The Oxford Guidance on the Law Relating to Humanitarian Relief Operations in Situations of Armed Conflict is, as we know from the tragic images of human suffering in Syria broadcast almost daily, both timely and beneficial. Greater clarity on how international law frames the rights and obligations related to humanitarian relief efforts can only be positive. Indeed, this effort will ideally contribute to the objective of mitigating civilian suffering caused by the deprivations that seem almost inevitable during armed conflict.
It was therefore with great interest that I reviewed the Oxford Guidance. I was generally familiar with the effort, having discussed the project with several of the authors last summer. At that time, I expressed my strong support for any effort that aids in clarifying legal aspects of humanitarian relief efforts. Clarity in this area is, as many know, sorely lacking, which produces inevitable uncertainty as to when, where, how, and under what conditions humanitarian efforts may be conducted in the midst of armed conflict. This effort will ideally enhance the humanitarian effect of these efforts, which is an objective that no reasonable person could conceivably object to.
Still, even these best efforts are unlikely to completely bridge the gap between the aspiration of maximizing humanitarian relief efforts and the reality of achieving this aspiration in the complex and chaotic environment of military operations. So in this comment I will seek to focus on several aspects of the Guidance that I consider most significant to achieving the obvious primary objective of this effort: to reduce impediments that prevent or delay humanitarian relief operations and thereby exacerbate civilian suffering.
It seems that the true, “decisive point” of the Guidance is the discussion of consent: when and under what circumstances is a party to an armed conflict lawfully permitted to deny consent for the conduct of humanitarian relief operations? And as the Guidance indicates, there is no easy answer to this question. I’m sure the drafters would have preferred to propose an interpretation of international law that indicated an absolute obligation to facilitate such relief efforts when needed to avert severe humanitarian suffering. To their credit, they did not, because they cannot. Read the rest of this entry…