Human Rights Responsibilities and Armed Non-State Actors

Completed in March 2021

Background

From Syria to Mali, Afghanistan, or Yemen, the majority of today’s armed conflicts are non-international in character and involve one or several armed non-state actors (ANSAs). These often control territory and persons for a prolonged time and are involved in human rights violations. In these contexts, human rights monitoring mechanisms usually have restricted or no access at all.

International humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL) share certain common objectives, but they differ in their scopes of application. IHRL applies at all times, while IHL applies only in cases of armed conflict. ANSAs which are parties to a conflict are subject to the obligations imposed by IHL. However, less legal clarity exists regarding the extent to which they are also legally bound to respect human rights in situations that are not covered by IHL or where IHL does not provide adequate guidance.

Up to now, it is still unclear and difficult to establish whether ANSAs’ IHRL obligations are anchored in some form of law or practice emerging from the resolutions adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, the UN Security Council or the UN Human Rights Council. The issue of accountability and reparation for human rights violations committed by ANSAs is also a critical point of the debate. Apart from individual criminal responsibility, there is currently no judicial or quasi-judicial international mechanism to hold ANSAs per se accountable under IHRL.

The lack of a clear legal framework defining which human rights obligations are applicable to ANSAs as well as the absence of mechanisms ensuring monitoring, accountability, and reparation thus affects the effective implementation and respect of the human rights of persons living under the control of ANSAs.

Objective

Looking into the human rights responsibilities of ANSAs, this project began in 2017 and originally aimed at igniting States’ interest in addressing the issue – either through the development of a non-binding document and/or the adoption of a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council.

From 2019 onwards, the next phase of the project focused on supporting interested independent mandate holders in the drafting, publication, and dissemination of a joint statement on the human rights responsibilities of ANSAs.

Research Team

This research project was carried out by Dr Annyssa Bellal, Senior Research Fellow and Strategic Adviser on IHL at the Geneva Academy, and Emilie Max, former Researcher at the Geneva Academy.

PROJECT'S DOCUMENTS

NEWS

M-13 combatttants in the Democratic Republic of the Congo News

New Publication Explores State Responsibility for Human Rights Violations Committed by Armed Non-State Actors in its Territory

25 February 2019

Part of our multi-year project that focuses on human rights responsibilities and armed non-state actors (ANSAs), our new publication explores the particular aspects of state responsibility for human rights violations committed by ANSAs in its territory.

Read more >

Vover page of the In-Brief No.7 Human Rights Obligations of Armed Non-State Actors: An Exploration of the Practice of the UN Human Rights Council  News

How the UN Human Rights Council Addresses Armed Non-State Actors: Key Challenges and Way Forward

9 February 2017

Ten years after the establishment of the UN Human Rights Council, our new publication highlights the current challenges related to the Council’s approach to armed non-state actors and proposes recommendations to better address this phenomenon.

Read more >

OUTPUT

Exploring the Practice of the UN Human Rights Council Towards ANSAs

Our publication Human Rights Obligations of Armed Non-State Actors: An Exploration of the Practice of the UN Human Rights Council starts by describing the legal framework applicable to ANSAs and by addressing the controversy about whether or not these actors have human rights obligations under international law. It then explores the practice of the UN Human Rights Council makes recommendations that may be of interest to states, NGOs, and other stakeholders, including when they negotiate resolutions for adoption by the HRC.

Clarifying States' Responsibilities for Human Rights Violations Committed by ANSAs in Their Territory

The publication State Responsibility for Human Rights Violations Committed in the State Territory by Armed Non-State Actors explores the particular aspects of state responsibility for human rights violations committed by ANSAs in its territory. The publication notably details the notion of de facto authority and the positive human rights obligations of states having lost control of (part of) their territory.

A Statement by Over 40 UN Independent Experts on the Human Rights Responsibilities of ANSAs

The research team supported interested independent mandate holders in the drafting, publication, and dissemination of a joint statement on the human rights responsibilities of ANSAs.

Published on 25 January 2021, the statement was ultimately signed by over 40 (!) independent experts representing 28 special procedures of the UN Human Rights Council. Focusing on armed conflicts and other situations of violence, it highlights the far-reaching negative human rights impact of ANSAs on rights’ holders while providing recommendations to states and other stakeholders in view of safeguarding the human rights of individuals from transgression by ANSAs.

The joint statement was launched/discussed during a virtual side-event to the 46th session of Human Rights Council, which was co-organized by the Geneva Academy, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (mandates of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions) and the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland.

Publications

Cover page of the publication

Briefing No°13: State Responsibility for Human Rights Violations Committed in the State Territory by Armed Non-State Actors

December 2018

Tatyana Eatwell

The Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights

Download >

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

Download >

Past Events

Human Rights Responsibilities of Armed Non-State Actors

5 March 2021, 13:00-14:30

Read more >

MORE ON THIS THEMATIC AREA

Professor Marco Sassoli during an IHL class at the Geneva Academy News

Geneva Academy Professor presents to OSCE Member States Report on Violations of IHL in the Armed Conflict in Ukraine

13 April 2022

Professor Sassòli was in charge of the IHL part of the report that was presented on 13 April by the three experts to the OSCE Permanent Council. 

Read more

Smartphone screen News

Aligning Regulations of Business Conduct in the Technology Sector with Human Rights

29 April 2022

A new Research Brief on Regulating Business Conduct in the Technology Sector: Gaps and Ways Forward in Applying the UNGPs depicts the prominent gaps in regulatory approaches to business conduct in the technology sector with regard to the UNGPs.

Read more

Greece, ylakio, pre-removal center. Short Course

Introduction to International Human Rights Law

Fall 2022

This short course, which can be followed in Geneva or online, will provide participants with an introduction to substantive human rights law. It will start with an introduction to the nature and sources of international human rights law and its place in the international legal system. The course will then provide a presentation of the main principles applicable to substantive rights (jurisdiction, obligation and limitations).

Read more

An aerial view of camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), which have appeared following latest attacks by M23 rebels and other armed groups in the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Short Course

International Refugee Law

Spring 2023

This short course, which can be followed in Geneva or online, analyses the main international and regional norms governing the international protection of refugees. It notably examines the sources of international refugee law, including the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and their interaction with human rights law and international humanitarian law.

Read more

View of a session of the UN Human Rights Council Project

Human Rights Conversations

Started in January 2020

A series of events aimed at discussing contemporary issues and challenges related to the promotion and protection of human rights in Geneva and beyond.

Read more

A wheelchair completely destroyed after the bombing of a civilian area Project

Disability and Armed Conflict

Completed in May 2016

This project aimed to ensure better protection of and assistance for persons with disabilities in situations of armed conflict or its aftermath by identifying legal obligations to protect and assist persons with disabilities during conflict, and the policies and practices required to put these obligations into effect.

Read more

Cover of the publication Publication

Implementing the Treaty Body Review 2020 – Where do we stand

published on May 2022

Felix Kirchmeier, Chloé Naret, Domenico Zipoli

Read more