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Joint Blog Series on International Law and Armed Conflict: Are Sieges Prohibited under Contemporary IHL?

Published on January 30, 2019        Author: 

Editor’s Note: This post the final post in the joint series hosted by the ICRC Humanitarian Law & Policy BlogEJIL Talk! and Lawfare, and arising out of the 6th Transatlantic Workshop on International Law and Armed Conflict held at the European University Institute in Florence in July.

Contemporary armed conflicts in Syria, Yemen or Iraq have seen a resurgence of sieges of cities and other densely populated areas. This ancient—some would say archaic or medieval—method of warfare is expected to be increasingly used in future urban conflicts. The catastrophic humanitarian consequences of recent prolonged sieges—such as in Ghouta (Syria), where civilians are starving because of lack of access to objects indispensable to their survival—have led to widespread condemnations by the international community (see e.g., UN Security Council Resolution 2139 (2014)). The question discussed here is what does international humanitarian law (IHL) say about siege warfare? Is it explicitly ruled out? How might IHL rules and principles constrain siege warfare?

No explicit IHL rules against siege warfare

Sieges are not per se an explicitly prohibited method of warfare under IHL. On the contrary, one could say that IHL implicitly allow sieges by merely mentioning steps to be taken to mitigate their negative effects on civilians and civilian objects (Art 27 1907 Hague Regulations; Art 15 GCI; Art 18 GCII; Art 17 GCIV).

Sieges have been used throughout history and military doctrine usually regards sieges as essential to the effective conduct of hostilities in order to control a defended locality and obtain surrender or otherwise defeat the enemy through isolation. Since sieges are a harsh method of warfare and are based on almost complete isolation of the besieged locality, their use will almost inevitably involve frictions with numerous rules and principles of IHL—at least when the besieged area involves civilian presence.

Numerous constraints on siege warfare

There are a number of IHL prohibitions that may constrain siege warfare. These include the prohibition against terrorizing the civilian population (Art 51(2) API; Art 13(2) APII; CIHL Study, Rule 2), the prohibition of collective punishment (Art 75 API; Art 4 APII; CIHL Study, Rule 103) or the prohibition of human shields (Art. 51(5) API; CIHL Study, Rule 97). The most obvious prohibition that impacts siege warfare, however, is the prohibition of starvation of civilians (Art 54(1) API; Art 14 APII).There is also a question as to whether conduct of hostilities rules, and the principle of proportionality in particular, may serve as an additional constrain on siege warfare Article 51(5)(b) of API CIHL Study, Rule 14). The present blog post will focus on the latter two—the prohibition against starving civilians, purposefully or incidentally, and the principle of proportionality.   Read the rest of this entry…