Launch of Oxford Guidance on the Law Relating to Humanitarian Relief Operations in Situations of Armed Conflict

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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.”

In addition to an introduction, which sets out the scope of the document, the Oxford Guidance contains the following sections:

  • Responsibility for Meeting the Needs of the Civilian Population
  • Offers of Services
  • Consent to Humanitarian Relief Operations
  • Arbitrary Withholding of Consent
  • Implementation of Humanitarian Relief Operations
  • Humanitarian Relief Supplies, Equipment and Personnel: General Rules and Additional Safeguards for Two Privileged Types of Humanitarian Relief Operations (medical relief operations and food assistance relief operations)
  • Non-Belligerent States and Humanitarian Relief Operations
  • Consequences of Unlawful Impeding of Humanitarian Relief Operations

As we state in the Introduction, the Oxford Guidance “focuses primarily on international humanitarian law, but also considers other areas of public international law that may be relevant to [humanitarian relief] operations, particularly international human rights law and the rules on state sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the responsibility of states and international organisations for internationally wrongful acts.”

The Guidance is presented in the form of a narrative commentary on the law, and a set of “Conclusions” laying out the key principles of law. Each section starts with the narrative commentary and ends with the “Conclusions”. We collate the “Conclusions” at the end of the Guidance. In addition, OCHA has also produced a separate document which just contains the “Conclusions”.

In partnership with OCHA, the process for the elaboration of Oxford Guidance was led by Emanuela-Chiara Gillard and me. We are immensely grateful to all those who took part in the expert consultations. They gave generously of their time not only in making trips to Oxford, but also in engaging in electronic exchanges in-between and after our series of meetings. We are also grateful to all those who took part in the launches of the Guidance in New York and Washington DC.

 EJIL:Talk! and Just Security will host a joint blog discussion of the Guidance very soon. I am grateful to Professor Ryan Goodman of NYU and Just Security not only for the collaboration with regard to the blog discussion but also for acting as moderator of the New York launch of the Oxford Guidance.

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