Nonstate Armed Groups
There is no internationally agreed definition of non-state armed groups in international treaties. This term refers to a non-state party to an international or non-international armed conflict. Humanitarian law uses the term of “armed forces” to designate and define the combatants fighting within a State party to the conflict.
Non-state armed groups play a major role in contemporary international and non-international armed conflicts. When a non-state armed group acts in fact under the control or on behalf of a foreign State, international courts consider that such State will be held responsible for those acts and that the conflict will be internationalized.
Under international humanitarian law
In noninternational armed conflicts
Additional Protocol II to the 1949 Geneva Conventions (Additional Protocol II) defines non-state armed groups in its Article 1.1 as “ dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups ”, who fight regular armed forces or against each other on the territory of one or several States. In order to be considered as parties to the conflict, these entities have to fulfil some conditions, namely be i) under a responsible command, ii) exercise such control over a part of its territory as to iii) enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations and to implement this Protocol (Article 1.1).
Those criteria aim at distinguishing armed conflicts from situations of internal disturbances or tensions in which confrontations are not organized, structured or planned by one or several identifiable commands.
The objective of those criteria is also to recall that a non-state armed group that carries out military operations has obligations of organization, which include rules of conduct and respect for humanitarian law (IHL) in its own actions in combat. Indeed in this type of conflict, Additional Protocol II compels all the parties to the conflict, whether State or non-State parties, to comply with the rules of IHL. Nonetheless, States and non-state armed groups do not have the same capacities and thus the same degree of responsibilities in terms of respect for IHL. For example, the rules relative to detention depend on the territorial control capacities of the non-state armed groups. The criteria set out by Additional Protocol II provide that a non-state armed group must respect a certain level of organization. The criminal responsibility of commanders will be evaluated with respect to the level of organization and control of such groups and their territorial control capacities. Those criteria, however, do not modify the qualification of non-international armed conflict and the obligations attached hereto for the concerned State. If the level of organization of the non-state armed group is challenged, the State party will not be relieved from its obligations of respecting Common Article 3 and Additional Protocol II in its own military activities.
In its Manual on Humanitarian Negotiations with Armed Groups (2006), the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) clarified the following elements of evaluation: non-state armed group shall have i) the potential to employ arms in the use of force to achieve political, ideological or economic objectives, ii) are not within the formal military structures of States, State alliances or intergovernmental organizations, iii) are not under the control of the State(s) in which they operate, iv) have a group identity and v) are subjected to a chain of command. This definition adds the ideas that armed groups are primarily motivated by political goals and operate outside effective State control.
In international armed conflicts
Since 1977, humanitarian law recognizes a specific status for national liberation movements who fight against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes in the exercise of their right of self-determination. Additional Protocol I of 1977 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions assimilates those situations to international armed conflicts and allows the members of such groups to be granted combatant status if they carry arms openly and respect the laws of war. It is very important to distinguish those movements from other non-state armed groups, which fight against their own government or against other groups in the context of a non-international armed conflict.
It is also important to make the distinction between non-state armed groups and Private Military Companies, which do not intervene on their own motion but at the request of a party to the conflict.
Under international criminal law
The International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda have set out and clarified the definition of armed groups in their case law. They have notably clarified the elements linked to the level of organization.
International Criminal Tribunals have contented that while a certain level of organization is required ( Limaj et al. case , ICTY, IT-03-66-T, November 30 2005, para.89), non-state armed groups do not need a hierarchical system of military organization similar to those of regular armed forces to be considered as such ( Musema Case , ICTR-96-13-T, January 27 2000, para.257).
In the Haradinaj et al. Case (April 3, 2008, para.60), the ICTY Trial Chamber found that an “organized armed group” can be characterized by the following factors:
- The existence of a command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms within the group;
- The existence of a headquarters;
- The fact that the group controls a certain territory;
- The ability of the group to gain access to weapons, other military equipment, recruits and military training;
- Its ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations, including troop movements and logistics;
- Its ability to define a unified military strategy and use military tactics and;
- Its ability to speak with one voice and negotiate and conclude agreements such as cease-fire or peace accords.
