From Words to Deeds: A Study of Armed Non-State Actors’ Practice and Interpretation of International Humanitarian and Human Rights Norms

Started in January 2017

CONTEXT

In the past few years, there has been an increase of the occurrence of so-called non-international conflicts, i.e. conflicts opposing states to armed non-State actors (ANSAs), or between ANSAs themselves.

In 2018, according to our War Report, at least 69 armed conflicts occurred on the territory of 30 states, of which 51 had a non-international character. Many violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) and international humanitarian law (IHRL) are committed by ANSAs.

In this context, the international community has called for more sustained engagement of these non-State actors on IHL and IHRL, pointing at the need for such engagement in order to enhance the protection of civilians. ANSAs have become key actors in contemporary conflicts and not engaging them may have detrimental impacts on both humanitarian assistance and protection.

Although it is undisputed that ANSAs are bound by IHL, how they understand, interpret or are able to actually implement their international obligations has not yet been scientifically explored. While a number of studies have analysed states’ practice on international law – notably the 2005 ICRC study on customary IHL – ANSAs’ views have generally been neglected from legal studies. This State-centric “top-down” approach to ANSAs’ international obligations, employed without inquiring into their actual practice and interpretation of the rules binding upon them, may explain the lack of ownership of, and compliance with, international law by these actors. Indeed, there is an increasing sense that ANSAs’ compliance with humanitarian norms is likely to improve if they are more actively consulted about the creation and implementation of the rules they are expected to abide by.

THE RESEARCH

This research project builds on these trends and explores ANSAs’ practice and interpretation of IHL and IHRL.

Through a comparative analysis of selected norms, it seeks to generate a better understanding of their perspectives and inform future humanitarian protection strategies. Specifically, it will examine ANSAs’ perspectives on the following core norms:

i) protection of civilians from attacks

ii) use of landmines and other explosive devices

iii) humanitarian access (and denial thereof)

iv) the prohibition of using and recruiting children in hostilities

v) the prohibition of forced displacement

vi) the special protection of certain objects, such as cultural property and the environment

vii) deprivation of liberty

viii) the prohibition of sexual violence

ix) the protection of health care, with a special focus on the protection of persons with disabilities

x) the protection of education

xi) fair trial and administration of justice.

OBJECTIVE

This project aims at compiling and analysing the practice and interpretation of selected IHL and human rights norms by ANSAs. It has a pragmatic double objective: first, to offer a comparative analysis of IHL and human rights norms from the perspective of ANSAs, and second, to inform strategies of humanitarian engagement with ANSAs, in particular the content of guidelines for engagement with these actors.

METHODOLOGY

ANSAs’ practices and views will be collected through available unilateral engagements, public declarations, special agreements and peace treaties. In addition, field research and interviews with selected ANSAs will also be conducted, notably in Afghanistan, Colombia, Mali, Somaliland, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Philippines, Myanmar, Lebanon and Syria.

PARTNERSHIP

This project is conducted in partnership with the Swiss NGO Geneva Call and with Professor Badawi of the American University of Cairo

NEWS AND UPCOMING EVENTS

Cover page of the book IHL Talks

Book Launch: Rebel Courts

1 December 2021, 17:30-19:00

In this online book launch – part of our IHL Talk series – Professor René Provost will discuss with leading scholars in IHL and human rights the legal and practical challenges related to the administration of justice by armed groups.

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Portrait of Dr Annyssa Bellal News

Dr Annyssa Bellal Will Discuss IHL Monitoring and Compliance at the UNGA Ministerial Week

20 September 2021

Our Senior Research Fellow and Strategic Adviser on International Humanitarian Law Dr Annyssa Bellal will discuss IHL monitoring and compliance at a High-Level Side Event during the UN General Assembly Ministerial Week.

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

13 September 2021

Our Senior Research Fellow and Strategic Adviser on 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 she leads that examines the practice and interpretation of ANSAs on core IHL norms.

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RESEARCHERS

Picture of Annyssa Bellal

Annyssa Bellal

Senior Research Fellow and Strategic Adviser on International Humanitarian Law

Annyssa Bellal's areas of expertise include public international law, international humanitarian law, international human rights law and armed non-state actors.

Publications

Cover of the publication

Le cas du Mouvement National de Libération del’Azawad (MNLA), Mali

March 2021

Annyssa Bellal, Ezequiel Heffes and Pascal Bongard

The Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights; Geneva Call

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Cover of the publication

Case Study: The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad, MNLA), Mali

March 2021

Annyssa Bellal, Ezequiel Heffes and Pascal Bongard

The Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights; Geneva Call

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Cover of the publication

Case Study: Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia–Ejército del Pueblo (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army, FARC-EP)

March 2021

Annyssa Bellal, Ezequiel Heffes and Pascal Bongard

The Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights; Geneva Call

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Cover of the publication

From Words to Deeds: A Study of Armed Non-State Actors’ Practice and Interpretations of International Humanitarian and Human Rights Norms

December 2019

Annyssa Bellal, Pascal Bongard, Ezequiel Heffes

The Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights

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Cover of the In-Brief N°7

Human Rights Obligations of Armed Non-State Actors: An Exploration of the Practice of the UN Human Rights Council

December 2016

Annyssa Bellal

Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights

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Cover of the Policy Briefing No1: Reactions to Norms Armed Groups and the Protection of Civilians

Reactions to Norms Armed Groups and the Protection of Civilians

January 2014

Alice Priddy

Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights

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Cover of the Rules of Engagement: Protecting Civilians through Dialogue with Armed Non-State Actors

Rules of Engagement: Protecting Civilians through Dialogue with Armed Non-State Actors

October 2011

Annyssa Bellal, Stuart Casey-Maslen

Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights

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Past Events

Taking Armed Non-State Actors Into Account: An Assessment of their Humanitarian Commitments

4 November 2020, 10:00-10:50

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Non-State Armed Groups and IHL

12 December 2019, 13:00-14:00

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Book Launch: Rebel Courts

1 December 2021, 17:30-19:00

In this online book launch – part of our IHL Talk series – Professor René Provost will discuss with leading scholars in IHL and human rights the legal and practical challenges related to the administration of justice by armed groups.

Read more

Short Course

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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.

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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

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published on July 2021

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