top of page

Humanitarian Aid in an era of crises: An analysis

-Kartikeya Amitabh Mishra


The 21st century world is embroiled in multiple armed conflicts. These armed conflicts strain international relations and threaten global peace and security. They also have a devastating impact on the quest for a global minimum standard for human rights. International response to global security challenges has been weak due to a lack of consensus and cooperation. Countries have increasingly resorted to imposition of sanctions to deal with these conflicts. The author believes that imposition of sanctions negatively impacts access to humanitarian aid in the affected regions. The objective of this article is to highlight the adverse impact of sanctions on human rights in the conflict affected regions.

Defining Sanctions under International Law:

Sanctions are used as a tool for the enforcement of international obligations without the use of armed force. No uniform definition of sanctions exists under international law. Sanctions can be imposed by international organisations or by states. Sanctions can be imposed on individuals, institutions and states. For instance, the United Nations Security Council can impose sanctions on parties responsible for breaching international peace and security. Sanctions may vary in their form; they can be punitive or remedial, economic or political, retaliatory or unilateral, pre-emptive or prospective in nature. Sanctions can also be imposed by third parties (states) in case of a breach of erga omnes obligations. Some common forms of sanctions include reprisals, retorsions and countermeasures. Measures may include imposition of an arms embargo, restriction on travel and movement of goods, ending development aid or assistance, blacklisting etc.

Defining Humanitarian Aid under International Law:

Humanitarian aid refers to relief provided to civilian populations entangled in conflict regions. No comprehensive definition has been provided for under international law and the scope, extent, and the subjects of international humanitarian aid differ on a case-to-case basis. The obligation to provide humanitarian aid flows from the obligation of the states to ensure respect for human life around the world. Therefore, humanitarian aid is not restricted to armed conflicts but to any humanitarian disaster such as Earthquakes and Tsunamis etc. Humanitarian Aid covers supply of essential provisions for survival including water, food, shelter and medicines. Humanitarian aid will not cover supply of materials meant to represent political or ethnic support towards a particular group in a disaster situation. Primarily the work of humanitarian relief is coordinated through the Office of the High Commissioner on Humanitarian Rights [“OHCR”], established by the General Assembly pursuant to a General Assembly resolution dated 20th December 1993.

Current humanitarian crises epicentres:

(a) Crises in Ukraine: The Russian Federation invaded Ukraine on February 24th, 2022. The invasion has been condemned by United Nations to be a violation of Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter. Since the aggressor in this case is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council [“UNSC”], any attempts at passing a UNSC resolution to sanction the aggressor have been vetoed. Further, there is a lack of consensus on the future course of action to remedy to ongoing crises in Ukraine. This has resulted in a humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. To deal with the ongoing humanitarian crises, a resolution was passed by the United Nations General Assembly [“UNGA”] obligating the states to allow safe and unhindered access to humanitarian aid in the affected regions of Ukraine. However, this access to humanitarian aid is being affected by the imposition of unilateral sanctions on the aggressor state.

Unilateral economic sanctions have been imposed by multiple countries including the United States of America and the European Union. Sanctions have been imposed on Russian authorities, institutions and service providers operating in the region. These sanctions have not only proven ineffective in restraining the actions of the aggressor state but have also negatively impacted the ability of relief organisations to provide humanitarian aid to areas under the occupation of the Russian forces. This is because the required coordination with Russian service providers operating in the region for relief work is difficult in the light of the imposed sanctions. Further the donor requirements and licensing requirements for operating in these areas for relief and assistance programs is highly taxing and burdensome. The requirements therefore de-incentivise prospective relief organisations from working in the region.

Consequently, the humanitarian crisis has worsened in Ukraine. Rampant human rights violations of civilian population in the Russian controlled regions after the imposition of economic sanctions have continued. Forced displacement, deportation, torture and rape of civilian population, indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on civilian population have been well documented.

(b) Crises in Democratic Republic of Congo: Democratic Republic of Congo (DPR) has been at the centre of one of the longest running humanitarian crises in the world. North Kivu, South Kivu, Ituri and Tanganyika remain the worst affected areas of the region. Over 5 million people have been internally displaced as a result of the crises. Multiple non-state actors operate in the region and contribute to the ongoing humanitarian crises which include mass displacement, armed violence, rapes, illegal detentions, and food and health crises.

Economic sanctions were imposed on the country for the first time in 2003. Sanctions are still in force today with no perceptible change in the situation. The humanitarian crisis in DPR has worsened in 2023, with an increase in violence in the eastern region of DPR. The rise in violence has been attributed to a local militia group M23 which is already facing heavy sanctions. Humanitarian relief workers and convoys have been attacked and robbed in the region owing to the distrust towards relief organisations in light of the sanctions. Therefore the sanctions have not only failed to end the humanitarian crises in the region but also have negatively impacted the efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to the affected civilian population.

