Global Ethics Corner: International Humanitarian Law and Non-State Actors

Dec 17, 2010

Should non-state armed groups be excluded from the formal realm of international humanitarian law? Should they be held to the same standards as states during warfare? What is the proper mechanism for enforcing the rules of war without lending non-state actors legitimacy?

Today, most armed conflicts are not between states. Now, other groups are significant combatants and wars are fought between internationally recognized governments and non-state actors.

Examples range from African civil wars to NATO and the Afghan government vs. the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

International Humanitarian Law, based historically in The Hague and Geneva Conventions, outlines appropriate conduct for wars, including internationally recognized norms that protect civilians, prisoners of war, and casualties. However, the Geneva Conventions, universally ratified by states, are not formally issued to non-state combatants.

Many argue that international humanitarian law should be extended to all combatants, due to the changing nature of armed conflict and the responsibility to protect.

Others resist engaging armed non-state actors, and believe that these combatants gain legitimacy if they sign international agreements. The rationale is similar to the argument, "don't negotiate with terrorists."

Finally, third-party humanitarian organizations such as Geneva Call, advocate a "deed of commitment." This is not a treaty, but functions as a supplementary agreement which accepts international humanitarian norms. Geneva Call, for instance, seeks to implement a ban on the use of anti-personnel mines by non-state actors.

What do you think? Should non-state armed groups be excluded from the formal realm of international humanitarian law? Should they be held to the same standards as states, during warfare? What is the proper mechanism for enforcing the rules of war without lending non-state actors legitimacy?

By Elena Shanbaum

For more information see:

Geneva Call
ICRC Mandate and Mission

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:

U.S. Army

Matthew Moeller/ U.S. Army
Jonathan Alpeyrie
International Court of Justice
Jonathan Alpeyrie
Kevin Quinn
Daniel P. Long
Cesar Monroy
Michelle Tribe
Jeserson
Michael Baltz/ U.S. Army

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