The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

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


Various provisions of humanitarian law address the issue of providing food and medical supplies to populations in times of conflict. The main principle guiding these rules is the fact that the parties to a conflict are responsible for ensuring the well-being and, at very least, the survival of the populations under their control, whether these populations are civilians in occupied or besieged territories, detained persons, or prisoners of war (GCIV Art. 55, API Art. 69).

By requiring parties to a conflict to fulfill this responsibility, international humanitarian law seeks to prevent the fact that relief is being voluntarily brought in from outside the conflict to allow the belligerents to dispose of additional financial resources to sustain their war efforts. However, international humanitarian law does set forth a number of exceptions to this principle in order to avoid tragic situations for the population concerned. The 1949 Geneva Conventions and their 1977 Additional Protocols regulate the right to humanitarian relief. These instruments give humanitarian organizations the right to provide supplies to civilians under principles that guarantee the humanitarian and impartial character of these actions.

Civilians have the right to receive relief in situations of conflict. Humanitarian law establishes that relief operations must be undertaken by impartial relief organizations if the population is not adequately provided with supplies essential to its survival, such as foodstuffs and medical supplies, or is suffering undue hardship owing to a lack thereof (API Art. 70, APII Art. 18.2).

The delivery of such supplies is subject to an agreement with the parties concerned. This is an “agreement in principle,” established by humanitarian law, since it is forbidden for the parties to a conflict to refuse such supplies for political or military reasons. The agreement is only necessary for the practical implementation of relief operations. Parties to the conflict may only request guarantees that the supplies are not diverted for military purposes and that humanitarian organizations control the distribution.

The parties must allow the free passage of relief supplies or shipments. This obligation only concerns goods indispensable to the population’s survival, such as food and medical supplies. This applies to besieged areas as well as any other area where there are civilians.

Those principles have gained customary law status. They have been recognized in the study on the rules of customary international humanitarian law published by the ICRC in 2005 (customary IHL study). Those rules are mandatory and binding in all types of conflicts, international and non-international. All parties to the conflict must respect them, even those who have not signed or cannot sign the conventions and protocols, including non-state armed groups (Rules 55 and 56 of the customary IHL study).

FamineProtected objects and propertyRelief

International humanitarian law posits that protecting powers or humanitarian organizations must always be at liberty to evaluate the needs of the affected populations (especially in terms of food and medical supplies) to ensure that they are not suffering from unnecessary or excessive shortages or deprivations (GCIV Art. 55).

International humanitarian law establishes that starvation must not be used as a weapon of war against civilian populations (API Art. 54.1, APII Art. 14). It is permitted, however, against the adverse armed forces (API Art. 54.3). To justify and defend free passage of relief supplies, humanitarian law posits that humanitarian organizations must supervise the distribution of relief destined for the civilian population.

AssistanceDetentionFamineFoodHuman rightsInternmentPrisoners of warProtected objects and propertyReliefRight of access

For Additional Information: Macalister-Smith, Peter. “Protection of the Civilian Population and the Prohibition of Starvation as a Method of Warfare.” International Review of the Red Cross 284 (September October 1991): 440–59.

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