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Role of Non-State Actors in Building Human Security
- Case of Armed Groups in Intra-State Wars

Claude Bruderlein
in Human Security Network
5 March 2000

"...the term "non-state actors" amalgamates a large number of very different actors with distinct roles in societies in conflict. Non-state actors include armed groups, NGOs, corporations, educational institutions, private donors, religious organizations, the scientific community, private individuals, the media and, increasingly, the internet community. Their few shared characteristics result from their distinct "unofficial" nature as compared to state actors, their greater flexibility and often unaccountability under national and international laws. There is an acute need to distinguish better the various types of non-state actors...This paper focuses on the armed groups as non-state actors engaged in violent action..."

[cf with view expressed by S. Muthucumaran that "the LTTE is an entity in control of territory and cannot be equated with non-state actors, a term reserved for groups such as multinational corporations, international institutions or other agencies such as Amnesty International or the World Wild Life Fund." ]

Executive Summary

As part of the project of analyzing the role of non-state actors in building human security, this paper reviews the role of armed groups in the protection of civilian populations in internal armed conflicts. It addresses the need to develop effective strategies to enhance the receptivity and compliance of armed groups to international standards. Various factors influencing the receptivity of armed groups are analyzed, including military, political, economical and cultural issues. Strategies of building the capacity of armed groups to protect civilians and putting pressure on armed groups are also reviewed


Human security has recently emerged as an innovative approach to address in a holistic manner the sources of insecurity affecting people worldwide. From the human security standpoint, the security of the individual is no longer defined exclusively within the realm of states and as a consequence of state security. The origins of today's insecurities are diverse, relating among others, to social, economical, environmental, and health factors. These insecurities increasingly transcend state borders and have global consequences.

The term "human security" may be new but the ideas that inspired it have developed over the last century and a half from the founding of the ICRC in the 1864 through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Human security takes the safety of people as its point of reference. For humans to be secure, their lives must be free from pervasive threats, violent and otherwise, to their rights and safety. The human security approach addresses non-traditional threats to people's security related to economic, food, health, and environmental factors as well as issues such as drugs, terrorism, organized crime, landmines and gender-based violence. It does not offer a single definition of the content of human security but aims to bring a more diversified perspective to security interests. Human security is about recognizing the importance the security needs of the people side by side with those of states, minimizing risks and taking preventive measures to reduce human vulnerabilities, and taking remedial action when preventive measures fail.

Non-state actors, from armed groups to private corporations and NGOs play a critical role in heightening or lessening human security. The measures required to enhance human security often call for action from numerous non-state actors, particularly NGOs, in addressing, for example, the needs of the displaced populations, advocating for stronger control of the arms trade, or assisting governments in preserving and restoring fragile environments. Human security can act as a platform to engage non-state actors, along with state actors, in addressing the causes of global insecurity.

Non-state actors are particularly well suited to engendering human security in the new world context. Indeed, in the case of failed states, they are the only actors who are present to do so. During internal conflicts, non-state actors benefit from closer involvement with the local community and greater potential for local capacity building than traditional actors. Non-state actors can and do play many roles in the protection of human security. For example, organizations such as the ICRC or Oxfam act as relief agencies when governments are unable to respond to emergency needs; NGOs such as the Community of SanEgidio facilitate negotiations between warring parties, and media efforts aim to rebuild peace, such as Radio Ijambo in Rwanda. The Internet community is an emerging and original actor engaged, for example, in the reunification of families1.

These actors function without the constraints of a narrow foreign policy mandate of state institutions, with increased access to areas inaccessible to official actors. They can talk to several parties at once without losing credibility. They can deal directly with grassroots populations and operate without political or public scrutiny. In addition, non-state actors can more effectively build a network with civil society representatives and focus with them on longer-term perspectives. They are less subject to complaints of outside interference or breaches of sovereignty. In short, these actors are often more flexible than state actors especially in internal conflict situations.

Evidently, the term "non-state actors" amalgamates a large number of very different actors with distinct roles in societies in conflict. Non-state actors include armed groups, NGOs, corporations, educational institutions, private donors, religious organizations, the scientific community, private individuals, the media and, increasingly, the internet community. Their few shared characteristics result from their distinct "unofficial" nature as compared to state actors, their greater flexibility and often unaccountability under national and international laws. There is an acute need to distinguish better the various types of non-state actors.