(c) Crises in Yemen: Yemen has been the epicentre of one the worst humanitarian crises in human history. The area involves multiple State and Non-State Actors such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Houthis and Al- Qaeda. Over 24 million people in Yemen require immediate humanitarian assistance as of 2023. The area is suffering from food and water shortages, internal displacement, and lack of access to shelter and basic health-care. Around 3/4th of the internally displaced civilians are women. Lack of access to maternity centres has resulted in an increase in mortality rates within the country.

Owing to the takeover of the Southern Yemen by the Houthi Rebels, an economic blockade was imposed by the UAE led coalition in 2015. The blockade was imposed to reinforce the UN mandated arms embargo on the region. This economic blockade restricted the access of food, water and basic medical supplies to Houthi controlled areas (70% of Yemen population). The Houthi rebels were also sanctioned by the United Nations even though the same has failed to end the crises. However the sanctions coupled with the economic blockade have created the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Multiple reports have outlined thousands of civilian deaths owing to lack of access to food, water and basic healthcare facilities. Yemen is an import dependent country and the sanctions have destroyed the economy and deteriorated the living conditions of Yemeni population in Houthi controlled areas.

Contextualizing Humanitarian Aid

It is undeniable that sanctions have proven to be an impediment to access to humanitarian aid. The United Nations has also acknowledged the problem. Consequently, a resolution has been passed that allows for humanitarian exemptions on asset freezes imposed under UN sanctions. India has expressed its concerns on providing such exemptions. Concerns have been raised that the entities responsible for threatening peace and security in a conflict region often rebrand themselves as “humanitarian organisations” to avoid sanctions.

However, the international sanctions regime has now evolved from merely targeting organisations to targeting entities/individuals responsible for violation of international law. The individuals so targeted cannot avoid sanctions by joining or creating any new organisation; for instance; S/RES/1735 (2006), S/RES/1822 (2008) etc. Under any circumstances these concerns can be minimised by putting proper verification procedures to ascertain the legitimacy of the humanitarian organisations being exempt. The author would like to clarify that stringent verification measures need not be cumbersome or time consuming.

Another argument provided in favour of sanctions is that unrestricted humanitarian aid to areas under the control of belligerents would not reach the civilian population. Rather, the aid would be misused to further fuel the conflict thereby prolonging the crises. The author does not deny the inherent risk of humanitarian aid falling into the wrong hands; the author is merely advocating for a reform in the current sanctions regime to make them more conducive for humanitarian relief work.

Sanctions in their current form suffer from multiple problems as first; sanctions fail to deal with the threats to peace and security in the region effectively. Second, sanctions reduce access to humanitarian aid. Third, imposition of sanction de-incentivizes prospective financial institutions and banks from working in the region. This practice is known as de-riskingand it reduces the access of relief organisations to financial assistance necessary for funding aid programmes. Even the humanitarian exemptions provided under the sanctions have proven to be ineffective owing to complex and time taking licensing procedures; making the humanitarian aid irrelevant by the time it reaches the civilian populations.

Sanctions have a ‘chilling’ effect on efforts to provide humanitarian aid in the time of crises since the scope of the sanctions remains unclear. Commercial service providers refrain from operating in these regions to avoid the risk of getting sanctioned themselves. Prospective donors also demand extensive screening of prospective beneficiaries to avoid contravening the sanctions. Relief organisations therefore suffer from cumbersome compliance requirements and paucity of resources and financial support required to fund the relief programmes. Cooperation with the actors responsible for destabilisation of the region becomes necessary for the protection of human lives and ensuring supply of essential relief to the civilian population in the affected region. However, the imposition of sanctions makes the actors operating in the region uncooperative and apprehensive of humanitarian aid work.

Therefore the author believes that sanctions in their current form actually aggravate humanitarian crises in the areas plagued with conflicts.


Sanctions don’t provide any immediate solution to the threats to international peace and security. Sanctions must be designed to enforce international obligations in manner that humanitarian crises situations are minimised. The author is of the considered opinion that priority under international law must be given to amelioration of human suffering in the conflict affected regions. This is specifically true when the aggressor is a permanent member of the UNSC or is in illegal occupation of another state’s territory. Sanctions regime should not be punitive but human rights centric; prime focus must be on the maximisation of access to humanitarian aid in the conflict areas. The author would like to refer to Ronald Dworkin on the matter where he states that- certain rights and freedoms are so fundamental that they ‘trump’ all other considerations. Right to Humanitarian aid flows from the Right to Human life. Humanitarian aid is a means for ensuring that actions in contravention to peremptory norms of international law (Jus Cogens) are prevented; for instance genocide, torture, racial discrimination, arbitrary detention etc. Therefore the right to humanitarian aid so ‘fundamental’ that it should ‘trump’ all other considerations involving the crises.

Concern for humanitarian aid must not be reduced to bare ‘affirmations’. Economic sanctions must provide explicit clauses exempting humanitarian aid from its ambit. Resolutions passed by United Nations should explicitly incentivise humanitarian work by establishing separate relief channels and ‘obligating’ the member states to provide financial donations to relie