IHL recognizes that the civilian population of a State affected by an armed conflict is entitled to receive humanitarian assistance. It regulates in particular the conditions for providing humanitarian assistance, in the form of food, medicines, medical equipment or other vital supplies, to civilians in need.
During an international armed conflict, belligerents are thus under the obligation to permit relief operations for the benefit of civilians, including enemy civilians.
Art. 23 of Convention IV outlines the basic principles applicable to relief assistance for particularly vulnerable groups among the civilian population: children under fifteen and pregnant and nursing mothers. It also grants the States concerned the right to inspect the contents and verify the destination of relief supplies, as well as to refuse the passage of relief goods if they have well-founded reasons to believe that they will not be distributed to the victims but rather used in the military effort.
Art. 70 of Protocol I has considerably developed the right to humanitarian assistance. Under this provision, relief operations must be carried out for the benefit of the entire civilian population if there is a general shortage of indispensable supplies. However, Art. 70 contains a severe limitation: it stipulates that the consent of all the parties concerned – including that of the State receiving the aid – is necessary for such assistance.
In occupied territories, the occupying power has to make sure that the population receives adequate medical and food supplies.
If this proves impossible, the occupying power is obliged to permit relief operations by third States or by an impartial organization, and to facilitate such operations.
The rules regulating humanitarian assistance during non-international armed conflicts are far less developed. However, Art. 18(2) of Protocol II stipulates that: “If the civilian population is suffering undue hardship owing to a lack of the supplies essential for its survival, such as foodstuffs and medical supplies, relief actions for the civilian population which are of an exclusively humanitarian and impartial nature and which are conducted without any adverse distinction shall be undertaken subject to the consent of the High Contracting Party concerned.”
Although Art. 18 undoubtedly enhances the protection of the civilian population, it has been strongly criticized because it also makes relief actions contingent on government consent. Art. 18 can, however, also be construed as implying that the government has to give this consent when the stipulated conditions are fulfilled.
- ICRC, International humanitarian law and the challenges of contemporary armed conflicts in 2015 [paras 127-149]
- AKANDE Dapo & GILLARD Emanuela-Chiara, Oxford Guidance on the Law Relating to Humanitarian Relief Operations in Situations of Armed Conflict, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2016, 62 pp.
- BRAUMAN Rony, L’action humanitaire, Paris, Flammarion, 2000.
- ICRC, “ICRC Q&A Lexicon on Humanitarian Access”, in IRRC, Vol. 96, No. 893, 2015, pp. 359-375.
- MOORE Jonathan (ed.), Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention, New York, Rownan and Littlefield, 1998, 322 pp.
- RYFMAN Philippe, L’action humanitaire, Paris, La Documentation française, coll. Problèmes politiques et sociaux. Dossiers d’actualité mondiale, No. 864, October 2001, 84 pp.
- STOFFELS Ruth-Abril, “Legal Regulation of Humanitarian Assistance in Armed Conflict: Achievements and Gaps”, in IRRC, No. 855, September 2004, pp. 514-546.
- SZUREK Sandra, EUDES Marina & RYFMAN Philippe, Droit et pratique de l’action humanitaire, Paris, Libraire Générale de droit et de jurisprudence, 2019, 970 pp.
- ZANETTI Véronique, L’intervention humanitaire : droits des individus, devoirs des États, Genève, Labor et Fides, 2008, 345 pp.
- BETTATI Mario & KOUCHNER Bernard, Le devoir d’ingérence, peut-on les laisser mourir?, Paris, Denoël, 1987, 300 pp.
- CHOMSKY Noam, The New Military Humanism : Lessons from Kosovo, Monroe, Common Courage Press, 1999, 199 pp.
- CORTEN Olivier & KLEIN Pierre, Droit d’ingérence ou obligation de réaction?, 2nd ed., Brussels, Bruylant, 1996, 309 pp.
- DENNE Sarah R., “Re-Thinking Humanitarian Aid in the Post-Gulf War Era: the International Committee of the Red Cross Takes the Lead”, in Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Vol. 39, No. 3, 2007, pp. 867-895.
