humanitarian relief

Humanitarian relief and state consent

Should aid relief agencies require state consent to offer humanitarian relief to those in need?

International law and International Humanitarian Law dictate that agencies recognized for relief support to civilians in conflict zones be accorded passage to carry out their services. The most common being United Nations affiliated agencies. In many instances, they have enjoyed this privilege. In others, however, they have been attacked and often harmed by physical war and confrontation accompanied by state suspicion levied against their actions, employees and supplies. This crafts the need to create ‘compromising decisions’ to coordinate with either party in order to avail relief to the needy.

The initial objective of humanitarian aid is to avoid civilian casualties and to supply basic needs for human survival to those affected by conflict. It is not easy for humanitarian aid workers, more so where the civilian population affected is within enemy territory.

Often, some have had to suffer setbacks on the amount of relief supplied because of raids launched against their relief entourage by either conflicting party. This is usually at the expense of maintaining sufficient supplies to civilians.

But do they have an automatic right of way without consent from hosting states?

In the article, ‘Humanitarian Access from an Armed Non-State Actor’s Perspective’ published on 15th December, 2016, Annyssa Bellal (in ‘Just Security’ by New York University School of law online journal) discusses peculiar phenomenon in today’s conflict prone states. The article, though written in the interest of addressing non-state conflicting parties resonates well with all states hosting humanitarian aid workers and relief centres.

The article also addresses the concern Great Lakes region shares on relief and displacement of communities from previous and present conflicts happening. The author specifically quotes Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile and most areas of Jebel Marra in Darfur, South Sudan are examples of states where Armed Non-State Actors restrict humanitarian access.

“When Parliament of Uganda faulted government on UPDF’s presence in South Sudan, the incident sparked a debate on whether the humanitarian aid card that followed was necessary. While the UPDF reported many cases of life-saving activities in the region, a few elements questioned their existence in a state that, at the time, may have had no authority to allow foreign aid from fellow African state. No doubt Uganda was hard hit with an influx of refugees after the fact, leaving humanitarian activities to suffer suspicion from a few who still argue their presence was unwelcome.”

 State Consent in humanitarian/ relief situations

This is permission to act or not to act. In international law, consent is a fundamental element in inferring a legal obligation. When dealing with state matters, boundary issues arise, especially where internal conflicts exist. A state may lose control over a region within its borders to conflict, like what happened in northern Uganda before dislodging the Lord’s Resistance Army.

In international humanitarian law, humanitarian aid workers deduce legal presence from host states, even when their services target civilians in territories controlled by insurgents.

Although states sometimes fail to provide relief to affected civilians, they may restrict access of the same. Humanitarian aid agencies then resort to seeking consent. This consent may be denied even though it ought not to be, arbitrarily. International humanitarian law advises that all warring parties allow relief access to affected civilians. It is true most conflicting parties thrive on human shields. But withholding consent to allow access to humanitarian relief is legally and morally wrong.

We are currently observing a growing war against humanitarian aid and maybe, there is cause for worry. Proponents credit the relief agencies for their humane activities. Opponents argue that their activities are harmful than they appear to be. Some of the reasons they front include:

  • That the underlying fear of espionage and mistrust between relief workers and warring parties may prolong conflicts. The argument here is that humanitarian aid workers produce an atmosphere of a ‘cold war’ where any effort to end the conflict is met with suspicion; each party wary of the other’s ulterior motive given the camouflage sense of peace forged.

According to the 1994 Code of Conduct of the International Federation of the Red Cross, neutrality is important to humanitarians. The reality may be far from neutrality where aid workers associate with affected civilians holding loyalty to either warring party. They say this influences the aid workers to choose sides between warring actors.

  • Humanitarian aid workers humanely take side in a conflict, their non-partisan nature aside. In most cases, they give on-ground accounts on the conflicts. If biased, these accounts fuel the conflict all the more, especially to the third party relying on circumstantial reports. Could this be one of the reasons why states limit media coverage on such matters?
  • Opponents say that humanitarian aid agencies contribute to emergence of a ‘lazy population’. States fear that prolonged aid to affected civilians allows the latter to depend on aid without looking for solutions to end conflicts since they benefit from hand-outs. Many become comfortable, sometimes successfully taking opportunities on account of ‘suffering a previous injustice’. Because of this fear, some states decide to reduce the number of refugees and camps to frustrate as many from becoming chronic aid receivers.
  • While conflicts may spread throughout the state, some are limited to areas identified by the level of influence of the conflict. Eventually, those not directly affected by the conflict may feel burdened by the affected persons in terms of state priority in resource distribution.

There are cases where states deliberately request for aid. For instance, relief to refugees from South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, etc may be justified where states are overwhelmed by the numbers in need of aid. Sometimes, relief goes to instigators of the conflict! This situation is different in finding ‘consent’ from actual insurgents for relief workers to operate in those boundaries.

One may argue that either party may as well declare peace so humanitarian agencies don’t have to bend policy to please warring parties in the course of their services.

Regardless, we cannot refute the services offered by humanitarian aid workers. In as much as the call ought to be for peace, there are circumstances where differing ideologists take to arms and physical destruction. This is a fact. Unfortunately for the innocent civilian, the decision to leave one’s environment is too great to fathom that living on hand-outs in familiar territory is a lesser evil.


This article appears in our weekly digital law magazine, The Deuteronomy Vol 9, Issue 4 of December 23rd 2016

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