Humanitarian pauses and ceasefires – what are the differences?

Fighting in Gaza has led to calls for the suspension of hostilities, whether in the form of humanitarian pauses or broader ceasefires. But what are they and what is required for them to be effective?

Explainer
4 minute READ

On 18 October 2023, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for an ‘immediate humanitarian ceasefire…to ease the epic human suffering we are witnessing.’ On 26 October, after difficult negotiations, the European Council called for continued humanitarian access including by means of ‘humanitarian corridors and pauses’. The next day, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution that called for ‘an immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities’.

In mid-October two competing draft resolutions were tabled before the Security Council. One was put forward by Russia, and called for an ‘immediate, durable…humanitarian ceasefire’. The second, tabled by Brazil, called for ‘humanitarian pauses’ to allow unhindered humanitarian access. Neither was adopted.

Representatives of humanitarian organizations have also issued appeals. On 30 October 2023, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, called on parties to ‘agree to pause the fighting on humanitarian grounds’ to provide calm and safety for the UN to replenish supplies, relieve exhausted personnel, and resume assistance throughout Gaza.

While the objective of these appeals is the same – limiting the impact of the hostilities on civilians – there are significant differences in precisely what is called for.

The UNRWA Commissioner-General underscored the need for ‘a safe, unimpeded, substantial and continuous flow of humanitarian aid, including fuel, into the Gaza strip and across it. For this we need an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.’

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has called for a pause in the fighting for humanitarian aid and first responders to be allowed into Gaza. On 31 October, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the UK would support all efforts to ensure life-saving aid reaches those in need, including temporary humanitarian pauses.

While the objective of these appeals is the same – limiting the impact of the hostilities on civilians – there are significant differences in precisely what is called for. In particular, the purpose and, consequently, the extent of the suspension of hostilities underlie the disagreements that have arisen. The use of inconsistent and/or ambiguous terminology has contributed to the confusion.

What is the difference between humanitarian pauses, truces or ceasefires, and generalized ceasefires?

None of the terms used – ‘humanitarian ceasefire’, ‘humanitarian pause’, ‘humanitarian truce’, or ‘ceasefire’ more generally – are defined in international law. Nor are parties to armed conflicts required to adopt any such measures as a matter of law. 

The key difference relates to the purpose of the suspension – whether it is to allow a specific humanitarian activity to be conducted, or whether it is a generalized suspension of hostilities.

However, the adoption of humanitarian pauses can promote compliance with obligations under international humanitarian law (also known as the law of armed conflict). These include the evacuation of the wounded and sick, or facilitating the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief.

All the measures foresee a suspension of active fighting. The key difference relates to the purpose of the suspension – whether it is to allow a specific humanitarian activity to be conducted without risk of harm from the active fighting, or whether it is a generalized suspension of hostilities.

Suspensions of hostilities for specific humanitarian purposes tend to be limited in scope – in terms of duration and location. Although they pause the fighting, this tends to be a brief and localized interruption.

The same is not the case for generalized ceasefires that are not related to specific humanitarian activities. They can affect the achievement of the strategic military objectives of the hostilities. It is this type of ceasefire that some states have been unwilling to call for in the Hamas-Israel war.

How do humanitarian pauses (or truces or ceasefires) work?

Suspension of hostilities for humanitarian purposes must be agreed to by the warring parties. They need to agree their precise times and locations, routes, and who will be entitled to benefit from them.

The pauses do not affect protections and obligations under international humanitarian law. They are a way of giving effect to them.

Precisely what is required depends on the purpose of the pause. For example, in the case of pauses to allow the transit of humanitarian relief, in addition to routes and times, parties must agree which organizations are entitled to participate; what arrangements, if any, must be put in place to ensure that only relief items are provided; and which populations may benefit from the relief.

As far as medical evacuations are concerned, while wounded and sick civilians and fighters must be able to benefit from them, it may be necessary to specify that weapons will not be transported.

Humanitarian pauses do not affect protections and obligations under international humanitarian law. They are a way of giving effect to them. Humanitarian relief convoys must be respected and protected, and parties must allow and facilitate their rapid and unimpeded passage. 

Agreements to suspend hostilities to allow such passage reduce the risk that they may be caught up in hostilities. The same applies for arrangements that allow civilians to move to reach humanitarian assistance.

Humanitarian arrangements only provide safety if they are respected by all parties that are active in the area: those conducting military operations and those present on the ground.

The essence of arrangements cont.

The essence of the arrangements is that they are exclusively humanitarian in nature and ‘demilitarized’. If parties to the conflict abuse them – for example by diverting relief supplies intended for civilians or by using the agreed upon movements to provide cover for military operations – they might lead to the termination of the pause, and may put the safety of humanitarian actors and other civilians at risk.

What next?

The calls by General Assembly and the European Council are just that – an urging to the parties to the hostilities to stop the fighting for humanitarian purposes. It remains for the warring parties to reach agreement.

In most cases, belligerents are not liaising directly, so a third party neutral intermediary is usually involved in facilitating agreement. Who this is varies. It can be the humanitarian actor that would be conducting the operations in question.

For example, the ICRC could negotiate the passage of its own operations. The United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator may facilitate agreements for a broader range of humanitarian organizations.

The intermediary could also be a state. What is essential is clarity as to the precise arrangements agreed upon.

After nearly a month of intense fighting, humanitarian needs in Gaza are staggering. All approaches to enhancing humanitarian response are extremely important: accelerating the arrangements for bringing relief goods into Gaza; the suspension of hostilities to allow their movement within Gaza and safe access to them by civilians; and the much-awaited evacuations into Egypt, including of serious medical cases.

Humanitarian pauses are among the humanitarian arrangements considered in a project conducted by the Chatham House’s International Law Programme. The project will clarify the different types of arrangements, present applicable law, and propose good practice in the adoption and implementation of the arrangements.