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

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  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

9 February 2017

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

Main Findings

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.

Armed Non State Actors in Central African Republic

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

Armed Non State Actors in Colombia

Author

This Research Brief was written by Dr Annyssa Bellal, Strategic Adviser on International Humanitarian Law and Research Fellow at the Geneva Academy.

Support

We gratefully acknowledge the funding for this In-Brief provided by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.

Ongoing Research on ANSAs

This publication forms part of a larger research undertaken at the Geneva Academy for several years on ANSAs, including its research projects on Armed Non-State Actors and the Protection of Civilians and on Rules of Engagement.

It will also inform a new project analyzing the practice of ANSAs with regard to international norms (international humanitarian law and international human rights law) which will be undertaken in 2017.

 Armed Non State Actors in Libya

MORE ON THIS THEMATIC AREA

Kutum, North Darfur: Members of the Sudanese army patrol Kutum market News

Does the Recent Peace Agreement Put an End to the Non-International Armed Conflicts in Sudan?

7 September 2020

Our RULAC online portal provides a detailed analysis and legal classification of the various non-international armed conflicts that are taking place in Sudan. In this interview, our Research Fellow Dr Chiara Redaelli explains why the recent peace agreement does not put an end to them.

Read more

News

The Guidelines on Investigating Violations of IHL are now available in Arabic, French, Spanish and Russian

14 January 2021

Co-published with the ICRC, they provide key guidance to States aiming to conduct investigations of IHL violations, but also to other bodies and individuals seeking a more detailed understanding of investigations in armed conflict.

Read more

Short Course

The Law of Non-International Armed Conflicts

15 April - 6 May 2021

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.

Read more

Séléka rebels patrol in the town of Bria, Central African Republic (CAR). Project

Human Rights Responsibilities and Armed Non-State Actors

Started in June 2018

This research aims at building a common understanding and vision as to how states and the relevant parts of the UN system can provide a concrete and practical framework to address human rights responsibilities of armed non-state actors.

Read more

Screenshot of the RULAC webpage Project

Rule of Law in Armed Conflicts (RULAC)

Started in May 2007

The Rule of Law in Armed Conflicts project (RULAC) is a unique online portal that identifies and classifies all situations of armed violence that amount to an armed conflict under international humanitarian law (IHL). It is primarily a legal reference source for a broad audience, including non-specialists, interested in issues surrounding the classification of armed conflicts under IHL.

Read more

Cover page of the Briefing Publication

Room for Manoeuvre? Promoting International Humanitarian Law and Accountability While at the United Nations Security Council: A Reflection on the Role of Elected Members

published on October 2020

Émilie Max

Read more

Cover page of the Annual Report 2019 Publication

Annual Report 2019

published on May 2020

Read more