- DOMESTICI-MET Marie-José, “Aspects juridiques récents de l’assistance humanitaire”, in AFDI, 1989, pp. 117-148.
- DOMESTICI-MET Marie-José, “Aspects récents du droit et de l’assistance humanitaires”, in L’observateur des Nations Unies, No. 10, printemps-été 2001, pp. 1-99.
- GILLARD Emanuela-Chiara, “The Law Regulating Cross-Border Operations Relief”, in IRRC, Vol. 95, No. 890, 2013, pp. 351-382.
- KRÄHENBÜHL Pierre, “Conflict in the Balkans: Human Tragedies and the Challenge to Independent Humanitarian Action”, in IRRC, No. 837, March 2000, pp. 11-29.
- MACALISTER-SMITH Peter, International Humanitarian Assistance, Disaster Relief Actions in International Law and Organization, Dordrecht/Geneva, M. Nijhoff /Henry-Dunant Institute, 1985, 244 pp.
- MAURER Peter, “Challenges to Humanitarian Action in Contemporary Conflicts: Israel, the Middle-East and Beyond”, in Israel Law Review, Vol. 47, No. 2, 2014, pp. 175-180.
- MICHELETTI Pierre, Humanitaire : s’adapter ou renoncer, Paris, Marabout, 2008, 245 pp.
- PASQUIER André, “Action humanitaire : une légitimité en question?”, in IRRC, No. 842, June 2001, 311-321.
- PATTISON James, “Humanitarian Intervention, the Responsibility to Protect and Jus in Bello”, in Global Responsibility to Protect, Vol. 1, No. 3, 2009, pp. 364-391.
- PEROUSE DE MONTCLOS Marc-Antoine, L’aide humanitaire, aide à la guerre ?, Brussels, Complexe, 2001, 207 pp.
- PFANNER Tony, “Asymmetrical Warfare from the Perspective of Humanitarian Law and Humanitarian Action”, in IRRC, Vol. 87, No. 865, March 2005, pp. 149-174.
- REFSLUND SORENSEN Birgitte, “Violence and Humanitarian Assistance: Reflections on an Intricate Relationship”, in Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, September 2006, 24 pp.
- RYNIKER Anne, “The ICRC’s Position on ‘Humanitarian Intervention’”, in IRRC, No. 842, June 2001, pp. 527-532.
- SANDOZ Yves, “‘Droit’ or ‘devoir d’ingérence’ and the right to assistance: the issues involved”, in IRRC, No. 288, June 1992, pp. 215-227.
- STUDER Meinrad, “The ICRC and Civil-Military Relations in Armed Conflict”, in IRRC, No. 842, June 2001, pp. 367-391.
- SUHRKE Astri & KLUSMEYER Douglas, “Between Principles and Politics: Lessons from Iraq for Humnaitarian Action”, in Journal of Refugee Studies, Vol. 17, No. 3, 2004, pp. 273-285.
- WILLS Siobhan, “Military Interventions on Behalf of Vulnerable Populations: The Legal Responsibilities of States and International Organizations Engaged in Peace Support Operations”, in Journal of Conflict and Security Law, Vol. 9-3, Winter 2004, pp. 387-418.
- WYNN-POP Phoebe, “Humanitarian Access in International Humanitarian Law: The Case of Syria and Security Council Resolution 2139 (2014)”, in PETROVIC Jadranka (ed.), Accountability for violations of international humanitarian law: essays in honour of Tim McCormack, New-York, London, Routledge, 2016, pp. 117-135.
- ZWITTER Andrej, “Humanitarian Action on the Battlefields of Global War on Terror”, in The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, October 2008, pp. 1-23.
a) starvation of civilians: a prohibited method of warfare
P I, 54(1); P II, 14 [CIHL, Rule 53]
- DOMESTICI-MET Marie-José, “Contre la faim provoquée, les outils du droit”, in Action contre la Faim, Géopolitique de la faim, Édition 2000, Paris, PUF, 1999, pp. 285-294.
