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Humanitarian Assistance

During conflict, the effective and speedy delivery of humanitarian aid for those in need is essential to ensure the protection of civilians. IHL sets out clear legal obligations for warring parties to facilitate the delivery of such aid.

Basic rules

All parties to a conflict, be it international or non-international in nature, have the obligation to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need. The assistance must be impartial in character and provided on the basis of need alone.

In all contexts humanitarian assistance must not be refused on arbitrary or unlawful grounds.[1]

Read more about customary international law and the basic rules on humanitarian access.

The use of starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare is strictly prohibited.

Can a warring party refuse this obligation?

Parties to the conflict, as well as states through which humanitarian aid may have to transit, may subject the assistance to certain control measures, such a prescribing times and routes as to avoid being caught up in military operations, or to ensure that the delivery is effective.

Such control orders may not apply to United Nations assistance due to United Nations law which sets out certain privileges and immunities.

Who has the obligation to provide humanitarian assistance?

Situations of occupation are unique in demanding that the Occupying Power provides humanitarian assistance to the civilian population of an adversary. In addition, the delivery of aid is also guided by human rights law.

In situations where the occupied population is inadequately supplied with relief goods/stuffs, the occupying power has the duty to agree to humanitarian assistance being delivered to this population and, respectively, grant access to humanitarian actors offering such assistance as per Article 59 (1) GCIV. In addition to permitting “free passage” of humanitarian assistance, according to Article 59 (3) GCIV the occupying power, has the complementary obligation to guarantee protection of the humanitarian assistance. 

The delivery of aid in occupied territory is guided by international humanitarian and human rights law provisions.

In armed conflicts which do not involve occupation, no such obligation to provide for civilians exists. It is the normal human rights obligations of a state to provide for the needs of its people, which are inclusive of, but also more expansive, than just humanitarian assistance.

Impediment of humanitarian relief

Parties to the conflict must refrain from deliberately impeding the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, “wilfully impeding relief supplies” as part of the use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is a war crime in international armed conflicts.

What rights do the affected population have?

Article 30 of the Fourth Geneva Convention established the entitlement to request aid in international armed conflict. This is vital when the international community fails to take spontaneous action, the authorities responsible for the victims do not disclose the situation to the outside world and the media does not have access to the area and cannot sound the alarm.

Special protection of humanitarian personnel and humanitarian objects

Humanitarian relief personnel as well as objects used for relief operation must be respected and protected.

Read more about special protection of humanitarian personnel.

Read more about special protection of humanitarian objects.

The emblem

Emblems are used as a means of identifying medical personnel and relief services in situations of armed conflict. The use of these distinctive signs highlights and promotes their protected status and should help facilitate their work.

There are three types of emblem: The red cross, red crescent and red crystal emblems.

The emblems are also used by National Societies of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement for identification purposes.

Read more about the ICRC and the protective emblems.

[1] In its commentary on rule 55, CIHL, the ICRC outlines that “both treaty law and practice indicate that the parties to the conflict can take a number of measures to control the content and delivery of humanitarian aid but cannot “deliberately” impede its delivery as such. Such measures of control may include the search of relief consignments and their delivery under supervision”. Its commentary on rule 56 further specifies that “The obligation to ensure freedom of movement is a corollary to the obligation to provide access to civilians in need and the prohibition on deliberately impeding the delivery of humanitarian assistance…Most practice does not mention the requirement that the rule concern authorized humanitarian personnel, but it is self-evident that a party to the conflict cannot be required to ensure the freedom of movement of an organization it has not authorized. It must be stressed, however, that such authorization cannot be refused arbitrarily (see commentary to Rule 55). In addition, the right of each party to the conflict to make sure that the personnel concerned are actually involved in humanitarian aid work is recognized in practice”. In its commentary on rule 55 the ICRC also explains that “… humanitarian relief personnel must respect domestic law on access to territory and must respect the security requirements in force”.