The rehabilitation of international humanitarian law (IHL) has become a priority for those who think that the horrors of contemporary wars are largely due to the blurring of the distinction between civilians and combatants and for those who think that campaigning for the respect of IHL could result in more civilised wars. Similarly, respect for humanitarian principles is still seen by many as the best tool available to protect the safety of aid workers. In this text, I argue that both assumptions are misled. The distinction between civilians and combatants, a cornerstone of IHL, has been blurred in practice since the late nineteenth century. In addition, humanitarian agencies claiming to be ‘principled’ have been victims of attacks as much as others. History and current practice tell us that neither IHL nor humanitarian principles provide safety or can guide our decisions. Accepting their symbolic value, rather than their unrealised potential to protect and solve operational dilemmas, would free humanitarian agencies from endless speculations.