The United Nations Secretary-General identified improving access for humanitarian operations as one of the five 'core challenges' to enhancing the protection of civilians in armed conflict. This led to the instruction of 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, and for them to commission the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict and the Oxford Martin Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations to carry out this exercise, both of which are co-directed by Dapo Akande. 

Dapo talks about the process:

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.

The result of the work is a comprehensive document written by Dapo and Emanuela-Chiara Gillard, the Oxford Guidance on the Law Relating to Humanitarian Relief Operations in Situations of Armed Conflict.

The Guidance is in 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

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. These Conclusions are expected to be the most used elements of the work, and include:

  • States have the primary responsibility to meet the needs of civilians in their territory or under their effective control.
  • Offers to conduct humanitarian relief operations do not constitute interference in the armed conflict or unfriendly acts.
  • Intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare by depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including wilfully impeding relief supplies, is a war crime.