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 and their 1977 Additional Protocols establish the rules for ensuring the relief to which victims of conflicts are entitled. In so doing, they pursue two pragmatic and complementary objectives:

  • In general, they aim to lessen the suffering caused by hostilities to those who are not, or are no longer, participating in hostilities. This includes, for instance, preventing shortages of goods essential to the survival of the population.
  • More specifically, they aim to ensure that the basic protection needs (centered around the right to life) of different categories of persons threatened by the logic of destruction and violence are recognized.

In situations of conflict, scarcity is always relative. Violence, on the other hand, always threatens the most vulnerable categories of the population with direct or indirect destruction. Relief operations foreseen by humanitarian law link the notions of assistance and protection; material assistance should be provided according to the vulnerability and the needs and in tandem with the recognition of a minimum legal status for populations in danger. The different elements that make up these notions are set forth most clearly in Articles 70 and 71 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, applicable to international armed conflicts, and in Article 18 of Additional Protocol II, applicable in non-international armed conflicts. Some of these provisions are now recognized as rules of customary law (Rules 32, 53–56). Those rules, compiled in a study published by the ICRC in 2005 (customary IHL study), are binding on all the parties to the conflict, even if they are not signatories to the Conventions, which includes non-state armed groups. The protection of relief actions is organized around several aspects.

AssistanceProtected personsProtection

The Contents of Relief Actions

Humanitarian law foresees and regulates relief actions, based on the concept of goods and needs that are essential to the survival of the population in a situation of conflict.

The main principle governing the right to provide and receive relief is that targeting or starving the population is forbidden as a method of warfare (Rule 53 of customary IHL study). Parties to a conflict therefore must not destroy essential goods or prevent civilians from obtaining such goods (Rules 54 and 55). This is emphasized in situations when the civilians find themselves in the power of the adverse party, which might be a result of the territory being occupied, the area being under siege, or the individuals being interned or detained.

“Objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population” include:

  • foodstuffs, whether in the form of food supplies or crops and livestock, as well as drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works;
  • medicine and medical supplies;
  • objects necessary for religious worship;
  • essential foodstuffs, clothing, and tonics intended for children under fifteen, expectant mothers, and maternity cases (GCIV Art. 23; API Art. 54; APII Arts. 14, 18).

In international armed conflicts, this list is lengthened in the case of occupied territories and besieged areas, which must more specifically receive:

  • clothing, bedding, means of shelter, other supplies essential to the survival of the civilian population of the occupied territory, and objects necessary for religious worship (API Art. 69);
  • if necessary, relief personnel may form part of the assistance provided in any relief action, which must be authorized by the party in whose territory they will carry out their duties (API Arts. 70, 71).

FamineHumanitarian and relief personnelMedical dutiesProtected objects and propertySupplies

Aid Recipients

Humanitarian law establishes that the civilian population as a whole is entitled to benefit from relief. It also establishes specific provisions regulating the relief intended for specific categories of vulnerable persons, such as detainees, internees, prisoners of war, wounded and sick persons, populations of occupied territories, women, and children. These more specifically targeted relief activities are presented in the following specific entries.

ChildrenCiviliansDetentionInternmentPrisoners of warProtected persons;WomenWounded and sick persons

The Right of Protected Persons to Receive Relief

If the population of any territory is not adequately provided with the supplies essential to its survival, relief operations can be undertaken. The parties to the conflict are under the obligation to allow and facilitate the free passage of these supplies and may not forbid or hinder them. They only have the right to stipulate technical conditions or to impose controls on relief organizations in order to monitor the distribution of supplies. This is to guarantee that supplies are not diverted from the intended civilian population. Thus, international humanitarian law guarantees the right to receive aid (GCIV Arts. 17, 23, and 59; API Art. 70; APII Art. 18; Rules 55 and 56 of customary IHL study).

This principle is spelled out in different legal texts, depending on whether the shortage suffered by the population is a result of the conflict in general (API Art. 70, APII Art. 18), the territory being occupied (GCIV Arts. 55, 59) or besieged (GCIV Arts. 17, 23), or a non-international conflict (APII Art. 18).

The detaining or occupying power is under the obligation to provide necessary supplies to individuals who are in their power as a result of internment, detention, or occupation (GCIV Arts. 81, 55, and 60). They must also allow independent humanitarian evaluations of the situation and of the needs of the population (GCIV Arts. 30, 143), by the protecting powers or, failing that, by the ICRC or impartial humanitarian organizations.

Furthermore, individuals in such situations have the right to receive individual or collective relief, whether they are interned (GCIV Arts. 108–111), wounded or sick (GCIV Arts. 16, 17, and 23; APII Art. 7), prisoners of war (GCIII Arts. 15, 72, and 73), deprived of liberty for other reasons (APII Art. 5.1.c), or in occupied territory (GCIV Arts. 59, 62, and 63).

Persons protected by humanitarian law have the right to apply to the protecting powers, the ICRC, or any other qualified organization for assistance. The authorities in power must facilitate their application to such organizations, who must be allowed to carry out independent evaluations of the population’s needs (GCIV Art. 30).

DetentionOccupied territoriesPrisoners of warProtected personsProtecting powersRight of access

The Obligation to Allow Free Passage of Supplies That Are Essential to the Survival of the Population

As established by Additional Protocol I, “the Parties to the conflict and each High Contracting Party shall allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of all relief consignments, equipment and personnel provided . . . even if such assistance is destined for the civilian population of the adverse Party” (API Art. 70.2). They must not, in any way whatsoever, divert or delay the relief supplies (API Art. 70.3.c).

Furthermore, the parties to the conflict must ensure the protection of relief supplies and facilitate their rapid distribution (API Arts. 70.4, 70.5).

