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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 April 2020

David Matyas*
Former aid worker and development practitioner,


In many conflicts, aid organisations have to navigate the international humanitarian law requirement that parties to the conflict must consent to assistance. In non-international armed conflicts this often frustrates efforts to provide relief, as States refuse to grant consent in order to uphold their claims to sovereignty. Looking at the Syrian Civil War, this article suggests that the law of agency can offer a fresh perspective on the challenges posed by the requirement of consent to humanitarian assistance. It suggests that agency law can provide a legal explanation of seemingly political decisions and a de lege ferenda justification for assistance in instances where consent is either absent or provided by a non-State armed group.

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Copyright © The Author 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press for the British Institute of International and Comparative Law

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This article was written during studies at McGill University Faculty of Law. The author is grateful for the generous comments of Prof. René Provost and Dr. Barzan Barzani, and to Prof. Evan Fox-Decent for his helpful seminars. The views expressed herein are those of the author in his personal capacity.


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3 Kennedy and Michailidou (n 1) 696.

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5 EC Gillard, ‘Cross-Border Relief Operations – A Legal Perspective’ OCHA Policy Series <> 26.

6 Kennedy and Michailidou (n 1) 696.

7 J Liu, ‘MSF's Dr. Joanne Liu on Syria: An Unacceptable Humanitarian Failure’ Médecins Sans Frontières (16 January 2018) <>.

8 The characterisation of the Syrian Civil War as a NIAC is contested given the involvement of many foreign States in the conflict. Scholars such as Dapo Akande, Adil Ahmad Haque and Ryan Goodman have argued that the conflict is in fact an IAC or at least a mixed conflict involving both an IAC and a NIAC while others like Deborah Pearlstein, Gabor Rona and Terry Gill have supported an IAC classification (see for instance D Akande, ‘When Does the Use of Force Against a Non-State Armed Group Trigger an International Armed Conflict and Why Does This Matter?’ EJIL: Talk! (18 October 2016); R Goodman, ‘Is the United States Already in an “International Armed Conflict” with Syria?’ Just Security (11 October 2016); R Goodman, ‘Turkey's US-Backed Operation in Syria Has Created an International Armed Conflict’ Just Security (17 October 2016); AA Haque, ‘The United States is at War with Syria (according to the ICRC's New Geneva Convention Commentary)’ EJIL: Talk! (8 April 2016); D Pearlstein, ‘A Syrian IAC?’ Opinio Juris (14 October 2016); D Pearlstein, ‘Still on That Syrian IAC’ Opinio Juris (17 October 2016); G Rona, ‘Letter to the Editor: Not So Fast on Calling it an “Armed Conflict” Between the US and Syria’ Just Security (13 October 2016); Gill, T, ‘Classifying the Conflict in Syria’ (2016) 92 International Law Studies 353Google Scholar.

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10 See for instance Prosecutor v Delalić (Judgment) ICTY-96-21-T (16 November 1998).

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12 ibid, 199.

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14 Akande, D and Gillard, EC, ‘Promoting Compliance with the Rules Regulating Humanitarian Relief Operations in Armed Conflict: Some Challenges’ (2017) 50 IsraelLRev 2, 120Google Scholar.

15 Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilians in Time of War (adopted 12 August 1949, entered into force 21 October 1950) 75 UNTS 287 (Fourth Geneva Convention) art 3.

16 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (adopted 16 December 1966, entered into force 3 January 1976) UNTS 993 (ICCPR) arts 11, 12.

17 Akande and Gillard (n 14) 13.

18 OCHA, ‘What Are Humanitarian Principles’ (OCHA on Message, June 2012).

19 OCHA, ‘Syria: Key Figures’ (Humanitarian Needs Overview 2018) <>.

20 E Tronc, R Grace and A Nahikian, ‘Humanitarian Access Obstruction in Somalia: Externally Imposed and Self-Inflicted Dimensions’ (2018) Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Humanitarian Action at the Frontlines: Field Analysis Series.

21 ibid 12.

22 OCHA (n 20).

23 See for instance L Charbonneau, ‘UN Humanitarian Aid Chief Denied Entry into Syria’ Reuters (29 February 2012) <>; L Harding et al., ‘Syria Refuses to Allow Aid into Homs’ (The Guardian (6 March 2012) <>; S Nebehay, ‘Syria Refusing Visas for Western Aid Workers: U.N.’ Reuters (16 July 2012) <>; N Hopkins, ‘More than 80% of UN Aid Convoys in Syria Blocked or Delayed’ The Guardian (30 September 2016) <>; J Marks, ‘Humanitarian Aid in Syria Is Being Politicized – and Too Many Civilians in Need Aren't Getting It’ The Washington Post (6 August 2019) <>.

24 ICRC, ‘Syrian Arab Republic’ (Treaties, State Parties and Commentaries) <>.

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26 Fourth Geneva Convention (n 16) art 3.

