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2017 | UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law Relevant to Siege Warfare

This report aims to provide humanitarian personnel working in Syria with an overview of some of the key rules of international law relevant to the use of siege warfare.

Although International Humanitarian Law does not define ‘siege’, it does prescribe that means and methods of warfare must distinguish between civilians and militaries. This implies for example that sieges' effects may not restrict civilians from access to water, food and health care. In addition, Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions requires that the sick and wounded are cared for. In terms of sieges, this means that when the parties to the conflict are failing in their obligation to meet the needs of the population under their control, they must allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian help. Also, (collective) punishment of civilians for actions committed by other community members, are prohibited.

International Human Rights Law, defined in multiple treaties and customary law, requires states to respect, protect and fulfil other human rights that are under pressure during sieges. One can think of the right to a life or the right to freedom of movement.  Finally, the article articulates that sieges may lead to individual responsibility under international criminal law for example in case of intentional starvation of civilians which may constitute a war crime or a crime against humanity.