Compelling Non-State Armed Groups to Comply with Humanitarian Law

“All of today’s conflicts involve one or more non-state actors — groups whose political and military objectives are extensively analyzed but, if we are honest, we do not really know well,” said John Holmes, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, in his opening remarks at an IPI event on July 20th. “At the same time, their knowledge of and respect for their obligations under international humanitarian law is too often poor, and, at worst, non-existent.”

Several panelists during the event echoed the call by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for a comprehensive approach to induce compliance from such groups with international humanitarian and human rights’ laws and norms. Such an approach should be underpinned by impartiality and neutrality and employ a variety of tools ranging from dialogue and negotiation to training and monitoring of compliance. In his May 2009 report to the Security Council on the protection of civilians (S/2009/277), the Secretary-General argued that there is an urgent need for international actors to develop a comprehensive strategy to enhance non state armed groups’ compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL).

“That is the challenge for our discussion today – how to engage with these groups,” Mr. Holmes said. “We need to remind them of their obligations and make sure they understand them, and the possible consequences of not abiding by them. We need to assess their capacity to enforce appropriate conduct, and learn what beliefs and motivations drive their behavior towards civilians – both positively and negatively. In other words, if we are serious about reducing the risks for civilians, we need urgently to develop a comprehensive approach towards improving compliance by all these groups with the law.”

“NGOs and inter-governmental organizations have respective strengths and weaknesses and more or less latitude given the sensitivity of the subject,” said Elisabeth Decrey Warner, President and Co-founder of Geneva Call, a Swiss-based NGO whose mission is to engage with non state armed groups to promote their compliance with IHL and IHRL. “We can learn how to leverage these comparative advantages in order to best achieve the protection of civilians.”

The event, titled “Humanitarian Engagement with Non-State Armed Groups: Enhancing the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict,” was hosted by Geneva Call, the International Peace Institute (IPI), and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Benefiting from the support of the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the UN, this dialogue attracted nearly 90 member state representatives, UN Secretariat officials, NGO leaders, and members of the broader policy community.

The meeting was conducted under the Chatham House Rule of non-attribution, but some of the presenters agreed to share their remarks, which are linked below.

 Agenda

 Remarks by Sayed Aqa, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Bahrain

Remarks by Louise-Georges Arsenault, UNICEF

 Remarks by Sir John Holmes, OCHA