The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.


The 1949 Geneva Conventions use the word assistance to designate the overall aid (in terms of food, medicine, clothing, etc.) that must be provided for victims of conflicts, in accordance with humanitarian law. It covers the goods essential to their survival. In the Geneva Conventions, material assistance is linked to a specific legal framework that defines the status of the different categories of protected persons whom the law seeks to protect.

The status of the protected persons is what determines the specific rights and obligations of the various authorities to ensure the survival of the populations in their power. This status also determines the right of initiative and the responsibility of relief organizations, as well as the means and conditions for the distribution of aid, based on the needs of the different categories and vulnerabilities of persons. ▸ Protected personsProtection

Humanitarian law thus establishes different rights to receive assistance related to the different categories of protected persons: civilians, populations in occupied territory, detainees, women, children, the elderly, and the wounded and sick in international or internal armed conflict (GCIII Arts. 25–32; GCIV Arts. 50, 55–63, 89, 92; API Arts. 68–71, 81; APII Arts. 4, 5, 7, 17, 18). ▸ ChildrenCiviliansDetentionOccupied territoryPrisoners of warReliefWomenWounded and sick persons

Humanitarian law also establishes different rights for relief organizations, depending on the situation. ▸ Humanitarian and relief personnelMedical servicesReliefRight of accessRight of initiative

In the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the link between assistance and protection is equally emphasized. Based on this convention, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) takes on the function both of protecting and of providing material assistance to refugees, in an indivisible manner. The UNHCR undertakes to assist refugees while they wait to be granted the appropriate legal status and to defend their right to receive this status.

Assistance and protection must always be provided together. Thus linked, they form genuine relief operations, as foreseen by humanitarian law.

The objective of providing assistance is to enable individuals to enjoy their rights and regain their individual autonomy, which is the only guarantee for their survival.

In international law, assistance must always be tied to the recognition of the legal status and rights of individuals in danger. In practice, this recognition must be incorporated into relief actions.

The content and format of assistance are explained in the entry on ▸ Relief .

ChildrenDetentionHumanitarian and relief personnelProtected objects and propertyProtected personsProtectionReliefWomenWounded and sick persons

For Additional Information: Anderson, Mary B. “‘You Save My Life Today, but for What Tomorrow?’ Some Moral Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid.” In Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention , edited by Jonathan Moore, 137–56. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.

Barber, Rebecca. “Facilitating Humanitarian Assistance in International Humanitarian and Human Rights Law.” International Review of the Red Cross 874 (June 2009): 371–97.

European Commission. Law in Humanitarian Crises: Access to Victims; Rights to Intervene or Right to Receive Humanitarian Assistance? Luxembourg, 1995.

Henckaerts, Jean-Marie, and Louise Doswald-Beck, eds. Customary International Law . Vol. 1, The Rules . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Plattner, Denise. “Assistance to the Civilian Population: The Development and Present State of International Humanitarian Law.” International Review of the Red Cross 288 (May–June 1992): 249–63.

Stoffels, Ruth A. “Legal Regulation of Humanitarian Assistance in Armed Conflict: Achievements and Gaps.” International Review of the Red Cross 855 (September 2004): 515–46.

Terry, Fiona. Condemn to Repeat? The Paradox of Humanitarian Action . London: Cornell University Press, 2002.

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The Humanitarian Decade: Challenges for Humanitarian Assistance in the Last Decade and into the Future . New York: United Nations, 2004.

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