We can already observe the critical role played by non-state actors in various key areas of human security, including the illicit trade of small arms, the recruitment of child soldiers, and the use of landmines. The lead taken by non-state actors in the establishment of the International Criminal Court and the adoption of the Ottawa Treaty on the prohibition of anti-personnel mines are only illustrations of the growing importance of their role. Efforts should be devoted to understand this role better and to identify strategies to take full advantage of their contributions to the elaboration and implementation of international standards.

This paper focuses on the armed groups as non-state actors engaged in violent action. It deals specifically with the role and responsibility of armed groups with regard to the implementation of international humanitarian and human rights standards in situations of internal armed conflict. The paper is limited to this particular type of non-state actor and these circumstances to illustrate the requirements and benefits of a strategy engaging non-state actors on human security issues. It is hoped that this exercise will inspire further attempts to develop new strategies to engage these and other non-state actors on human security issues.

In a first section, this paper examines strategies to engage armed groups in adhering to humanitarian law, a result that would greatly improve human security among the population at risk. It then examines the complexity and diversity of armed groups and the inherent vagueness of international law regarding non-state actors, analyzing the opportunities and difficulties encountered in engaging armed groups on humanitarian and human rights standards. In the final section, the paper reviews the main strategies for seeking the implementation of international standards by armed groups.

Armed Groups in Internal Armed Conflicts

Currently, one of the most dramatic threats to human security is internal armed conflict. In 1998 alone, violent conflicts took place in at least 25 countries. Out of these armed conflicts, 23 were internal, engaging one or more non-state armed groups2. A key feature of internal conflicts is the widespread violation of humanitarian and human rights by armed groups, from rebel movements to private militias3.

With the proliferation of weapons, especially small arms and land mines, and the erosion of state control, threats to human security are increased both as people are the direct targets of violence, and as a result of the organized crime and random violence which occurs in these chaotic conditions. Armed groups are certainly not accountable for all violence perpetrated against civilians, but their presence among civilians plays a definite role in blurring the dividing line between combatants and non-combatants, the basic concept on which humanitarian protection rests. In this context, understanding and promoting the responsibilities of armed groups toward civilians has become a crucial element of protection strategies4.

Despite the increased role of non-state armed groups in internal conflicts, international humanitarian law (IHL) and human rights standards offer only limited opportunities to engage armed groups toward compliance, whereas a collection of legal instruments has been developed to supply state actors with a comprehensive framework guiding the conduct of their combatants in armed conflicts. This discrepancy between state and non-state actors reveals the extent to which the development of humanitarian law has been subjugated to political considerations, denying any significant protection function to armed groups compared to state actors. Despite the critical role of armed groups in internal conflicts, human rights law is de jure applicable only to state entities and IHL offers only general principles of protection under common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions and some rules of engagement in Additional Protocol II. Moreover, the conditions for the application of IHL are often not met in low-intensity conflicts

Most armed groups have been barred from participating in conferences on international standards applicable to armed conflicts and contacts with armed groups remain under intense political pressure from many sides. The Rome Conference on the Establishment of the International Criminal Court provides a recent illustration of States' reluctance to recognize the role of non-state armed groups in the implementation of international standards.

While hundreds of non-governmental organizations were represented at the Rome Conference among the more than 130 state delegations, several in an official capacity, no representatives of armed groups were present. The Statute adopted at the Conference in July 1998 offers very few provisions for engaging armed groups, imposing obligations only on States and individuals. In particular, the Statute confers no legal authority on non-state actors in the prosecution of war crimes despite the fact that the leadership of armed groups is often the only body that could actually exert control over non-state combatants. One can legitimately question the practical relevance of these legal developments in situations where governments have lost their capacity to bring non-state criminals to trial, or have relinquished this authority as part of a peace process, as in Sierra Leone regarding the RUF combatants.