- MACALISTER-SMITH Peter, “Protection of the Civilian Population and the Prohibition of Starvation as a Method of Warfare – Draft Texts on International Humanitarian Assistance”, in IRRC, No. 283, September-October 1991, pp. 440-459.
- PEJIC Jelena, “The Right to Food in Situations of Armed Conflict: The Legal Framework”, in IRRC, No. 844, December 2001, pp. 1097-1110.
- BARTELS Rogiers, “Denying humanitarian access as an international crime in times of non-international armed conflict: The challenges to prosecute and some proposals for the future”, in Israel Law Review, Vol. 48, No. 3, 2015, pp. 281-307.
- SHOTWELL Charles B., “Food and the Use of Force, the Role of Humanitarian Principles in the Persian Gulf Crisis and Beyond”, in Revue de Droit Pénal et de Criminologie, Vol. 30, 1999, pp. 347-377.
b) the right of the civilian population to be assisted
[CIHL, Rules 55 and 56]
- UN, Secretary-General’s Reports on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict
- France, Accession to Protocol I [Part B., para. 17]
- Israel/Gaza, Operation Cast Lead [Part II, paras 311-326, 1305-1331]
- ICRC, Iran/Iraq, Memoranda
- UN Security Council, Sanctions Imposed Upon Iraq
- UN, Security Council Resolution 688 on Northern Iraq [Para. 3]
- UN, UN Forces in Somalia
- Case Study, Armed Conflicts in the former Yugoslavia [3 and 13]
- Bosnia and Herzegovina, Constitution of Safe Areas in 1992-1993
- UN, Security Council Resolution on the Conflict in Syria
- Somalia, the fate of Children in the conflict
- ICRC, International humanitarian law and the challenges of contemporary armed conflicts in 2011
- Israel, Blockade of Gaza and the Flotilla Incident
- ICRC, International humanitarian law and the challenges of contemporary armed conflicts in 2015 [paras 130, 136]
- Libya, Report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (2014/15)
- Yemen: Naval Blockade
- Yemen, Potential Existence and Effects of Naval Blockade
c) the belligerents bear primary responsibility
BELLAMY Alex J., Responsibility to Protect: the Global Effort to End Mass Atrocities, Cambridge, Polity, 2009, 249 pp.
BOISSON DE CHAZOURNES Laurence & CONDORELLI Luigi, “Quelles perspectives pour la responsabilité de protéger ?”, in Les droits de l’homme et la constitution : études en l’honneur du professeur Giorgio Malinverni, Geneva, Schulthess, 2007, pp. 329-337.
BOUCHET-SAULNIER Françoise, “Consent to Humanitarian Access: An Obligation Triggered by Territorial Control, not State’s Rights”, in IRRC, Vol. 96, No. 893, 2014, pp. 207-217.
EVANS Gareth, The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All, Washington, Brookings Institution Press, 2008, 349 pp.
International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, Ottawa, International Development Research Centre, 2001, 91 pp.
PATTISON James, “Whose Responsibility to Protect? the Duties of Humanitarian Intervention”, in Journal of Military Ethics, Vol. 7, Issue 4, 2008, pp. 262-283.
HOFMANN Claudia, “Engaging Non-State Armed Groups in Humanitarian Action”, in International Peacekeeping, Vol. 13, No. 3, September 2006, pp. 396-409.
d) medical assistance may benefit civilians or combatants
2. Definition and characteristics of humanitarian assistance
[CIHL, Rule 55]
- BRAUMAN Rony, L’action humanitaire, Paris, Flammarion, 2000.
- SLIM Hugo, “Doing the Right Thing: Relief Agencies, Moral Dilemmas and Moral Responsibility in Political Emergencies and Wars”, in Studies on Emergencies and Disaster Relief, No. 6, Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, Uppsala, 1997, 18 pp.
