A Field Mission to Syria as Part of a Major Research on Armed Non-State Actors

Our Senior Research Fellow and Strategic Adviser on International Humanitarian Law (IHL) Dr Annyssa Bellal travelled this summer to North-East Syria with colleagues from Geneva Call – Ezequiel Heffes and Pascal Bongard – as part of the research project From Words to Deeds she leads that examines the practice and interpretation of armed non-State actors (ANSA) on core IHL norms.

Collecting First-Hand Information and Documents

This trip to the areas administered by the Autonomous Administration of North-East Syria (AANES) aimed at collecting first-hand information about how the AANES – which controls a large territory and population – and its armed branches, including the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) perceive and implement their obligations under international law.

The research team spent ten days in North-East Syria, notably in Quamisli, Hasakeh and Raqqa – the former ‘capital’ of the Islamic State group (ISIS).

This field research – which forms part of a larger series that involve trips to different conflict zones – allowed the research team to conduct interviews with the SDF and the authorities of the AANES and to collect policy documents on humanitarian and human rights norms, such as military instructions, internal regulations and laws, public statements and commitments.

‘We could have frank and open discussions with the SDF and other relevant authorities about the difficulties they encounter in implementing their obligations under international law and how they perceive these obligations.

A house in ruin, Raqqa

We notably met with SDF General Command, commanders of the People’s Defense Unit (YPG) and Women’s Protection Unit (YPJ), the Deir Al-Zor Military Council, as well as the Internal Security Forces General Command. We also spoke with members of the AANES in charge of health, gender, justice, child protection, education and cultural and humanitarian affairs’ explains Dr Bellal.

‘It was not an easy trip for security reasons notably, but worth it given the wealth of important information, we could collect for our research. It was also the occasion to meet fellow scholars working at the University of Rojava and to give a lecture there on ‘armed movements’ position on humanitarian norms’ she adds.

Preliminary Findings

The research team is currently analyzing and working on all the documents collected and interviews conducted during the trip. The key findings will be published later this year in a form of a case study, following the two that were published in early 2021 on the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP) and the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA).

‘While we are currently analyzing the information collected during this trip, the mission was really successful in demonstrating that ANSAs, such as the SDF, have clear positions on key issues of international law. For this particular coalition of armed groups, no major disagreement with the norms seems to exist and the challenges lie more in the capacity or willingness to implement them’ explains Dr Bellal.

From the Challenges of Trying Former IS Fighters to Accessing COVID-19 Vaccines

The mission highlighted the paradoxical position of the SDF and the AANES that administer a large population as an ANSA.

‘The detention of thousands of former ISIS fighters and their families represents a formidable challenge for this actor: while the SDF/AANES are under the obligation to treat these fighters in accordance with international law, they lack the capacity to do so’ explains Dr Bellal.

‘Other challenges relate to the fact that they cannot have a direct access to vaccines in the context of the COVID pandemic or that the diplomas obtained by children in school are not recognized as valid under domestic law – highlighting the difficulty of ensuring respect of the right to health or right to education of the persons living under the control of an ANSA’ she adds.


LLM Pleadings on South Ossetia at Villa Moynier News

Pleadings on the South Ossetia Conflict Take Place at Villa Moynier

17 May 2021

All LLM students – with the exception of one who pleaded online from Ethiopia – could plead at Villa Moynier in front of the jury composed of Professor Marco Sassòli and Lizaveta Tarasevich, an alumna of the Geneva Academy and Teaching Assistant at the University of Geneva.

Read more

Banner of the 2021 Jean-Pictet Competition News

A Memorable Face-to-Face Learning Experience at the 2021 Jean-Pictet Competition

26 April 2021

During one week, Mina Radoncic, Stephanie Mutasa and Tamara Aburamadan – currently enrolled in our LLM in International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights – represented the Geneva Academy at the 35th edition of the Jean-Pictet Competition that took place in Durrës, Albania.

Read more

 Taliban fighters on a truck in Kabul, August 17 2021 Event


28 October 2021, 15:00-16:00

This online IHL talk aims at shining light on some of the many legal, political and protection-related challenges stemming from the situation in Afghanistan.

Read more

Portrait of Dr Helen Durham Event

Opening Lecture – Respect for International Humanitarian Law in the 21st Century: Utopian Dream or Pragmatic Reality?

18 October 2021, 18:00-19:30

Dr Helen Durham, Director of International Law and Policy at the ICRC, will address the legal, operational and political imperative of the international community continuing to work towards the application and implementation of IHL.

Read more

Short Course

The Law of Non-International Armed Conflicts

17 March - 8 April 2022

This short course, which can be followed in Geneva or online, discusses the protection offered by international humanitarian law (IHL) in non-international armed conflicts (NIACs) and addresses some problems and controversies specific to IHL of NIACs, including the difficulty to ensure the respect of IHL by armed non-state actors.

Read more

Ukraine, damaged bicycle and car in front of a destroyed building Short Course

Protection of Persons and Property in International Armed Conflict

18 November - 23 December 2021

This short course, which can be followed in Geneva or online, examines the conduct of hostilities in situations of international armed conflict, also known as the Law of The Hague.

Read more

Screen Shot of Obsolete, a game made for the 7DFPS project in 7 days. Download for PC and Mac Project

Disruptive Military Technologies

Started in February 2020

Via a new lecture series on disruptive military technologies, this project aims at staying abreast of the various military technology trends; promoting legal and policy debate on new military technologies; and furthering the understanding of the convergent effects of different technological trends shaping the digital battlefield of the future.

Read more

Screenshot of the RULAC webpage Project

Rule of Law in Armed Conflicts (RULAC)

Started in May 2007

The Rule of Law in Armed Conflicts project (RULAC) is a unique online portal that identifies and classifies all situations of armed violence that amount to an armed conflict under international humanitarian law (IHL). It is primarily a legal reference source for a broad audience, including non-specialists, interested in issues surrounding the classification of armed conflicts under IHL.

Read more

Cover of the publication Publication

The UN Security Council and Common Article 1: Understanding the Role of Peacekeeping Operations in Ensuring Respect for IHL

published on October 2021

Émilie Max

Read more