The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

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


It is important to distinguish between embargoes and acts of war such as blockades or sieges. Under International law, an embargo is not an act of war but a sanction that can be enacted individually or collectively against a country, by Member states of the United Nations (UN). It is meant to sanction an international wrongful act of behavior from one state. Collective embargoes are generally decided by the UN Security Council (UNSC), acting under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, when faced with threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression (art. 41 of UN Charter). Regional intergovernmental organizations can also impose embargoes (e.g. the EU or the Organization of American States “OAS” in 1962 imposed an embargo on Cuba). State can also impose embargo and sanctions to other state on a bilateral basis.

The aim of an embargo is to force a state to change its behavior or comply with a decision or international order.

Embargoes can be applied to all means of transportation (they were originally meant for ships) and to any category of merchandise or products—in particular, weapons or other strategic products or petroleum products. When the UNSC or a state imposes an embargo, either it directly blocks all transportation going to, or destined for, the state on which the embargo has been declared, or it prohibits any exports of designated/listed products to the State it wants to pressure. Exports from the targeted state toward the one imposing the embargo are also blocked.

Embargo is a specific practice that falls into the broader category of international sanctions.

Humanitarian relief is always exempt from embargoes, even in the case of “total embargoes” on all forms of economic trade. In practice, when the UNSC or the regional organization imposes an embargo, it sets up a special group or committee (e.g. the UN creates a Sanctions Committee) to monitor the implementation and effects of the embargo or sanctions. This Committee decides whether a product is exempt from the embargo, taking into consideration the commercial or humanitarian nature of the transaction or the goods in question.

Certain goods are considered humanitarian by nature (medicine, medical material, and food) or destination (any good that can serve a humanitarian purpose, such as shelter, supplies for education, water and sanitation, construction materiel, etc.). The relevant Sanctions Committee gives these goods partial exemptions from the embargo.

The principle established by the 1949 Geneva Conventions (GC) and their 1977 Additional Protocols (AP) posits that states are under the obligation to allow the free passage of relief supplies that are of an “exclusively humanitarian and impartial nature” (GCIV, art. 23, API, art. 70, and APII, art. 18(2)). The type of goods considered humanitarian pursuant to the GCs and APs are much broader than the goods automatically considered humanitarian by the Sanctions Committees: it includes clothes, shelter, and construction materials. This higher level of tolerance is based on the fact that international humanitarian law (IHL) foresees that humanitarian organizations carry out the distribution of relief.

This principle has become a mandatory norm of customary law. Indeed, Rule 55 of the ICRC customary IHL study published in 2005 provides that in international and non-international armed conflict, “parties to the conflict must allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need, which is impartial in character and conducted without any adverse distinction, subject to their right of control.”

Protected objects and propertyReliefRight of accessSanctions (diplomatic, economic, or military)Sanctions CommitteesSupplies

For Additional Information:

Von Braunmülch, C., and Kulessa, M., The Impact of UN Sanctions on Humanitarian Assistance Activities , Report on a Study Commissioned by the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs. New York: United Nations, 1995.

Minear, Larry, “The Morality of Sanctions.” In Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention , edited by Jonathan Moore, 229–50. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.

Palwankar, Umesh, “Measures Available to States for Fulfilling Their Obligation to Ensure Respect for International Humanitarian Law.” International Review of the Red Cross , Vol. 34, No. 298 (March 1994): 9–25.

Scarf, Michael P., and Joshua L. Dorosin, “Interpreting UN Sanctions: The Rulings and Role of the Yugoslavia Sanctions Committee.”, Brookings Journal of International Law, 19 (1993): 771, 807–10.

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