Armed Non-State Actors and the Human Rights Council

Completed in December 2016

As armed non-state actors play a crucial role in contemporary situations of armed violence, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), its special procedures and commissions of inquiry have increasingly examined their activities and accountability. However, this has been inconsistent, mirroring the different views among legal scholars as to whether, to what extent and under what circumstances armed non-state actors have obligations under international law. There is thus a need to clarify the international legal obligations of armed non-state actors.

Launched in 2016, this project aimed to identify whether, to what extent and under what circumstances armed non-state actors incur obligations under international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights (HR) law. It will thus provide guidance for a more systematic approach when addressing HR abuses and violations of IHL by those actors.

RESEARCHER

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.

OUTPUT

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

The publication Human Rights Obligations of Armed Non-State Actors: An Exploration of the Practice of the UN Human Rights Council highlights the current challenges related to the Human Rights Council (HRC)’s approach to armed non-state actors (ANSAs) and proposes recommendations to better address this phenomenon.

The great majority of contemporary armed conflicts are fought between states and armed non-state actors (ANSAs) or between ANSAs. Against this background, the HRC has increasingly reported on ANSAs both in country and thematic resolutions. In some sessions, the HRC has adopted resolutions that directly address one or more ANSAs. For instance, resolution S-22/1 of September 2014 specifically covered the organisation known as ‘Islamic State’ and associated groups in Iraq, and in May 2015 resolution S-23/1 considered Boko Haram in ‘affected States’.

The terminology used in these resolutions is inconsistent. It sometimes speaks of violations of human rights law and violations of international humanitarian law and at other times speaks of human rights abuses and violations of humanitarian law. The use of the term ‘abuse’ rather than ‘violation’ reflects the unclear legal regime applicable to ANSAs involved in situations of armed conflict and violence. Indeed, while the law of armed conflict also binds ANSAs, the applicability of human rights law to these actors has been controversial, given the alleged objective of human rights treaties, understood as being a body of norms only meant to regulate the relationship between states and individuals living under their jurisdiction.

The publication describes the current legal framework applicable to ANSAs. It explores the practice of the HRC and makes recommendations that may be of interest to States, NGOs, and other stakeholders, including when they negotiate resolutions at the HRC.

‘This publication demonstrates that the practice of intergovernmental organizations such as the UN strongly suggests that ANSAs must also respect human rights law when they exercise elements of governmental functions or have de facto control over territory and a population’ underlines Dr Annyssa Bellal, Strategic Adviser on International Humanitarian Law at the Geneva Academy and author of the In-Brief.

Key Recommendations

As a consequence, the In-Brief recommends not using the distinction between the terms ‘abuses’ v. ‘violations’ when assessing or denouncing the behavior of ANSAs with regard to human rights, thereby avoiding giving any impression that all categories of ANSAs, including de facto authorities, might be free of human rights obligations.

It also recommends the HRC to avoid branding ANSAs as ‘terrorist’, regardless of their nature and motivation, as this all-encompassing denomination may create difficulties and dilemmas on a both legal and policy plane.

Finally, it suggests that more research is needed to develop a shared and more comprehensive understanding of the notion of de facto authorities, and identify the content of human rights norms that might be binding on ANSAs.

An Expert Seminar to Discuss the Human Rights Responsibilities of ANSAs

Academics, civil servants and governmental representatives discussed the human rights responsibilities of ANSAs, building upon our In-Brief No. 7 Human Rights Obligations of Armed Non-State Actors: An Exploration of the Practice of the UN Human Rights Council and the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict (PILAC) study on Armed Non-State Actors and International Human Rights Law: an analysis of the practice of the UN Security Council and UN General Assembly.

Participants debated selected human rights issues and ANSAs, including the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, the right to life, non-discrimination against women, the sources of obligations, the value-added of human rights obligations by ANSAs, the role of states and international institutions like the HRC andn the UN Security Council, accountability and ANSAs' perception and engagement. The report of the seminar provides a summary of the main issues discussed, compiled thematically.

Publications

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

Policy Briefing N°1: Reactions to Norms Armed Groups and the Protection of Civilians

January 2014

Stuart Casey-Maslen, Marina Mattirolo, Alice Priddy

Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights

NEWS

Title of the workshop in orange background News

Armed Non-State Actors: Our Work

31 July 2017

Our Strategic Adviser on International Humanitarian Law, Dr Annyssa Bellal, participated on 28 and 29 July 2016 to the 'Transatlantic Workshop on International Law and Armed Conflict'.

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 >

MORE ON THIS THEMATIC AREA

Event

Rights, Faith and Fights: Armed Non-State Actors and Contemporary Conflicts

August 2018, 12:30-14:00

As the second in a series of talks on IHL brought to you by the UN Library Geneva in collaboration with the Geneva Academy, this Library Talk will explore the application of IHL to contemporary conflicts as related to armed non-state actors.

Read more

Somalia, explosion of a bomb in the Mogadishu's market place. Short Course

The Classification of Armed Conflicts

29 November - January 2019

This course aims to study, in depth, an emblematic example of the complexity of international humanitarian law and the challenges it raises: the classification of armed conflicts.

Read more

A wide view of the UN Security Council Short Course

Sanctions in Public International Law

25 January - February 2019

This course provides an introduction to the regime of sanctions under international law and their effectiveness in addressing contemporary forms of conflict. It addresses the questions related to state responsibility, the pacific settlement of international disputes and the role of the International Court of Justice.

Read more

UN Peacekeepers on Patrol in Abyei, Sudan. Zambian peacekeepers from the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) patrol streets lined with looted items awaiting collection in Abyei, the main town of the disputed Abyei area on the border of Sudan and newly Project

The Intersection between Transitional Justice, International Security and Responsibility to Protect

Started in February 2017

This project aims at mapping various existing accountability mechanisms, in the context of military interventions, through the lens of the requirements of a transitional justice process in order to identify possibilities and gaps.

Read more

ICC Trial Chamber VIII declares Mr Al Mahdi guilty of the war crime of attacking historic and religious buildings in Timbuktu and sentences him to nine years’ imprisonment Project

Modes of Liability for International Crimes

Started in January 2015

This project intends to clarify the conditions of accountability for international crimes by providing a detailed assessment of the customary international law status of, in particular, the actus reus and mens rea elements of modes of liability: planning, instigating, conspiracy, direct and indirect perpetration, co-perpetration, the three forms of joint criminal enterprise, the doctrine of common purpose under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, command responsibility and aiding and abetting.

Read more