From Words to Deeds: Exploring the Practice of Armed Non-State Actors and its Impact on the Implementation of International Law

Started in January 2017


An increasing number of international organizations and non-governmental organizations recognize the need to engage armed non-state actors (ANSAs) as a means of enhancing their respect for international humanitarian law (IHL) and human rights law.

The reasons for ANSAs’ lack of compliance with international law are diverse. They include, sometimes, sheer ignorance of the law and a lack of incentives to abide by the rules. Furthermore, while the state still has the primary responsibility to respect and ensure respect for international law in its territory, in some instances circumstances might not allow it to do so in practice. This is the case when a certain part of a state’s territory is outside its control for a prolonged period of time or when the state’s structures have totally collapsed. In these cases, the lack of clarity of the applicable legal framework weakens accountability and the possibility of obtaining reparations for the victims.


It is not uncommon for ANSAs to argue that either they have a different understanding and interpretation of international norms or they lack the capacity to implement them. Furthermore, certain ANSAs can express their commitment to a rule to which they are not in principle bound by international law (for example, the commitment not to use anti-vehicle mines or to abstain from using anti-personnel mines).

From a theoretical point of view, while international customary law is formed by state practice and opinio juris, reflecting on the practice and views of ANSAs is not deprived of a certain level of normativity. In fact, ANSAs might feel bound by the norms that they have agreed upon rather than by international treaties or international customary norms, as they did not participate in their elaboration. In this regard, the norms emerging from their own practice might have a higher chance of being implemented.

Against this background, this project aims to understand and study the practice and views of ANSAs on key norms of IHL and human rights law. It will also provide an outlook on the norms that are accepted or rejected by ANSAs, with a view to ensuring a better implementation of international law by these actors. In the longer term, the objective of the research is to provide material to elaborate on a possible ‘Model Code of Conduct’ for ANSAs.


The project will be conducted mainly through desk research. An advisory board composed of renowned experts and practitioners will supervise the process. In addition, interviews with selected ANSAs will be conducted in the field.


This project is conducted in partnership with the Swiss NGO Geneva Call.


Picture of Annyssa Bellal

Annyssa Bellal

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.


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

Cover of the Rules of Engagement: Protecting Civilians through Dialogue with Armed Non-State Actors

Rules of Engagement: Protecting Civilians through Dialogue with Armed Non-State Actors

October 2011

Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights

Download >


East Timor, Dili, burnt houses Short Course

The Law of Non-International Armed Conflicts and Other Contested Issues

26 April - May 2018

This course examines one of the main purpose of international humanitarian law (IHL), which is to mitigate human suffering caused by war. It enables a careful evaluation of the various IHL rules intended to help protect vulnerable persons, such as civilians and prisoners of war, as well as property during armed conflict.

Read more

North Kivu province, Kitchanga downtown. The insanitary conditions next to the market worsens the situation of the residents affected by the recent violence. Short Course

The Interplay between International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights

1- March 2018

This course focuses on the specific issues that arise in times of armed conflict regarding the respect, protection and fulfilment of human rights. It addresses key issues like the applicability of human rights in times of armed conflict; the possibilities of restricting human rights under systems of limitations and derogations; and the extraterritorial application of human rights law.

Read more

Peru, Ayacucho, Forensic Institut. With the help of the prosecutor's office staff, families try to identify the clothes of their missing relatives. Project

Standards of Proof in Fact Finding

Completed in January 2013

Several ad hoc fact-finding and inquiry commissions have been established to assess some of the most serious situations of human rights and humanitarian law violations across the world. With such mechanisms gaining influence, the question arises of whether a minimum formal standard of proof (or degree of certainty) exists or is required when such bodies adjudicate on such serious matters.

Read more

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

Improving the Protection of Persons with Disabilities during Armed Conflict

Started in May 2016

This project aims 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