Ground rules for military conduct (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1021)

This review explains the type of agreements brokered by humanitarian organisations in conflict situations



Looking at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) (and/or other organisations, in one instance at least ICRC and NGOs) development of ground rules for military conduct in recent conflicts, provide a list of principles that they have asked parties to the conflict to sign up to, and the process used to get parties to sign.


Under international humanitarian law (IHL), all parties involved in non-international armed conflicts – whether state actors or non-state armed groups – should comply with international standards of behaviour. In many contexts, humanitarian organisations broker ‘ground rules’ with state and non-state actors to ensure compliance with IHL standards.

The literature base in this area is very limited. While there is significant reference in academic papers to ‘ground rules’, there is little documentation of the actual agreements, unless they are very formal agreements such as the well documented example of the ground rules ‘Operation Lifeline Sudan’. The UN has provided the most details regarding ground rules – these usually document ground rules between humanitarian organisations. This provides the evidence used as examples in this report.

While each humanitarian organisation agrees some form of ‘ground rules’ with each actor in the areas they operate in, these agreements are very rarely made publicly available. ICRC’s agreements are always confidential, and vary greatly according to the actor and context (expert input). Many agreements are verbal; others may have written consent, but are not generally formalised in written agreements, and the ICRC never signs official agreements with conflict parties (expert input). ICRC operates under what is called “the confidential approach” – this is based on the objective of “persuading an authority to meet its obligations without resorting to public pressure” (ICRC, 2012, p.3). Confidentiality is also a key principle underpinning the work of many humanitarian actors working in sensitive conflict environments.

This rapid literature review explains the type of agreements brokered by humanitarian organisations in conflict situations, the underlying principles for these agreements, and the method and process two organisations use to broker these agreements (the IRCR and the UN). It then outlines five case studies of ground rules: Operation Lifeline Sudan; the Somalia NGO Consortium’s Operating Principles and Red Lines; the Basic Operating Guidelines in Nepal; the Principles and Protocols of Humanitarian Operation in Liberia; and the Principles of Engagement for Emergency Humanitarian Assistance in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Herbert, S. Ground rules for military conduct (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1021). Governance and Social Development Resource Centre, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK (2013) 10 pp.

Ground rules for military conduct (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1021)

Published 1 January 2013