Arguably, most armed groups would probably be unable to fulfill adequately their obligations under international treaties, due to their lack of capacity or willingness to respect these standards in their operations. As this same observation also applies in large part to many state actors, particularly in complex emergencies, the opportunity to engage armed groups actively in the protection of civilians in situations of armed conflicts should nevertheless be sought. Armed groups are essentially involved in the use of force outside legal and legitimate frameworks. Efforts to engage these groups in the respect of national or international standards may appear at best naive, at worst corrupted by political considerations. Yet, the long-standing experience of humanitarian organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other major humanitarian organizations engaging with various armed groups has demonstrated the potential benefits of such a dialogue for the civilian population. From a practical perspective, armed groups remain key actors for protection strategies:

as de facto governments within the territory under their control;
as military entities active in combat;
as authorities responsible for the protection of humanitarian operations; and,
as political entities which may eventually be party to a peace settlement.

Strategies for Seeking the Adherence of Armed Groups to International Standards

Many practitioners argue that one should distinguish two basic steps in approaching armed groups on humanitarian issues. First, one must assess the main characteristics of the group to be approached and make a first determination of its cohesion to evaluate the opportunity to engage in a productive dialogue with the group. Although this determination may sometimes require preliminary contacts with the group, the aim is to develop a critical outlook on the merit of a dialogue with an armed group aside from the stance of its leadership on humanitarian issues. Once this preliminary determination has been made, plans to engage the group on a humanitarian dialogue should be elaborated, taking into account various factors influencing the group's receptivity to international standards

Defining the main characteristics of armed groups

Most practitioners agree that the main characteristics of armed groups should be identified prior to engagement. However, as armed groups differ considerably, from Mafia-like militias to religious movements and corporate armies, common descriptions should not be elaborated too specifically. Furthermore, the purpose of the definition should not be to exclude particular groups from protection strategies but to identify minimum organizational standards that would make contacts worthwhile. In this context, the main characteristics of armed groups can be described as follows:

a) A basic command structure:

The combatants are organized according to a unitary command structure and follow its instructions. The commanders have at least a minimum of control over the conduct of the combatants, particularly regarding the group's behavior toward civilians. A dialogue on humanitarian issues with fragmented groups and groups with strong internal dissension are likely to be unproductive, if not counterproductive.

b) The use of violence to achieve political ends:

The group is engaged in a political struggle, that is, an attempt to redefine the political and legal basis of the society through the use of violence. Violence is often employed not as a military tactic aiming for a takeover, but as a means to render the political status quo unsustainable. Violence in this context can take innumerable forms, particularly toward civilians, including killing, raping, kidnapping, torture, extortion, attacks on crops or water sources, local markets, and toward civilian infrastructures such as attacks on schools, administrative offices, ambushes on commercial roads, power lines, etc. Combatants often engage in parallel criminal activities, using force to extract resources for their own benefits, through extortion, drug trafficking, illegal timber or diamond trade, etc. In many conflicts, such as in Colombia or in Myanmar, the dual character of the combatants' activities questions the cohesion of the group as a political entity. The extent to which combatants are allowed to engage in independent criminal activities is a fair indicator of the degree of control of the leadership over the group.

c) Independence from state control:

The issue of state control is often problematic. In some situations, it may be difficult to distinguish between autonomous pro-government forces, such as paramilitary groups in Colombia, and government-controlled paramilitary forces, such as the South Lebanese Army in Israeli-occupied Lebanon. Government control of paramilitary groups is difficult to assess since it is often designed in part to make the government unaccountable for the acts committed by these forces. Logistical support from government forces to paramilitary groups, such as air transport, is an important but partial indicator of government control. The degree of the control of the leadership over the conduct of the combatants remains a key indicator of the independence of the group.

Practitioners generally encourage caution with groups whose characteristics fail to meet one or more of these criteria, particularly with the newly created groups, which often emerge within collapsed states. Armed groups that are unable to command their combatants and impose restraints over their conduct are unlikely to engage constructively in a dialogue on humanitarian issues. Such a dialogue may also be dangerous for those conducting it. Groups to which this applies include irregular and disorganized combatants, criminal-type gangs, bandits and looters. Inevitably, the violence perpetrated by these types of groups requires a more coercive response, which falls primarily under the responsibility of states to restore and maintain public order within their territory. International actors may also be involved under Chapter VII of the UN Charter if the national government is unable or unwilling to fulfill this responsibility. Humanitarian organizations have learned through bitter experience the risks incurred with the presence of these loose groups, where humanitarian personnel represent an easy prey for predatory groups.