These obligations—which are also set forth in the Fourth Geneva Convention (Arts. 23, 55, and 59–62)—assume that the goods being supplied are indispensable to the survival of the population and that the relief actions undertaken are impartial and humanitarian. The relief actions must therefore be carried out without any adverse distinction. In the distribution of supplies, priority must be given to the most vulnerable persons, such as children, expectant mothers, maternity cases, and nursing mothers (API Art. 70.1). These principles have become rules of customary humanitarian law, including in non-international armed conflicts (infra).

Parties to the conflict are prohibited from refusing relief actions. They only have the right to:

  • prescribe the security or technical arrangements under which such passage is permitted, including searches;
  • make such permission conditional on the distribution of this assistance being made under the local supervision of a protecting power, or its substitute, to ensure that it is not being used for military purposes (API Art. 70.3.a, b; GCIV Art. 59).

If the UN Security Council or a regional organization decides to impose a sanction on a Member State, such as an embargo, humanitarian relief cannot be subject to it. ▸ BlockadeEmbargoProtected objects and propertyRight of accessSanctions CommitteesSiegeSupplies

In practice, the system of protecting powers is not used; therefore, relief organizations bear the responsibility of evaluating needs and supervising the distribution of aid to ensure that it offers the guarantees required by law—namely, the assurance that the aid cannot be diverted or used for military purposes—to the parties to the conflict. Otherwise, there is a risk that the belligerents might refuse the free passage of supplies.

The Right of Humanitarian Organizations to Offer Assistance

Offers of humanitarian and impartial relief, conducted without any adverse distinction, “shall not be regarded as interference in the armed conflict or as unfriendly acts” (API Art. 70.1).

Furthermore, the Geneva Conventions establish that the ICRC and other impartial humanitarian organizations may always offer their services to the parties to the conflict and, with their agreement, may undertake relief and protection activities for the civilian population (GCI–IV Common Art. 3, GCIV Art. 10). Common Article 3 has acquired the character of customary law in all situations of conflict.

Besides the missions entrusted to protecting powers, humanitarian law invites the parties to the conflict to provide the best possible reception to religious or relief organizations or any other whose aim is to provide assistance to protected persons (GCIV Art. 142). States party to the Conventions also undertake to provide the ICRC and other humanitarian organizations with all the facilities within their power that these organizations need to carry out the protection and assistance functions assigned to them by the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols (API Art. 81).

In non-international armed conflicts, States also undertake to allow relief societies to “offer their services for the performance of their traditional functions in relation to the victims of the armed conflict” (APII Art. 18.1).

Humanitarian law thus entrusts relief organizations with a double responsibility:

  • they must offer their services to care for and protect the victims of conflicts;
  • they must know the requirements of humanitarian law so as to ensure that they are not weakening the protection to which the victims are entitled; namely, they shall make sure that the relief is not diverted for military purposes, so as to prevent parties to the conflict from refusing aid under the pretext that it is being used by the adverse party.

Humanitarian principlesProtecting powersResponsibilityRight of humanitarianinitiative

The Protection of Relief Personnel

The personnel participating in relief action must be respected and protected (API Art. 71.2).

Different persons can undertake relief operations. They may be representatives of protecting powers, Red Cross or Red Crescent societies, civil defense organizations, neutral States or ones that are not parties to the conflict, humanitarian organizations, or the UN. The population itself can undertake relief operations.

Humanitarian personnel may benefit from various statuses, which may grant them more or less extensive rights, depending on what organization they represent.

Article 71 of Additional Protocol I establishes the minimum protection framework covering relief personnel. It reaffirms that, in certain situations, such personnel is necessary as a part of the assistance provided, in particular for the transportation and distribution of relief supplies. This personnel must have the approval of the party to the conflict in whose territory they carry out their duties. However, the authorities must respect and protect relief personnel, must cooperate with them, and may only limit their activities in case of imperative military necessity.

Relief personnel must not exceed the mandate of their mission. In particular, they must take into account the security requirements of the party in whose territory they are carrying out their duties. This is of particular importance, for instance, when considering how to communicate information concerning the military situation of a territory. The assignment of any person who fails to respect these conditions can be terminated.

The protection of relief personnel has also acquired a mandatory customary character in all types of conflicts (Rules 25, 26, and 31 of customary IHL study).

Rules of Customary International Humanitarian Law: The ICRC Customary IHL Study

  • Rule 31: Humanitarian relief personnel must be respected and protected.
  • Rule 32: Objects used for humanitarian relief operations must be respected and protected.
  • Rule 53: The use of starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare is prohibited.
  • Rule 54: Attacking, destroying, removing, or rendering useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population is prohibited.
  • Rule 55: The 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.
  • Rule 56: The parties to the conflict must ensure the freedom of movement of authorized humanitarian relief personnel essential to the exercise of their functions. Only in case of imperative military necessity may their movement be temporarily restricted.

Humanitarian and reliefpersonnelMedical personnelProtecting powers

Medical Relief Comes under a Special Regime

DetentionFamineHumanitarian and relief personnelInternmentMedical dutiesMedical servicesOccupied territoryPrisoners of warProtected personsProtectionRight of accessRight of humanitarian initiativeSiegeSupplies

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.

Brauman, Rony. L’Action Humanitaire . Paris: Dominos-Flammarion, 1995.

Henckaerts, Jean-Marie, and Louise Doswald-Beck, eds. Customary International Law. Vol. 1, The Rules . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, part 2, chap. 8.

Lijnzaad, Liesbeth, ed. Making the Voices of Humanity Heard . The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 2004.

Macalister-Smith, Peter. International Humanitarian Assistance: Disaster Relief Actions in International Law and Organizations . The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff / Geneva: Henry Dunand Institute, 1985.

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