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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: October 2011

4 - UN relief and development operations



Relief operations aim to provide emergency humanitarian assistance to people affected by natural or man-made disasters, while development operations pursue the more long-term goal of improving social and economic conditions in developing countries. The principal providers of emergency humanitarian assistance are the UNHCR, UNICEF and the WFP, as well as myriads of local and international NGOs; the principal international institutional actors in the development sphere are UNDP and international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF.

Long-term development aid is often given on a bilateral basis, although many donor states choose to donate to an international organisation or an NGO which operates in the territory of the intended recipient rather than directly to the state.

Despite the importance of aid operations, no international aid law has emerged. In 2008 the ILC embarked upon a project on the protection of persons in the events of disasters which is expected to clarify some of the relevant legal issues. In the meantime, it is possible to make some general observations on the legal framework applicable to UN aid operations. First, insofar as it can be shown that international organisations involved in relief and development operations are subject to human rights obligations, those obligations, together with other relevant institutional duties, will be part of the legal framework of their operations. Secondly, the provision of humanitarian assistance in armed conflict is subject to special rules. Thirdly, the General Assembly and the Security Council of the UN have often referred to the provision of aid by subsidiary programmes of the UN in their resolutions. Although such references are seldom so extensive as to provide a comprehensive legal framework, they are part of the law applicable to specific operations. Fourthly, where aid is given in the form of financial assistance, the terms of the loan agreement will govern the relationship between donor organisation and recipient state.

Loans are not normally used by the UN, while they are the main form of assistance offered by the IMF. The practice of the IMF is to receive from a country wishing to borrow a Letter of Intent and/or a Memorandum of Economic and Financial Policy stipulating policy measures the country will undertake in return for access to Fund’s resources. These documents are supposedly ‘prepared by the [country’s] authorities, with the cooperation and assistance of the Fund staff’. However, the IMF acknowledges that country ‘authorities generally do not write the first draft of the letter of intent’. In contrast, the financial arrangement constitutes a unilateral decision of the Executive Board. It is the IMF, drawing on the policy documents, that sets the conditions for financing and determines whether those conditions are met. Consequently, the legal basis for the binding nature of conditions lies in the Executive Board’s decision rather than the policy documents.

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