In many, if not most, armed conflicts, far more deaths occur as a result of the humanitarian crisis created by the conflict rather than from hostilities or the use of force (see this useful study, at p. 842). In addition to those who die as a result of a lack of food, water, access to medical care or adequate sanitation, untold suffering is caused in conflicts across the globe to millions of other civilians. However, in many recent conflicts humanitarian actors have faced serious challenges in delivering much-needed relief supplies and services to civilians in need. The United Nations Secretary-General, in his recent reports to the Security Council on the Protection of Civilians, has identified improving access for humanitarian operation as one of the five “core challenges” to enhancing the protection of civilians in armed conflict (see eg S/2012/376 (paras. 57-63); S/2015/453 (para. 7). In a November 2013 report to the Security Council [S/2013/689, para. 80], the Secretary General called for further analysis of the issue of arbitrary withholding of consent to humanitarian operations and the consequences thereof. He instructed the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to engage with a range of actors to examine the relevant rules and options for guidance in this area. OCHA commissioned the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict and the Oxford Martin Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations (both of which I co-direct) to carry out this exercise. We engaged in a series of expert consultations which took place in Oxford, in addition to informal discussions in Geneva and New York with officials from a number of international agencies and NGOs, with the aim of providing a restatement of the international law rules.
This process has resulted in the production of the Oxford Guidance on the Law Relating to Humanitarian Relief Operation in Situations of Armed Conflict (which is available here). It was a pleasure to launch the Oxford Guidance at UN Headquarters in New York last week, and also in Washington DC. In his May 2016 report [S/2016/447, para. 34] report to the Security Council on the Protection of Civilians, the Secretary General stated that:
“The forthcoming Oxford guidance on the law relating to humanitarian relief operations in situations of armed conflict, which the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs commissioned on my request, should enhance understanding of such a legal framework and inform policies to improve humanitarian access.”
This point was reiterated in the Foreword to the Guidance by the UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs who stated that:
“The present Guidance will assist a variety of actors concerned with humanitarian relief operations, including parties to armed conflict, other states, international and non-governmental organizations seeking to provide humanitarian assistance, the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly and other relevant bodies, legal practitioners, scholars and the media.”