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Is Security Council Authorisation Really Necessary to Allow Cross-Border Humanitarian Assistance in Syria?

Published on February 24, 2020        Author: 


In December last year, Russia and China vetoed a draft Security Council resolution that would have renewed the authorisation for humanitarian assistance to be provided in Syria via four designated border-crossings. The authorisation had been in place since Resolution 2165 (2014), and had enabled the provision of humanitarian assistance to more than four million Syrians.

In January, the Security Council passed a watered-down resolution (Resolution 2504) reauthorising the use of just two border crossings, allowing access from Turkey to northwest Syria for six months. The authorisation of the Al-Yarubiyah crossing on the Iraqi border, which enabled access to more than a million people in north-east Syria, was not renewed.  

Even for the Syrians whose assistance is for now continuing via the re-authorised crossings from Turkey, the future is uncertain. Resolution 2504 is up for renewal in July, at which time the continuation of lifesaving assistance for some 2.7 million Syrians will once again depend upon the good will of the Council’s five permanent members.

The situation highlights the precariousness of reliance upon the Security Council to make decisions about humanitarian crises, and begs the question: is there any legal alternative to Security Council authorisation, in cases where there is overwhelming humanitarian need and the host state will not consent to the provision of humanitarian assistance?  

The rules about humanitarian assistance and consent

Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, applicable in non-international armed conflicts, says that if the civilian population is suffering undue hardship owing to a lack of supplies essential for survival, humanitarian and impartial relief actions ‘shall be undertaken subject to the consent of the High Contracting Party concerned.’ It is broadly agreed that what this means is that while parties to conflicts do not have an obligation to provide consent, consent cannot be arbitrarily withheld (see Sivakumaran).   

International human rights law contains an even more robust obligation to consent to humanitarian assistance. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) obliges state parties to ‘take steps’ to the ‘maximum of [their] available resources’ to ensure the satisfaction of ‘minimum essential levels’ of the rights in the Covenant. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights says that a state’s resources include ‘those available from the international community’. Thus, where a state’s population is deprived of its rights to essential food, water, shelter or healthcare, the state is under an obligation to seek and consent to humanitarian assistance in order to ensure minimum essential levels of those rights.

There is little question that the Syrian Government has illegally withheld consent to humanitarian assistance. Read the rest of this entry…


Humanitarian Assistance and Security Council Sanctions: Different Approaches to International Humanitarian Law

Published on April 11, 2019        Author: 

Under the sanctions regimes established by its resolutions adopted under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) can currently impose sanctions on those who obstruct the delivery of humanitarian assistance in eight non-international armed conflict situations. This imposition of sanctions stems from the UNSC’s responsibility to maintain peace, security, and stability. Yet, its approach to humanitarian law (IHL) in these eight regimes has been inconsistent. In most of its current sanction regimes, the UNSC arguably has moved beyond the IHL applicable to humanitarian assistance, with the consequence that it can now sanction obstructions, which are broader than those which would constitute a violation of IHL. This post examines what this means for sanctions investigators and for the enhanced protection of civilians. 

Different Approaches of the UNSC with Respect to Imposing Sanctions on Obstructions to Humanitarian Assistance

The UNSC imposes sanctions in order to respond to threats to peace, security and stability. In the eight sanctions regimes discussed in this post, impediments to peace, security and stability explicitly or implicitly include obstructions to the delivery and distribution of humanitarian assistance and access obstructions.

Yet, the UNSC takes two different approaches when it imposes sanctions on obstructions to humanitarian assistance. In the first approach,  which is taken with respect to Libya and Sudan, there is no stand-alone criterion (the basis for listing by the UNSC or for being sanctioned) on humanitarian assistance, and humanitarian assistance and access obstructions may be considered under other listing criteria relating to violations of human rights or IHL. In these cases, Read the rest of this entry…

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