in April 1996, and was adopted in May 1996. It focused agencies activities on life saving interventions, and sought to the restrict capital inputs by INGOs. The JPO has subsequently been used as a model for similar regional initiatives, such as the Code of Conduct for Humanitarian Agencies in Sierra Leone.

After the fighting in June to August 2003, as well as the realisation of a need for a broader 'principled' approach to operational issues, it was decided that the JPO should be revisited by the INGO community. A workshop was held in November 2003, attended by 16 INGOs and a new draft JPO for Liberia emerged from this workshop. A JPO working group was formed as a sub-committee of the Liberian INGO Monitoring and Steering Group (MSG) - the umbrella body of international NGOs in Liberia. The JPO working group was Save the Children UK, Medecins Sans Frontieres - Holland, Action Contre La Faim and Oxfam GB. On 01 June 2004, a JPO workshop was organised by the working group. Representatives from the National Transitional Government of Liberia, donors, UNMIL, UN humanitarian agencies, national NGOs and INGOs attended. The purpose of the meeting was to increase the awareness of and commitment to humanitarian principles by humanitarian actors in Liberia through the development of the JPO and through this to be more accountable to beneficiaries in Liberia. The Liberian context today, with its maturing peace process faces new coordination challenges such as the UN integrated mission, and the entry of new actors into the humanitarian assistance sector. In August 2004, a JPO Officer was employed, for a six (6) month period to facilitate the process of agreement and consensus by the INGOs on the JPO, to disseminate information, provide support, and facilitate discussion and training. The project is supported by ECHO and OFDA.

JPO Timeline:

Mid-1995: "Mission Statement of the Humanitarian Community in Liberia (UN, INGO and ICRC as observers;

1995: September, adoption of the "Principles and Protocols of Humanitarian Operation" (UN and INGO);

May 1996: adoption of the INGO Joint Policy of Operation (JPO);

1996 & 1997: revision of JPO to reflect changing context, dissemination exercise;

1998: reference made to of JPO at the code of conduct workshop held in Sierra Leone;

1999: dissemination of JPO by INGOs;

2003: JPO revised and re-named Joint Principles of Operation;

2004: January, JPO revised to adapt to the changed humanitarian landscape;

2004: June, JPO workshop, representatives from NGTL, UN, INGOs, NNGOs participated, and ICRC as observers:

2004: Arrival in August of a JPO Officer to facilitate the process of the document and to disseminate information;

2004: October, revised JPO with MSG members for endorsement.

The minutes of the 01 June 2004 workshop can be found on the HIC website (

For additional background reading the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute, released a report March 2000, titled


1 Refer to Mary B. Anderson, Do No Harm / Local Capacities for Peace