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Humanitarian Action

According to the United Nations Global Humanitarian Overview 2020, in 2020, 168 million people will be in need of humanitarian assistance or protection.  This represents one in every 45 people in the world and is the highest number in decades.  These numbers will increase further due to the direct and secondary impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Humanitarian actors striving to respond face a multitude of challenges, including securing funding for their operations, negotiating access, and operating in a manner that is principled and safe for beneficiaries and staff, all in an increasingly politicised arena.

ELAC’s work on humanitarian action aims to clarify and promote discussion on some of the key normative questions and challenges underpinning contemporary humanitarian action.

In 2013 the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) commissioned ELAC to conduct an expert consultation  This led to the elaboration of the 2016 Oxford Guidance on the Law relating to Humanitarian Relief Operations in Situations of Armed Conflict.

Ongoing work in this in this area is considering other aspects of the rules protecting civilians’ access to objects indispensable to their survival. These include the prohibition of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, and the rules regulating sieges, blockades and other restrictions, with a focus on their impact on humanitarian relief operations. A further area of research focuses on the interplay between sanctions, counter-terrorism measures and humanitarian action.

In addition, we have worked with partners, including the World Food Programme, to understand how to be operationalize landmark UN Security Council Resolution S/RES/2417 (UNSC 2417), which highlights that the use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare may constitute a war crime and, further, that the vicious cycle between armed conflict and food insecurity is an issue impacting international peace and security. Our work on the issue has contributed to States deliberations on whether to amend the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court to criminalize the wilful starvation of civilians in non-international armed conflict, which resulted in a special issue on ‘Starvation in International Law’ published by the Journal of International Criminal Justice.



Emanuela-Chiara Gillard discusses the impact of COVID-19 on sanctions-hit countries and innovative ways to could mitigate it at a webinar hosted by the Graduate Institute (2 June 2020).


Emanuela-Chiara Gillard discusses attacks on humanitarian actors alongside Abby Stoddard in ‘“War Criminals I have known” – On making humanitarian action in today’s world multilateral, legitimate and safe”, a Film Journey and Conversation with Experts hosted by Arezou Azad’, paying tribute to Sergio Viera de Mello and drawing inspiration from the film “En Route to Baghdad” (2005).



The United Nations Security Council and Humanitarian Operations in Syria: A Legal Analysis by Emanuela-Chiara Gillard, July 2022

On 12 July 2022, after difficult negotiations, the United Nations Security Council, renewed the authorisation of cross-border humanitarian operations into Syria for a further six months.  First established in 2014 these arrangements have provided a life-line for millions of civilians.

Senior research Fellow Emanuela Gillard’s report for the Diakonia International Humanitarian Law Centre, The United Nations Security Council and Humanitarian Operations in Syria: A Legal Analysis, contributes to the debate by providing an historical overview the Security Council’s involvement in cross-border arrangements since 2014, coupled with analysis of key legal issues – many of which remain of immediate relevance to responding to humanitarian needs in Syria. The report concludes with lessons learned from this unique precedent.