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Compliance with IHL by Non-State Armed Groups: Some Practical Reflections at the 70th Anniversary of the 1949 Geneva Conventions

Published on August 21, 2019        Author: 

That non-State armed groups (NSAGs) engage in hostilities on a frequent basis is not news. Indeed, NSAGs are active in the majority of contemporary armed conflicts (at 19). What seems to have changed in the last few years is the increasing attention that the international community is paying to their behavior, largely due to the impact that they have on civilians. While it is undisputed that international humanitarian law (IHL) binds NSAGs (para 505), finding effective strategies to enhance their level of compliance remains challenging, especially considering that the baseline expectation is generally low (at 69).

Interestingly, while some NSAGs have been responsible for IHL violations, others have also shown a degree of compliance for certain rules during non-international armed conflicts (NIACs). As this year marks the 70th anniversary of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, some reflections related to how parties to armed conflicts – in this case, NSAGs – actually behave are in order.

Describing NSAGs’ Variations

Generally, compliance has been defined as “behavioral conformity with existing norms and regulations” (at 65). For NSAGs, this implies the observed match between their behavior and their international obligations.

As parties to armed conflicts, NSAGs should not be seen as entities that either violate or respect international law without exception. Instead, they may follow certain rules while disregarding others. For instance, a NSAG may respect the prohibition of using and recruiting children in hostilities, but may summarily execute detainees or take hostages. Similarly, a group may deliberately attack health care facilities and transports in breach of IHL, while prohibiting the forcible displacement of civilians. At the same time, these non-State entities often modify their behaviors throughout the hostilities, reflecting and increase or decrease in their level of compliance with humanitarian norms. Wood has identified that civilian victimization is “anticipated during moments in which the viability of the groups is threatened or when it faces significant military setbacks” (at 15). Variation is particularly evident during peace processes (here, for an example). When a NSAG looks for political recognition, it might adopt a different attitude than a group whose main purpose is to show its strength or to terrorize the civilian population living in the territory it controls.

Accordingly, compliance with IHL should be conceived as a spectrum, rather than an on/off switch. Read the rest of this entry…