- MINEAR Larry & WEISS Thomas G., Mercy under Fire, War and the Global Humanitarian Community, Oxford/San Francisco, Boulder/Westview Press, 1995, 260 pp.
- MODIRZADEH Naz K., LEWIS A. Dustin & BRUDERLEIN Claude, “Humanitarian engagement under counter-terrorism: a conflict of norms and the emerging policy landscape”, in IRRC, Vol. 93, No. 883, 2011, pp. 623-647.
- PLATTNER Denise, “ICRC Neutrality and Neutrality in Humanitarian Assistance”, in IRRC, No. 818, March-April 1996, pp. 161-179.
RUSSBACH Rémi & FINK Daniel, “Humanitarian Action in Current Armed Conflicts: Opportunities and Obstacles”, in Medicine and Global Survival, Vol. 1/4, 1994, pp. 188-199.
3. The rules of treaty law
- BARBER Rebecca, “Facilitating Humanitarian Assistance in International Humanitarian and Human Rights Law”, in IRRC, Vol. 91, No. 874, June 2009, pp. 371-399.
- ROTTENSTEINER Christa, “The Denial of Humanitarian Assistance as a Crime under International Law”, in IRRC, No. 835, September 1999, pp. 555-582.
- BOTHE Michael, “Relief Actions: The Position of the Recipient State”, in KALSHOVEN Frits (ed.), Assisting the Victims of Armed Conflict and Other Disasters, Dordrecht, M. Nijhoff, 1989, pp. 91-98.
- LUOPAJÄRVI Katja, “Is There an Obligation on States to Accept International Humanitarian Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons under International Law?”, in International Journal of Refugee Law, Vol. 15/4, 2004, pp. 678-714.
- REY Francisco, CARBONNIER Gilles & BOUCHET-SAULNIER Françoise, Puertas cerradas: el acceso a la víctimas en la acción humanitaria, Barcelona, Icaria, 2001, 214 pp.
a) the starting point: Art. 23 of Convention IV
aa) addressed to all “High Contracting Parties”, not only the parties to the conflict
bb) but limitations
- with regard to the beneficiaries
- with regard to the kind of assistance
b) in occupied territories: Art. 59 of Convention IV: the occupying power has an obligation to accept relief
c) a broad right to assistance: Art. 70 of Protocol I and Art. 18(2) of Protocol II
aa) but subject to the consent of the State concerned
bb) the conditions on which a belligerent may make its agreement to humanitarian assistance contingent
cc) is the State concerned obliged to give its consent if the conditions are fulfilled?
- AKANDE Dapo & GILLARD Emanuela-Chiara, “Arbitrary Withholding of Consent to Humanitarian Relief Operations in Armed Conflict”, in International Law Studies, Vol. 92, 2016, pp. 483-511.
RYNGAERT Cedric, “Humanitarian Assistance and the Conundrum of Consent: A Legal Perspective”, in Amsterdam Law Forum, 2013, pp. 5-19.
4. Protection of those providing humanitarian assistance
[CIHL, Rules 31 and 32]
- BIERENS DE HAAN Barthold, Humanitarian Action and Armed Conflict: Coping with Stress, Geneva, ICRC, July 2001, 3rd ed., 28 pp.
- MACKINTOSH Kate, “Beyond the Red Cross: the Protection of Independent Humanitarian Organizations and their Staff in International Humanitarian Law”, in IRRC, Vol. 89, No. 865, March 2007, pp. 113-130.
- RUFIN Jean-Christophe, “The Paradoxes of Armed Protection”, in Médecins Sans Frontières (ed.), Life, Death and Aid, New York, Routledge, 1993, pp. 111-123
- SUY Erik, “La protection des volontaires humanitaires dans les conflits armés non-internationaux et dans les operations de secours en cas de catastrophes”, in Des Menschen Recht Zwischen Freiheit und Verantwortung: Festschrift für Karl Josef Partsch zum 75 Geburtstag, Berlin, Duncker & Humblot, 1989, pp. 173-182.
5. The protection of water supplies and water engineers