Similarly, some have argued that the willingness of armed groups to abide by fundamental humanitarian principles should also be examined before engaging in contacts, particularly with violent armed groups notorious for ruthless and wanton conduct toward civilians. Contacts with these groups may only provide them with political legitimacy without any realistic hope of improved behavior. Others, such as the ICRC, believe that the evaluation of this characteristic requires at least a minimal exchange of views with the leadership of the group and one should not forfeit from the outset any opportunity to seek compliance to humanitarian standards from armed groups from this consideration alone.

Evaluating the receptivity of armed groups to international standards

Once an armed group has been selected to be approached for a dialogue on humanitarian issues, the success of the strategy depends largely on a thorough analysis of the group's receptivity to humanitarian and human rights standards. The group's receptivity appears to be contingent on military, political, economic, social and cultural factors. Understanding the dynamic of the group in each of these areas is essential for an evaluation of the willingness and capacity of the group to abide by humanitarian and human rights standards.

Military factors

Beyond the organizational characteristics of the groups mentioned in the preceding section, there are additional military factors to be considered, in particular relating to the military and tactical position of the group in the field.

From a military perspective, the principle that combatants should be separated from civilians often makes little sense to non-state armed groups. On the contrary, non-state armed groups rely heavily on their proximity to civilian populations:

to avert attacks from other parties (e.g. Sri Lanka);
to sustain themselves in economic and human terms (e.g. Sierra Leone, Sudan);
to consolidate their control over a territory and its resources; (e.g. Colombia, Myanmar); and/or,
to exert pressure on the adverse party, by terrorizing and displacing populations (e.g. DRC, Burundi, Uganda)

Arguably, the receptivity of armed groups to humanitarian standards in military terms involves a capacity to dissociate to some extent the groups' combatants from the surrounding civilian population. This capacity depends on factors including:

the vulnerability of the group to attacks, aerial or otherwise;
its dependency on domestic resources as opposed to foreign support (e.g. human resources from refugee camps in border areas rather than local villages);
the group's control over a territory; and,
the military advantages to be gained from displacing large populations.

Humanitarian organizations and other actors seeking the adherence of armed groups to international standards may not be in a position to influence these factors significantly. However, an analysis of the military position of the group within these parameters facilitates the planning of negotiations with armed groups. Humanitarian organizations can hardly expect armed groups under strong pressure in the field to make landmark concessions regarding their distance from the civilian population. However, armed groups may be inclined to consider practical measures to sustain the population in time of crises to prevent forced displacements of population by government forces. The extent to which humanitarian organizations should consider or even participate in such operations is always controversial. Engagement with armed groups should always proceed with full awareness of the military reality. Humanitarian organizations should be prepared to propose innovative arrangements (e.g. "humanitarian zones", "zone of tranquility", humanitarian corridors, etc.) when engaging with these groups to avert the worst abuses of principles of humanitarian assistance by the parties to the conflict

Political factors

The receptivity of armed groups to international standards also depends on their organizational structure. Armed groups can hardly be designated as a single political category considering the extreme diversity of their objectives and modus operandi. Interestingly, the willingness of armed groups to engage on humanitarian issues depends partly on the internal political dynamic of the group. More sophisticated groups tend to be more inclined toward standards and codes of conduct whereas groups with vaguer political objectives are more reluctant to engage on standards they find counterintuitive. Some groups have clear political objectives (e.g.: FARC or ELN in Colombia), whereas others are filling a political vacuum left by disintegrated states (e.g. Somalia, Afghanistan). A critical aspect of efforts to promote the protection of civilians is the extent to which armed groups are seeking to gain and maintain basic political legitimacy within their constituency such as tribal area, ethnic or social group, region, or within the international community.

