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The Oxford Guidance on the Law Relating to Humanitarian Relief Operations in Situations of Armed Conflict: An Introduction

Published on December 14, 2016        Author: 

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Editor’s Note: This post is cross posted at Just Security.

As many current conflicts across the globe demonstrate, humanitarian access is a central challenge to the protection of civilians in armed conflict. Parties to conflict often impede the delivery of much needed humanitarian relief supplies exacerbating hunger, disease and want. However, insufficient attention appears to have been paid to the legal framework that applies to the provision of humanitarian relief in armed conflict. In his 2013 Report on the Protection of Civilians in armed conflict the Secretary-General instructed (at para. 80) United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to analyse one aspect of the law regulating humanitarian relief operations: the issue of arbitrary withholding of consent and the consequences thereof. OCHA commissioned the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict and the Oxford Martin Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations to conduct expert consultations to examine the rules and the options for providing guidance. We were honoured to lead this process of consultation resulting in the elaboration and drafting of the Guidance.

At the first meeting the experts unanimously agreed that it would not be possible nor, indeed, helpful to focus exclusively on the question of arbitrary withholding of consent. That element of the rules regulating humanitarian relief operations had to be put into its proper context. The Oxford Guidance on the Law Relating to Humanitarian Relief Operations in Situations of Armed Conflict tries to do precisely that. It presents in sequential order the rules regulating key steps of humanitarian relief operations. It consists of a narrative commentary setting out the law and Conclusions presenting the key elements of the rules. The Guidance seeks to reflect existing law and to clarify areas of uncertainty. Where the law is unclear or the experts expressed different views on particular issues, the narrative text of the Guidance presents the range of interpretations. Each Conclusion does not necessarily reflect the unanimous view of the experts consulted. In addition to setting out the law, the document also aims to provide some practical guidance as to how some of the legal obligations identified may be implemented by the relevant duty holders.

This post highlights four central questions addressed in the Guidance: (i) whose consent is required for the conduct of humanitarian relief operations in non-international armed conflicts? (ii) what amounts to arbitrary withholding of consent? (iii) what are the key elements of the obligation to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief operations? and (iv) what the are consequences of unlawful impeding of humanitarian relief operations? Read the rest of this entry…