With Naz K. Modirzadeh and Dustin A. Lewis, Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict (PILAC)

Thirteen of the sanctions regimes established by the U.N. Security Council could implicate key elements of principled humanitarian action. Those sanctions might affect humanitarian programming in numerous contexts, including the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Some see “humanitarian exemptions” as a way to resolve possible conflicts between sanctions and principled humanitarian action. But what are “humanitarian exemptions”? Who and what do and should they cover? And what is the debate surrounding them?

At this expert online briefing, Naz K. Modirzadeh and Dustin A. Lewis of the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict (PILAC) synthesized recent research in order to:

  • Summarize the legal status, content, and nature of relevant U.N. sanctions regimes;
  • Define and analyze the two general categories of “humanitarian exemptions” (those for designated individuals and for the humanitarian sector);
  • Highlight the stakes and interests in the debate on whether such exemptions may be desirable and feasible or may be inadvisable and impracticable;
  • Explain some of the few existing and limited exemptions at the international and domestic levels; and
  • Discuss the perceived benefits and costs of suggested “humanitarian exemptions.”


Naz Modirzadeh Naz Modirzadeh is the founding Director of the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict (PILAC). She regularly advises and briefs international humanitarian organizations, UN agencies, and governments on issues related to international humanitarian law, human rights, and counterterrorism regulations relating to humanitarian assistance. For more than a decade, she has carried out legal research and policy work concerning a number of armed conflict situations. Her scholarship and research focus on intersections between the fields of international humanitarian law, international human rights law, and Islamic law.
Dustin Lewis Dustin Lewis is a Senior Researcher at the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict (PILAC). With a focus on public international law sources and methodologies, he leads research projects on the theoretical underpinnings and application of international norms related to contemporary challenges concerning armed conflict.

Event host

Angharad Laing Angharad Laing Executive Director, International Association of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP)


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Target audience and event access

The Expert Briefings specifically target legal experts and humanitarian practitioners needing an advanced legal knowledge.

Discussion document

Katie King with Naz K. Modirzadeh & Dustin A. Lewis, “Understanding Humanitarian Exemptions: U.N. Security Council Practice and Principled Humanitarian Action,” Working Group Briefing Memorandum, Counterterrorism and Humanitarian Engagement Project, April 2016.