Some would argue that the political legitimacy of armed groups depends on their respect for certain norms of behavior and the conformity of their action to societal values, including basic humanitarian values. This legitimacy is likely to be harmed by the brutal behavior of the group's combatants against civilians. To enhance their political stance, some groups will seek to develop humanitarian and social services for the population and refrain from attacking civilian targets. This explains the PLO's change of strategy after the deposition of its signature of the four Geneva Conventions in 1989. Other groups, such as the RUF in Sierra Leone and UNITA in Angola, to the contrary, entirely disregard issues of legitimacy and focus solely on access to natural resources for their sustainability.

Finally, the receptivity of armed groups to international standards relies to a certain extent on the structure of their leadership. Armed groups with a single cult-like leader, such as the LTTE in Sri Lanka, are unlikely to engage in a dialogue on humanitarian standards whereas armed groups with a broader political leadership are more likely to be willing to comply such as the FARC in Colombia or SPLA in Sudan. Leaders who are authoritarian in their treatment of their own members often behave in a similarly suppressive fashion toward the civilian population under their control. Conversely, a group with a broadly democratic leadership structure, which aspires to be a viable political entity, will be more open to reform and dialogue on the conduct of its combatants.

Humanitarian organizations can have a significant influence on the political dynamic of an armed group. They can maintain and nourish contacts within more progressive segments of the group. They may favor the establishment of internal processes for dialogue on humanitarian issues5. In this context, one might consider encouraging armed groups to establish a "humanitarian wing" to serve as the basis of a group's "health and social services" with which a dialogue on technical matters could be engaged. Such a dialogue may promote stricter compliance to international standards within the ranks of the group

Economic factors

Although their influence seems evident, little attention has been given by humanitarian organizations to the economic motives of armed groups. The reason for this is that wars have been traditionally approached as tragic events, described in terms of human and economic costs. To understand and develop protection strategies on the basis of the economic motives of armed groups requires a singularly different perspective on war, where not only costs but also benefits are acknowledged. Evidently, many humanitarian organizations are not comfortable with this type of calculation.

The prevalence of economic motives challenges the traditional assumption that wars are conducted primarily to defeat the enemy. In many cases such as Sierra Leone, DRC and Angola, winning the war by defeating the enemy has become a secondary goal. Wars, and internal wars in particular, have become lucrative enterprises where combatants are more likely to survive and prosper than civilians. Understanding the political economy of civil wars becomes as critical to the planning of protection activities as understanding political and military motives.

Fortunately, governments and international organizations can interfere substantially in the cost/benefit analysis of armed groups in support of protection strategies through, for example, the imposition of trade embargoes or financial sanctions. Threats of coercive economic measures by the group's sponsors may also provide considerable leverage on the conduct of the group's combatants. The increasing interaction between governments, the private sector and humanitarian and human rights organizations may also provide indications of practical measures to seek a greater compliance of armed groups to international standards based on their economic and commercial affiliation.

Social and cultural factors

Armed groups are inherently social entities and their existence has to be understood within their social environment. A critical objective of protection strategies is to embark armed groups on a path of compliance based on their social and cultural values, without interfering with the political issue at conflict: their recognition as legitimate political actors. For example, although Taliban fighters and Northern Alliances forces in Afghanistan have been fighting each other for years on ideological and religious grounds, they are far closer to each other in social and cultural terms than with any other groups or entities in the world. Understanding the social and cultural nature of armed groups is undoubtedly the most important asset of protection strategies. To exert influence on the perception of armed groups of their obligations under international law, humanitarian organizations, and the international community in general, must be in a position to appreciate the social and cultural environment of these groups. In many situations, the basic principles of protection strategies can be presented to armed groups in a way that makes sense in social and cultural terms. Interpreting international standards in social and cultural terms does not require their perversion. On the contrary, it may provide numerous ways of enticing armed groups toward compliance. In these terms, compliance to international standards involves:

saving the life and preserving the dignity of civilians as an essential aspect of the long-term accomplishment of the armed group;
improving the social stability in the zones under their control and promote peaceful behaviors;
improving the effectiveness and cohesiveness of the armed group as a social organization and reinforce its social cohesion;
improving the group's legitimacy as a political actor at the regional, national and international level.

