Rule 31. Humanitarian relief personnel must be respected and protected.
State practice establishes this rule as a norm of customary international law applicable in both international and non-international armed conflicts. Respect for and protection of humanitarian relief personnel is a corollary of the prohibition of starvation (see Rule 53), as well as the rule that the wounded and sick must be collected and cared for (see Rules 109–110), which are applicable in both international and non-international armed conflicts. The safety and security of humanitarian relief personnel is an indispensable condition for the delivery of humanitarian relief to civilian populations in need threatened with starvation.
The obligation to respect and protect humanitarian relief personnel is set forth in Article 71(2) of Additional Protocol I.
Under the Statute of the International Criminal Court, intentionally directing attacks against personnel involved in a humanitarian assistance mission in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations is a war crime in international armed conflicts, as long as such personnel are entitled to the protection given to civilians under international humanitarian law.
Hence, members of armed forces delivering humanitarian aid are not covered by this rule. United Nations personnel delivering humanitarian aid, however, enjoy specific protection under the Convention on the Safety of United Nations Personnel.
A number of military manuals state the obligation to respect and protect humanitarian relief personnel.
Sweden’s IHL Manual, in particular, identifies Article 71(2) of Additional Protocol I as codifying pre-existing rules of customary law.
It is an offence under the legislation of numerous States to attack humanitarian relief personnel.
The rule is also supported by official statements and reported practice.
This practice includes that of States not party to Additional Protocol I.
The rule has also been invoked by parties to Additional Protocol I against non-parties.
The obligation to respect and protect humanitarian relief personnel is recalled in resolutions of international organizations, the large majority of which deal with non-international armed conflicts (see infra).
While Article 18(2) of Additional Protocol II requires that relief actions for the civilian population in need be organized, the Protocol does not contain a specific provision on the protection of humanitarian relief personnel. This rule is indispensable, however, if relief actions for civilian populations in need are to succeed. Under the Statutes of the International Criminal Court and of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, intentionally directing attacks against personnel involved in a humanitarian assistance mission in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations is considered a war crime in non-international armed conflicts, as long as such personnel are entitled to the protection given to civilians under international humanitarian law.
In addition, this rule is contained in a number of other instruments pertaining also to non-international armed conflicts.
The obligation to respect and protect humanitarian relief personnel is laid down in some military manuals which are applicable in or have been applied in non-international armed conflicts.
It is also contained in official statements specifically relating to non-international armed conflicts.
In addition, the United Nations and other international organizations have adopted resolutions invoking this rule. The UN Security Council, for example, has on numerous occasions urged the parties to non-international armed conflicts, such as in Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burundi, Kosovo, Liberia, Rwanda and Somalia, to respect and protect humanitarian relief personnel.
This rule was reiterated at the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 and at the 26th and 27th International Conferences of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 1995 and 1999 respectively.
No official contrary practice was found with respect to either international or non-international armed conflicts. Alleged violations of this rule have generally been condemned by States regardless of whether the conflict was international or non-international in nature.
They have also been condemned by international organizations.
Following attacks upon a vehicle carrying ICRC personnel in Burundi in 1996, the President and the Prime Minister of Burundi both stated that they deplored the incident and that they had requested an independent inquiry to identify the perpetrators.
The Russian government reacted similarly when six ICRC aid workers were killed in Chechnya the same year.
The ICRC has reminded parties to both international and non-international armed conflicts to respect this rule.
Civilian humanitarian relief personnel are protected against attack according to the principle of distinction (see Rule 1). In addition to the prohibition of attacks on such personnel, practice indicates that harassment, intimidation and arbitrary detention of humanitarian relief personnel are prohibited under this rule.
The collected practice also contains examples in which the following acts against humanitarian aid personnel have been condemned: mistreatment, physical and psychological violence, murder, beating, abduction, hostage-taking, harassment, kidnapping, illegal arrest and detention.
Furthermore, there is a considerable amount of State practice which requires that parties to a conflict ensure the safety of humanitarian relief personnel authorized by them, as invoked in a number of official statements.
In addition, the UN Security Council has called on the parties to the conflicts in Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burundi, Kosovo, Liberia, Rwanda and Somalia to ensure respect for the security and safety of humanitarian relief personnel.
In a resolution adopted in 2000 on protection of civilians in armed conflicts, the UN Security Council called upon all parties to an armed conflict, including non-State parties, “to ensure the safety, security and freedom of movement” of humanitarian relief personnel.
While the Additional Protocols provide that the protection of humanitarian relief personnel applies only to “authorized” humanitarian personnel as such, the overwhelming majority of practice does not specify this condition. The notion of authorization refers to the consent received from the party to the conflict concerned to work in areas under its control.
Authorization may not be withheld for arbitrary reasons to deny access to humanitarian relief personnel (see commentary to Rule 55).