The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.


The term insurgents describes a group of people who reject the authority of their State’s government. As a result of their activities, the government may enact exceptional measures to preserve public order. In such circumstances, the unrest may not yet have reached the threshold of violence to define an “armed conflict”; therefore, international humanitarian law (IHL) may not yet be applicable. Nonetheless, certain human rights and fundamental freedoms must always be guaranteed. Rules of IHL applicable to non-international armed conflicts can be enforced if the activities of the insurgents translate into acts of war of a certain intensity and duration (beyond “isolated and sporadic acts of violence,” APII Art. 1), especially if they trigger military retaliation on the part of the official authorities.

Insurgents belonging to non-state armed groups are not entitled by law to the status and privileges of combatants. This status can, however, be granted on an ad hoc basis by way of special agreement between the parties to the conflict, if insurgents meet the requirements established by international humanitarian law in defining organized armed forces under responsible command. National liberation movements can also claim the right and status of combatant and privileges of international humanitarian law applicable to international armed conflicts if they commit to applying the relevant Conventions and Protocols by way of unilateral declaration (API Art. 96.3).

CombatantsFundamental guaranteesInternal disturbances and tensionsInternational humanitarian lawNon-international armed conflictNon-state armed groupsParties to the conflictPrisoners of warSpecial agreement

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