1.2 Civil-military relations and international humanitarian law

The military’s obligations regarding humanitarian assistance and protection in conflict are outlined under international humanitarian law. Customary international humanitarian law declares that parties involved in international and non-international conflicts must allow and facilitate the rapid and unobstructed passage of impartial humanitarian relief, subject to their right of control.

Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, the primary responsibility for the survival of the population lies with the authorities or, in the case of occupation, with the occupying power. The Conventions and Protocols also state that if responsible authorities (the government or occupying forces) do not provide the survival needs of the civilian population, they must permit the free passage of relief operations. Additional Protocol II states that ‘if the civilian population is suffering undue hardship owing to a lack of supplies essential for its survival, … relief actions … which are of an exclusively humanitarian and impartial nature and which are conducted without any adverse distinction shall be undertaken’, subject to the consent of the warring parties. Additional Protocol I adds that offers of relief ‘shall not be regarded as interference in the armed conflict or as unfriendly acts’, and that the parties to the conflict ‘shall allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of all relief consignments, equipment, and personnel’.

The guidelines outlined in the Geneva Conventions provide a solid ground for humanitarian intervention. However, the Conventions and Protocols do not state that providing assistance is exclusively the preserve of humanitarian actors. As the occupying power has a duty to provide for the survival of the population, it is difficult to exclude the military. The phrase, ‘relief action of an exclusively humanitarian and impartial nature’, however, means that the military must not disguise itself as a civilian humanitarian actor to deceive the population and collect intelligence for future military action. In addition, ‘impartial humanitarian action’ means not expecting humanitarian actors to serve as force multipliers or to work for the benefit of one party to the conflict. A distinction between military and humanitarian actors needs to be clearly maintained at all times.