UN Sanctions and Humanitarian Action


  • Sanctions and international humanitarian law project

    Expected end date:
    Project Status:
    UNU-CPR RESEARCHERS: Dr Adam Day, Sophie Huvé

    EXTERNAL RESEARCHERS: Dr Rebecca Brubaker, Dr Zuzana Hudáková

    ADVISORY BOARD: Profiles

    UN sanctions are designed and applied with a variety of goals, notably countering-terrorism, stemming nuclear proliferation, and preventing or resolving armed conflict. At times, using sanctions to pursue these goals can impede humanitarian actors’ access to funds, materials or the people they aim to serve. Sanctions designers and State regulators have made great strides in their move towards more targeted measures, which, in turn, have reduced the unintended socioeconomic and humanitarian impacts of the tools. However, unforeseen complications have arisen including restricting humanitarian activities in situations of armed conflict. Yet, very little is known about the impact of sanctions in contexts outside of the counter-terrorism sphere, despite the fact that all but one of the 14 UN sanctions regimes fall outside of this realm.

    Members of the humanitarian community have called for this gap to be addressed in light of the increasingly strict and far-reaching application of sanctions measures from the counter-terrorism realm into the armed conflict sphere. Humanitarian entities report an increasing number of cases of States blocking lifesaving materials at borders and treating assistance and protection activities as a form of prohibited support. While such incidents may be common in situations under a counter-terrorism sanctions regime, these were initially rare in non-counter-terrorism conflict contexts.

    UN sanctions have been designed to help protect both humanitarian workers and humanitarian space in cases of armed conflict. For example, most sanctions regimes contain provisions placing asset freezes and travel bans on individuals or entities that attempt to hinder aid delivery, attack humanitarian personnel, or target hospitals, schools, or other civilian establishments. Many of these same resolutions also remind States of their obligations to facilitate humanitarian access or face sanctions themselves.

    Given these competing narratives – from sanctions as impeding access to sanctions as protecting it – the need for a systematic analysis has grown more urgent. It can be difficult for States to find ways to reconcile their sanctions obligations with their international humanitarian law obligations.

    This project, working in coordination with the International Committee of the Red Cross, aims to look at the impacts of UN non-counter-terrorism sanctions on humanitarian action, how these sanctions are being implemented at the national level, and to offer a review of current best practices. Finally, the project aims to provide guidance for Member States, sanctions experts and humanitarian practitioners on implementation of sanctions measures respectful of international humanitarian law.

  • UN Sanctions and Humanitarian Action: Review of Past Research and Proposals for Future Investigation

    This paper offers an overview of research conducted on the interplay of UN sanctions and humanitarian action and provides a roadmap for future research endeavours. It situates this issue as the third in three waves of UN sanctions reform. It traces how it emerged within the counter-terrorism sphere and seeks to summarize the research findings on the impact of counter-terrorism measures on humanitarian action, noting differences between counter-terrorism measures in general and sanctions (including counter-terrorism sanctions) in particular. The paper outlines a new path for policy research; one focused on the remaining thirteen UN sanctions regimes, all of which largely fall outside of the counter-terrorism space. The paper concludes with clarification of key terms and an articulation of why establishing further evidence on this issue is critical to both the legitimacy and the effective use of UN sanctions.

    Enforcing UN Sanctions and Protecting Humanitarian Action: Towards a Coherent and Consistent Approach

    Sanctions represent one of the most important conflict prevention and management tools at the disposal of the United Nations. While the primary goal of UN sanctions is to prevent conflict, to a lesser extent they have also started to focus in more recent years on reducing harm to civilians. Based on in-depth case studies, a wide-ranging online survey, and qualitative interviews with experts across the humanitarian and sanctions communities, this report explores the relationship between UN sanctions and humanitarian action. Acknowledging the complex and challenging environments in which sanctions regimes are employed, the report highlights continuing gaps in knowledge across the two communities, and the need for greater understanding of how sanctions and humanitarian action could be more complementary to each other. The report concludes by offering a range of recommendations to the UN Security Council, sanctions actors, private sector actors, and humanitarians.

    Policy Memo 1: Impartial Humanitarian Organizations

    The purpose of this thematic brief, the first of the UN Sanctions and Humanitarian Action Policy Memo Series, is to define and describe ‘impartial humanitarian organizations/bodies’ under International Humanitarian Law and discuss the rights and protections afforded to organizations falling under this definition.

    Policy Memo 2: The Notion of “Humanitarian Activities”

    The purpose of this thematic brief, the second of the UN Sanctions and Humanitarian Action Policy Memo Series, is to define and describe the term “humanitarian activities”, confirm the compatibility of humanitarian activities with UN sanctions regimes, and identify potential tensions in practice.

    Policy Memo 3: Humanitarian Exemptions in UN Sanctions Regimes

    The purpose of this thematic brief, the third of the UN Sanctions and Humanitarian Action Policy Memo Series, is to define humanitarian exemptions as they exist under United Nations sanctions; clarify some areas of confusion surrounding the notion of “humanitarian exemption”; provide impartial humanitarian actors with a descriptive analysis of the existing UN exemptions and discuss, and; outline some of the advantages and limitations of the current models.

    Policy Memo 4: Sanctions and International Humanitarian Law: The Forgotten Story

    The purpose of this thematic brief, the fourth of the UN Sanctions and Humanitarian Action Policy Memo Series, is to map how the Security Council makes room for IHL and humanitarian action in its sanctions regimes; assess how language protecting IHL and humanitarian action is used in practice, and; illustrate areas of compatibility between sanctions regimes, International Humanitarian Law, and humanitarian action.