27 Bouchet-Saulnier (n 26).

28 ICRC, ‘Rule 55: Access for Humanitarian Relief to Civilians in Need’ (Customary IHL Database, no date); ICRC, ‘Rule 56: Freedom of Movement of Humanitarian Relief Personnel’ (Customary IHL Database, no date).

29 ibid, Rule 55.

30 See for instance the military manuals of Argentina, Colombia, Germany, Italy, Kenya, Netherlands, Russian Federation, United Kingdom and United States, as well as statements of Germany, Nigeria, Norway, the United States and Yugoslavia, practice of Jordan, Philippines and Yugoslavia and reported practice of Kuwait and Rwanda as detailed in ibid.

31 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (adopted 8 June 8 1977, entered into force 7 December 1978) 1125 UNTS 3 (Protocol 1) art 70(1).

32 ibid, art 1(4).

33 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (adopted 8 June 1977, entered into force 7 December 1978) 1125 UNTS 609 (Protocol II) art 1(1).

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35 ibid.

36 M Sassòli, ‘When Are States and Armed Groups Obliged to Accept Humanitarian Assistance?’ Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (6 November 2013).

37 Akande and Gillard (n 14) 17.

38 ICRC, ‘Art 33—Relief Actions’ Draft Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949: Commentary (Geneva, October 1973) 165.

39 ICRC (n 25).

40 A Sparrow, ‘How UN Aid Has Propped up Assad’ Foreign Affairs (20 September 2018).

41 S Nebehay, ‘Syria Refusing Visas for Western Aid Workers: U.N.’ Reuters (16 July 2012).

42 UNGA Res 46/182 (1991) 78th Plenary Meeting, guiding principle 3.

43 ibid, guiding principle 4.

44 See for instance Syria Arab Republic, ‘Letter dated 18 June 2014 from the Permanent Representative of the Syrian Arab Republic to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General’ (20 June 2014) S/2014/426; Permanent Mission of the Syrian Arab Republic to the United Nations, ‘Report of the SG on the Implementation of SC Resolutions 2139, 2165 and 2191’ United Nations (24 April 2015) <>; Permanent Mission of the Syrian Arab Republic to the United Nations, ‘Al-Jaafari Calls for Stopping the Politicization of Humanitarian Affair in Syria’ United Nations (14 December 2018) <>; Sparrow (n 41).

45 Bouchet-Saulnier (n 26) 210.

46 ibid, 215.

47 MSF, ‘Seeking to Assist Syrians, Wherever They Are in Need of Help’ (23 May 2018).

48 ibid.

49 Mercy Corps, ‘Closure of Mercy Corps’ Humanitarian Aid Operations in Damascus’ (23 May 2014).

50 ibid.

51 G Rona, ‘The ICRC's Status in a Class of Its Own’ ICRC Resource Centre (17 February 2004).

52 Okimoto, K, ‘Humanitarian Activities Carried Out Across Borders in Times of Armed Conflict in the Light of State Sovereignty and International Law’ (2014) 17 YrBkIntlHumL 126Google Scholar.

53 ibid.

54 Bouchet-Saulnier (n 26) 217.

55 The Battle of Solferino in 1859, between the Franco-Sardinian and Austrian armies, led to the founding of the Red Cross and efforts, amongst others, to normalise the care of wounded enemy and friendly soldiers.

56 For more on these exceptions see Fourth Geneva Convention (n 17) arts 23, 59; Gillard, EC, ‘The Law Regulating Cross-Border Relief Operations’ (2013) 95(890) International Review of the Red Cross 357–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

57 Charter of the United Nations (adopted 24 October 1945, entered into force 26 June 1945) 1 UNTS XVI (Charter) Ch 7.

58 Gillard (n 57) 359.

59 UNSC Res 2165 (2014) 7216th Meeting, 1.

60 ibid 2.

61 ibid 3.

62 Akande and Gillard (n 14) 21.

63 ibid.

64 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (adopted 17 July 1998, entered into force 1 July 2002) UNTS 2187 (Rome Statute) art 8(2)(b)(xxv).

65 Akande and Gillard (n 14) 25.

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67 Akande and Gillard (n 14) 24.

68 HR Committee, ‘International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights General Comment 35: Art 9 (Liberty and Security of Person’ CCPR/C/GC/35, 112th Session (7–31 October 2014) para 12.

69 Akande and Gillard (n 14) 24.

70 Akande and Gillard discuss the lack of clarity concerning the precise legal implications for relief actors where consent is arbitrarily withheld in: D Akande and EC Gillard, ‘Arbitrary Withholding of Consent to Humanitarian Relief Operations in Armed Conflict’ UNOCHA (21 August 2014) 21–7. In certain circumstances, arbitrarily withheld consent may make it justifiable for a relief actor to violate a State's sovereignty and the integrity of their territory (27). It is unclear that arbitrarily withheld consent establishes any sort of ‘constructive’ consent where consent is deemed to have been given.

