2013 – Maria Giovanna Pietropaolo

Maria Giovanna Pietropaolo
Maria Giovanna Pietropaolo

The Foundation and the Academy are happy to award the Henry Dunant Research Prize 2013 to Ms Maria Giovanna Pietropaolo for her LL.M. thesis entitled « Humanitarian Assistance from the Standpoint of the Human Rights of the Disaster-Affected Individuals: Present and Future Perspectives ».

The Jury found the choice of the topic most motivating, as the protection of civilians victim in situation of armed conflicts and emergency constitutes the central focus of Henry Dunant’s commitment, as these are the most vulnerable and less protected individuals in situations of violence.

They also were impressed by the exceptional quality, originality and technical mastery of Ms. Pietropaolo’s analysis, which is well-balanced between theory and practice and provides progressive and realistic solutions in the very spirit of Henry Dunant. “[A]n attempt to consider humanitarian assistance from the standpoint of human rights law, in the form of a dialogue between the current and future hypothetical human rights scenario of disaster-relief operations”, as she describes her thesis in the introductory note.

Her research work is of undeniable scientific quality.


Maria Giovanna Pietropaolo graduated from the University of Florence in 2011 with a Master’s Degree in Law. In her final dissertation she reviewed the compliance of the case-law of the Special Court for Sierra Leone with the principle of legality. After completion of the legal traineeship in Italy, she specialized in humanitarian law and human rights protection. She holds a LL.M. from the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights awarded at the end of the 2012/2013 academic year.

After receiving the Henry Dunant Award, Maria Giovanna worked for one year as a trainee in the Legal Division of the ICRC in the field of IHL, human rights law and international criminal law. Subsequently, to delve into the topic of humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of disasters which is the object of her research awarded the Henry Dunant Prize, she has interned for the Disaster Law Programme of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. After a brief period in Italy during which she has obtained the license to practice law and she has volunteered with asylum seekers, she has started working in her current position of Legal Advisor for the ICRC in Geneva.

Summary of the Thesis

The emergence of International Disaster Response Law has sanctioned the recognition of the legal, as opposed to charitable, nature of humanitarian assistance to people affected by natural disasters. The paper is an attempt to overcome the confinement of the legal dimension to the juridical positions of states by approaching humanitarian assistance from the perspective of the human rights of the affected individuals.

The first section identifies the human rights that are relevant in post-disaster scenarios. First, from a survey of the pertinent international sources, it is inferred the present impossibility to identify a human right to humanitarian assistance. Therefore, in the current legal framework, the human rights dimension is indirectly derived from the so-called “component rights” of humanitarian assistance (right to life, right to food, right to water, right to housing etc…). The legitimacy and importance of the contribution of these rights in substantiating the legal claims to receive assistance by the affected individuals are examined. Subsequently, in a de lege ferenda perspective, the author presents the feasibility and desirability of the recognition of a direct human right to humanitarian assistance and introduces a possible structure thereof.

The second section is devoted to an analysis of the implementation of humanitarian assistance through the examination of the juridical positions of the actors involved, namely the affected state, affected individuals and international community. A comparison is made between the juridical positions that are relevant in the current scenario based on the protection of the component rights and the prospective one focused on a stand-alone human right to receive humanitarian assistance.

Finally, humanitarian assistance is presented as the combination of three fundamental principles of the international order: human rights protection, sovereignty and solidarity. An investigation of the current regulation of humanitarian assistance demonstrates the inadequacy of the law to embody the changing equilibrium between the three components. The latter is indeed always more attentive to human rights and solidarity.

The paper suggests that the recognition of an autonomous human right to humanitarian assistance may constitute the necessary constraint on the abusive exercise of sovereignty by the affected states. The new right would indeed transform the status of the individuals affected by natural disasters from victims to right-holders vis à vis the affected state and the international community.

Read the full paper and an article in La Repubblica (in Italian).