Limiting siege warfare

Humanitarian limits on the use of siege warfare

High-intensity conflicts in the Middle East have been dominated by a series of long and brutal sieges. These include sieges of major cities in Iraq (Ramadi, Fallujah, Mosul) and Syria (Aleppo, Raqqa, Eastern Ghouta) as well as of dozens of smaller cities or towns. The siege of Hodeidah in Yemen is ongoing, with the population threatened by starvation, and a new series of sieges in Syria’s Idlib are anticipated. Whether mounted by Syrian/Russian/Iranian forces, the international coalition against ISIS, or the Saudi-led coalition, these sieges have all produced acute civilian suffering, high rates of casualties and massive physical destruction.

Military sieges constitute arguably the most destructive form of warfare practised today. Although the pattern and scale of violations differ significantly between cases, they have all seen the erosion of humanitarian norms by almost all parties to conflict.

Is it lawful to besiege a city?

The adjective most commonly used to describe such sieges is ‘medieval’. However, today sieges are most often laid using jet aircraft, and modern communications technology enables daily contact with civilians living under siege. Both besieged and besieging forces appear motivated by perverse incentives to prevent civilians from leaving besieged areas, potentially prolonging their suffering for years.

After the harrowing sieges of the Second World War, the legal position was transformed with the agreement of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and, in particular, their 1977 Additional Protocols. These IHL treaties:

  • Provide for local agreements for the evacuation of vulnerable civilians from besieged areas and access for religious and medical personnel and equipment (GCIV Art17)
  • Prohibit the starvation of civilians as a means of warfare and the destruction of objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population (API Art54, APII Art14)
  • Provide for relief actions of a humanitarian nature to relieve civilian hardship (API Art 70, APII Art 18)
  • Provide general protection of civilians and civilian objects from attack, prohibition of indiscriminate attacks and acts or threats intended to spread terror among the civilian population (API Art 51).

In addition, the International Committee of the Red Cross has collected evidence on customary international law to establish certain rules as norms in non-international as well as international armed conflict, including prohibitions on starvation of civilians, on destruction of objects indispensable to civilian survival, and on collective punishments, as well as requiring ‘rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need’.

Many experts of the law of armed conflict, however, point out that there is no international rule banning sieges as such. In the meantime states, including permanent members of the UN Security Council and parties to the Additional Protocols, continue to use siege warfare – with its attendant severe hardships for civilians – and to defend its legality.

Seeking a way forward

The UN Security Council and humanitarian agencies have condemned the starvation of local populations under siege and sought to improve humanitarian access, but have made little headway in addressing the underlying problems.

Ceasefire believes that it is essential to put content on the bones of the broad prohibitions in the IHL treaties, to build concrete understanding of legal limitations in practice, and to make it harder for parties to conflict just to blame the other side for the suffering of the civilian population.

It may be unrealistic to expect that belligerents will abandon the tactics of siege in the immediate future. However, disseminating best practice on civilian protection and developing a better common understanding of humanitarian norms governing siege will help to limit civilian suffering and contribute in the longer term to building a consensus against the use of siege as a weapon of war against civilians.

See the posts on the blog of the European Journal of International Law by Grey Zone author Gloria Gaggioli: Are sieges prohibited under contemporary IHL? and by Ceasefire’s Director Mark Lattimer: Can incidental starvation of civilians be lawful?

Photo © anasalhajj /

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