UN Sanctions and International Humanitarian Law

Research & Publications | September 3, 2020 | ,

Sanctions and international humanitarian law project

Project Overview

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 that, in turn, have reduced the unintended socioeconomic and humanitarian impacts of the tools. However, unforeseen complications have arisen including restricting humanitarian access and 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 two of the 14 UN sanctions regimes fall outside of this realm.

Prominent voices in 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.

Protecting humanitarian workers and the humanitarian space from the effects of armed conflicts are often part of the objectives of UN sanctions. 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 parties to the conflict of their obligations to allow and facilitate humanitarian access or face sanctions themselves.

Given these competing narratives – from sanctions as impeding access and activities to sanctions as protecting them – the need for a systematic analysis has grown more urgent. It can be difficult for States to find ways to reconcile their obligations under sanctions regimes with their obligations under International Humanitarian Law.

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 onhumanitarian activities, and to provide guidance for Member States, sanctions experts and humanitarian practitioners on implementation of sanctions measures respectful of international humanitarian law. 

Project Outputs

  • Forthcoming in 2020- 2021

Project Team

Dr Rebecca Brubaker

Senior Policy Adviser

Sophie Huvé

Legal Expert - Sanctions and International Humanitarian Law

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