Some organizations, particularly human rights NGOs, tend to oppose tactics that emphasize the social and cultural perspectives of armed groups, especially when this perspective contravenes fundamental human rights standards. Although a constructive dialogue on humanitarian issues should allow all parties to express their perspective and explain their position, humanitarian organizations should remain cautious when engaging armed groups on cultural grounds and avoid providing legitimacy to practices that are considered illegal under international law. Agreements signed with armed groups should always recall from the outset the prevalence of international standards.

Ensuring respect for international standards by armed groups.

Strategies to gain the adherence of armed groups to basic humanitarian standards must include a series of practical steps for all parties to ensure compliance to these standards. The real test of the compliance of armed groups takes place in the field. Without mechanisms to follow-up and monitor a group's commitments, most of the provisions of humanitarian agreements are likely to remain lettres mortes. The most complex and underdeveloped aspect of these strategies pertains to the actual implementation of humanitarian standards by armed groups.

Similarly to interactions with governments, humanitarian and human rights organizations can proceed on the basis of two distinct approaches to the implementation of international standards by armed groups. Once the armed groups have agreed to comply with international standards:

They can engage in a dialogue with the armed groups and assist them in building their capacity to respect humanitarian and human rights norms; or,
They can aim at building pressure on armed groups by shaming them in front of the international public and their own constituency for violations of international standards.

Each of these approaches has its protagonists and its own record of proven successes and deplorable failures. The two approaches differ with respect to their perception of the main obstacles to the implementation of international standards. The first considers the main problem to be a lack of capacity to ensure respect for international standard which requires buttressing; the latter considers a lack of willingness as the obstacle, indicating the need for the exertion of political pressure to obtain respect for the rules. Shaming an armed group that is unable to implement the rules of IHL, for example because of ignorance of the rules by the combatants, will serve no useful purpose. Assistance to a group that is unwilling to respect these rules, for example by providing dissemination services to the combatants, will be used only by the group only for its political value. Therefore, a careful analysis of the most promising path (building capacity vs. building pressure) should be made at the outset.

Building capacity

Practically, responsibility for the instruction and supervision of field commanders lies with the political leadership of each group. Equally, responsibility for the enforcement of the rules and the prosecution of violators also lies with this leadership. This responsibility is the basis for the group's accountability for the respect of international standards. It involves the ability to investigate the alleged violations and the capacity to impose corrective measures, including the prosecution and punishment of accused violators. The participation of the group's leadership in this effort helps re-enforce its sense of accountability.

Common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 provides a practical framework for this type of exercise. It calls on all parties to internal armed conflicts to take part in the implementation of the fundamental provisions of IHL with no influence on "the legal status of the Parties to the conflict". Under Common Article 3, an organized armed group is considered a full Party to the implementation of the fundamental provisions of IHL and an equal stakeholder to States with regard to humanitarian issues, without being conferred full legal status under international law. Armed groups can sign official agreements under IHL with international actors, such as the ICRC or UN humanitarian agencies, and engage their responsibility on humanitarian issues, providing some international legitimacy as far as humanitarian issues are concerned. More recent examples of this approach can be found in various agreements and memorandums of understanding with armed groups on humanitarian standards7.

Strategies to build the capacity of armed groups to implement international standards begin with the establishment of a dialogue with the leadership. Personal links with the leadership and the development of contacts over time are often required to build at least a minimum of trust. Third parties, such as members of the Diaspora, churches, political parties, or NGOs, may provide useful assistance in establishing these contacts. This process must be clear in its objectives and principles of engagement both in relation to the armed group, and with respect to the international community that may raise doubts or set obstacles to such endeavors. Building the capacity of armed groups to respect international norms requires the ability of the international community to deliver such assistance. An organization should avoid promising support it cannot afford. In this context, for example, the demobilization of child soldiers requires not only withdrawing their weapons, but the provision of educational and nutritional programs for years to come.

Building pressure

International public pressure ("name and shame") is a preferred tool among human rights NGOs. Shaming armed groups essentially questions their legitimacy within their own constituency or domestic support group, their Diaspora and the international community in general. This action may have a significant impact on the behavior of groups that are particularly dependent on international support for their war efforts such as the Rebel movements in Southern Sudan and their support from the US government and American Christian support groups. It has a much more limited impact on groups that rely on local constituencies that are not responsive to international public opinion such as the Taliban Movement. Some have argued that the indiscriminate use of shaming may be counterproductive and encourage armed groups to rely increasingly on forms of local extortion for their sustainability (e.g.: LTTE in Sri Lanka, RUF in Sierra Leone).