71 Benvenisti, E and Cohen, A, ‘War Is Governance: Explaining the Logic of the Law of Wars from a Principal–Agent Perspective’ (2014) 112 MichLRev 8Google Scholar.

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74 Hastings v Semans Village (1946) 3 WWR 449; (1946) 4 DLR 695 (Sask CA).

75 Rudolf, B, ‘Non-State Actors in Areas of Limited Statehood as Addresses of Public International Law Norms on Governance’ (2010) 4 Human Rights and International Legal Discourse 140Google Scholar.

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77 Munday, R, Agency: Law and Principles (3rd edn, Oxford University Press, 2016)Google Scholar para 8.03.

78 See for instance art 2140 CCQ from the Quebec Civil Law for a description of this rule and potential exception.

79 Mothew (T/A Stapley and Co) v Bristol and West Building Society (1996) EWCA Civ 533.

80 Armstrong v Jackson (1917) 2 KB 822.

81 A-G Hong Kong v Reid (1993) UKPC 36.

82 Heims v Hanke (1958) 5 Wis 2d 465.

83 Watteau v Fenwick (1893) 1 QB 346.

84 Munday (n 78) para 1.25.

85 Armagas Ltd v Mundogas SA (1985) UKHL 11; (1985) 3 WLR 640.

86 ibid.

87 Garriock v Walker (1873) SLR 11-16-1; (1873) 1 R 100.

88 Hastings v Semans (n 75).

89 Great Northern Railway Co v Swaffield (1874) LR 9 Ex 132.

90 Fridman, GHL, The Law of Agency (7th edn, Butterworths 1996) 22Google Scholar.

91 Dowrick, FE, ‘The Relationship of Principal and Agent’ (1954) 17(1) MLR 37CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

92 OCHA (n 19).

93 See for instance Rudolf (n 76).

94 Criddle, E J and Fox-Decent, E, Fiduciaries of Humanity (Oxford University Press 2016) 2CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Benvenisti, E, ‘Sovereigns as Trustees of Humanity: On the Accountability of States to Foreign Stakeholders’ (2013) 107 AJIL 2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

95 Criddle and Fox-Decent, ibid 3.

96 King, J, The Doctrine of Odious Debt in International Law: A Restatement (Cambridge University Press 2016) 171–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

97 Ryngaert (n 77) 9.

98 Criddle and Fox-Decent (n 95) 3; See also Benvenisti, E, ‘The Paradoxes of Sovereigns as Trustees of Humanity: Concluding Remarks’ (2015) 16 Theoretical Inquiries in Law 540–2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

99 See for instance Fridman (n 91) 14–19 and 21–2.

100 The American Law Institute, Restatement of the Law of Agency (3rd edn, American Law Institute 2006) section 3.04.

101 Gillard (n 57); Sassòli (n 37); Bouchet-Saulnier (n 26).

102 Gillard (n 57) 367.

103 P Akhavan et al., ‘There is No Legal Barrier for UN Cross Border Operations in Syria’ The Guardian (28 April 2014).

104 M Rotelli, ‘Humanitarian Actors’ Struggle for Access, Impartiality, and Engagement with Armed Non-State Actors in Somalia’ Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (5 January 2014).

105 Bugnion, FThe International Committee of the Red Cross and the Protection of War Victims (Macmillan Education 2003) 450Google Scholar; Breau, SC and Samuel, KLH, Research on Disasters and International Law (Edward Elgar 2016) 145CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

106 Bouchet-Saulnier (n 26) 210.

107 Gillard (n 57) 367.

108 Gal, T, ‘Territorial Control by Armed Groups and the Regulation of Access to Humanitarian Assistance’ (2017) 50 IsraelLRev 27Google Scholar.

109 ibid.

110 J Gettleman, ‘Somalis Waste Away as Insurgents Block Escape from Famine’ New York Times (1 August 2011); For example, an MSF General Director indicated that it had received support from a senior Free Syrian Army commander when establishing emergency medical facilities (Dagboek (diary) ‘Christopher Stokes General Director of MSF’ (De Standaard Weekblad (Belgium) (22 December 2012) 66 cited in Ryngaert (n 77) 16).

111 See for instance Okimoto (n 53) 140–1.

112 Gal (n 109) 37.

113 N Bhuta, ‘The Antinomies of Transformative Occupation’ (2005) 16(4) EJIL 726; the analogous paradox is that raised in Ilascu and Others v Moldova and Russia App No 48787/99 ECHR (8 July 2004), and M Milanović and T Papić, ‘The Applicability of the ECHR in Contested Territories’ (2018) 67(4) ICLQ 779, where a territorial State may have sovereign human rights obligations over a territory no longer under its effective control.

114 Rudolf (n 76) 140.

115 ILC, ‘Draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, with Commentaries’ (2008) UN Doc A/56/10, 49.

116 ibid.

117 ibid.

118 Ryngaert (n 77) 18.

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