Human rights organizations and humanitarian agencies are in fact complementary in their approach. Without the pressure of advocacy groups, most offers of humanitarian agencies to engage with armed groups would have little impact, or this impact would quickly erode in the face of military, political and economic factors previously mentioned. To ensure that both strategies are used in an optimal manner, efforts should be made to distinguish humanitarian organizations from advocacy groups, in terms of institution and mandate. The establishment of a dialogue with armed groups is a long and tedious operation. Any reference made to shaming acts in this context by similar organizations only complicates the work of humanitarian organizations engaging into this process.


This paper attempts to elaborate a set of strategies to engage armed groups in the implementation of humanitarian and human rights standards. These strategies will remain largely experimental as the type of situations and armed groups evolve constantly. Therefore, these observations should not be seen as a recipe for engaging armed groups, but rather as a series of reflections from practitioners on their own experience.

However, engaging armed groups on humanitarian issues should not be considered an experience of limited value. On the contrary, establishing a concrete and sustainable dialogue with armed groups on the protection of civilians may well represent the most important challenge facing human security. Among all sources of insecurity, the threats posed by internal armed conflict to civilians are the most tangible problem to be addressed, far simpler than issues related to poverty, global warming, or the arms trade. It is because of the tangible and humane character of the benefits of this engagement that we are summoned to approach armed groups with a new perspective on people security.

Several strategies are available to engage armed groups on humanitarian issues, from building pressure on the groups as political entities to building their capacity as administrative organizations. Each of these strategies requires a careful analysis of the vulnerabilities of armed groups and their receptiveness to international standards. More importantly, they require serious efforts in coordinating the actions of the international community to avoid neutralizing each others' progress with respect to armed groups. The international community is unlikely to adhere to such a comprehensive agenda in a concerted manner. Ultimately, the effectiveness of such action relies on the professionalism of state and non-state actors in the field.


1- The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) created a website to help re-establish contact between family members in the former Yugoslavia. To assist persons wishing to locate their relatives, computers were installed in ICRC offices in Albania, Macedonia, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. See http://www.familylinks.icrc.org . Moreover, a team assembled by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) provided Internet service to Kosovo barely 100 days after the arrival of UN peacekeepers. The project offered free, reliable and inexpensive communications to local organizations and was instrumental in efforts to reunite families. See the Kosovo Internet Project's Web site.
2- See the SIPRI Yearbook 1999, Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, Oxford University Press, 1999.
3- In his Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflicts, the UN Secretary-General noted that: "In many of today's armed conflicts, civilian casualties and the destruction of civilian infrastructure are not simply the byproducts of war, but the consequence of the deliberate targeting of non-combatants. The violence is frequently perpetrated by non-state actors, including irregular forces and privately financed militias". See UN document S/1999/957 of 8 September 1999, p. 2.
4- To further this understanding, the Henry-Dunant Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, in cooperation with the Human Security Program at the Harvard University, hosted an expert workshop on the role and responsibilities of armed groups toward civilians in Geneva on 14 - 15 December 1999. The results of the workshop were further reviewed at a conference organized by the Henry-Dunant Center and Wilton Park in February 2000. This policy paper is based partly on the discussions conducted in both forums.
5- See, for example, the establishment of a humanitarian commission of the SPLA to engage with OLS Sudan, for details refer to the Operation Lifeline Sudan Reports available on ReliefWeb at www.reliefweb.int . or the creation of the Palestinian Red Crescent in 1968, see http://www.palestinercs.org/History.htm .
6- See, for example, the UN-Taliban Joint Technical Commission established under the MoU of May 1998 on health and education issues in Afghanistan.
7- These memorandums include the ICRC Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992), UNICEF Ground Rules with respect to Sudan (1995), OCHA MoU/ Afghanistan (1998), and OCHA Principles of Engagement with respect to the Democratic Republic of Congo (1998).

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