Those criteria were confirmed and developed in the Boskovski and Tarculovski case (ICTY, IT-04-82-T, July 10 2007, paras.194-195).
The criteria set out in these decisions are mainly linked with the determination of the individual criminal responsibility of the members of non-state armed groups towards war crimes. Therefore they concern international criminal law rather than humanitarian law. Nonetheless, they should not be used to subject the application of obligations under Additional Protocol II to supplementary conditions on the level of organization of non-state armed groups.
This jurisprudence gives useful criteria to verify that those non-state armed groups do not act in fact under the control or on behalf of the State party to the conflict or a foreign State. This link of subordination modifies the nature of the conflict and the nature of the criminal responsibility of superiors and States.
Despite those elements of definition, non-state armed groups are very diverse depending on the context in which they operate. These differences notably affect their level of centralization and organization, their capacities to train members, exercise a territorial control or maintain close links with the civilian population.
Status of nonstate armed groups parties to armed conflict
As parties to the conflict, non-state armed groups must respect certain obligations in regard to international humanitarian law.
Members of such groups benefit from the fundamental guarantees provided by IHL in the context of their participation in hostilities and if they are hors de combat .
The main issue lies is in the determination of their status. Indeed States have not accepted to grant combatant status to members of non-state armed groups in humanitarian law instruments. Thus they have a hybrid status and remain under the jurisdiction of the domestic law of the State against which they are fighting, which consider them as criminals.
- Non-recognition of combatant status in IHL for non-state armed groups
The status of non-state armed groups in humanitarian law is greatly influenced by the legal and political asymmetry that exists between them and States.
The law of non-international armed conflicts does not recognize either the status of combatants to members of non-state armed groups, or the rights attached to it, i.e. prisoner of war status. This refusal expressed by States means that those groups remain subject to domestic law, which considers them as criminals because they have taken up arms against the State. This results in a legal unbalance unfavorable to the imposition of reciprocal obligations under humanitarian law. States are tempted to use all necessary material, military and judicial means at their disposal to maintain or restore public order.
Under international humanitarian law, members of non-state armed groups paradoxically belong to the category of civilians. But they lose most of the protection attached to this status—at least the protection against direct attack—while they directly participate in hostilities. However, the non-recognition of the combatant status does not release non-state armed groups from respecting IHL as parties to the conflict. Moreover, this does not deprive them from certain protections provided by IHL for persons hors de combat ( infra ).
In 2010, the ICRC published the Interpretive Guidance on the Notion of Direct Participation in Hostilities under International Humanitarian Law. This Guidance points out the absence of consensus on this notion and makes 10 recommendations to clarify the most controversial points. The second recommendation establishes a difference between civilians who take or do not take part in hostilities and members of non-state armed groups who are party to the conflict. It provides that “ all persons who are not members of State armed forces or organized armed groups of a party to the conflict are civilians and, therefore, entitled to protection against direct attack unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities ”. In order to ensure the protection of civilians, the ICRC makes the distinction between an “exceptional” participation of civilians in hostilities and the “continuous” participation of non-state armed groups (“continuous combat function”). The 7th recommendation of the Guidance provides that “ civilians lose protection against direct attack for the duration of each specific act amounting to direct participation in hostilities, whereas members of organized armed groups belonging to a non-State party to an armed conflict cease to be civilians and lose protection against direct attack, for as long as they assume their continuous combat function ”. The notion of continuous participation in hostilities was notably developed by the Israel Supreme Court to justify the practice of targeted killings.
- Recognition of the status of Party to the conflict
Only States can sign and ratify international conventions; however they are still bound by humanitarian law rules when they fight against a non-state armed group. Indeed, humanitarian law distinguishes between the notion of Parties to the conflict and High Contracting Parties, the latter referring to States who signed the Geneva Conventions. The status of Parties to the conflict applies without distinction to States and non-state actors involved in the conflict (GCIV art.3; APII art.1).
In those situations, there is no reciprocity, and the State remains bound by its obligations towards a non-state party to the conflict that by nature cannot sign the conventions.
Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions (Common Article 3), which applies in non-international armed conflicts, sets out mandatory obligations and minimum guarantees for parties to the conflict, whatever their nature. Common Article 3 does not entail specific requirements regarding the level of organization of non-State parties to the conflict. This is not a deficiency but rather a choice to avoid delaying the application of Common Article 3 through debate and controversies on this issue. This is why Common Article 3 encourages all the parties to the conflict, whether State or non-State, to bring into force all or part of humanitarian law provisions by means of special agreements. The application of the provisions of Common Article 3 does not affect the legal status of the Parties to the conflict, which means that it does not imply a mutual recognition between the State party and the non-State party to the conflict. Additional Protocol II completes the obligations and guarantees of non-state armed groups as parties to non-international armed conflicts.
Furthermore, the development of customary international humanitarian law creates universal obligations freed from the formalism of State ratification. The Customary International humanitarian Law Study (“customary IHL study”) published by the ICRC in 2005 extended most of the rules applicable to international armed conflicts to non-international armed conflicts. Thus, in addition to the 24 articles of Additional Protocol II, 141 rules of customary law (over 161) are applicable to non-international armed conflicts. Those rules apply also to non-state armed groups.
There is a steady belief that non-state armed groups are unwilling to respect IHL because they did not participate in its codification, and because this law was drafted by States against which they are in conflict. Nonetheless this idea does not take into account the diversity and heterogeneity of those groups and their often very prosaic preoccupations.
Non-state armed groups are vulnerable because domestic laws criminalize them, yet they need to obtain international guarantees. In fact, they are often not opposed to humanitarian law rules as long as they do not constitute an obstacle or weaken the efficiency of military operations. Their tendency to respect or violate IHL is linked to their temptation to weaken their adversary with the most efficient and less risky means, even if they are not allowed to do so by law. Humanitarian law and international criminal law aim at finding a balance between the necessary international accountability of those armed groups and the refusal of States to grant those groups any specific status or legitimacy at national level.
Finally, international criminal law gives elements of answer as to the issue of the legally binding character of humanitarian law rules on non-state armed groups. The most serious violations of humanitarian law constitute war crimes for which their authors and superiors will be held responsible.
War crimes and crimes against humanity comprise crimes perpetrated in all types of conflict, whether international or non-international. They include acts committed by members of non-state armed groups.
Rights and obligations of nonstate armed groups in IHL
International humanitarian law does not provide a particular status to members of non-state armed groups in situation of non-international conflicts. Contrary to members of national liberation movements in international armed conflicts, members of non-state armed groups operating in non-international armed conflicts cannot enjoy the prisoner of war status if they are captured (GCIII art.4).
Members of non-state armed groups are however protected by several provisions provided by Additional Protocol II concerning civilians (1) and persons hors de combat (2).
Members of those groups are entitled the protection granted to these categories of protected persons. In exchange, they must respect the same rules towards civilians or combatants who fall under their control.
The content of the obligations imposed on members of non-state armed groups varies depending on the qualification of the conflict, the level of organization of the group and its capacity to exercise territorial control. Non-state armed groups must respect at a minimum the guarantees provided by Common Article 3. If its level of organization and its capacity to exercise territorial control are sufficient to enable it to respect humanitarian law, it must also respect the rules provided by Additional Protocol II.
This obligation applies to individual members and their superiors, as provided by humanitarian law and international criminal law.
International jurisprudence has also recognized that customary international humanitarian law prescribes that all individuals involved in an armed conflict must comply with humanitarian law rules, whether those individuals act on behalf of a State or a non-State actor and whether or not they have consented to be bound by these rules (Special Court for Sierra Leone, Prosecutor v. Sam Hinga Norman , 31 May 2004, para.22).
Protection and obligations as “civilians participating” in the hostilities
As above-mentioned, Additional Protocol II does not grant combatant status to members of non-state armed groups. For this reason, those groups do not have any legal incentive to distinguish themselves from the population and carry their arms openly during combat. Therefore they belong to the category provided by article 13.3 of Additional Protocol II concerning civilians directly participating in hostilities. As such, they lose their protection as civilians during their participation in hostilities. This means that during this period of time, they can be attacked and captured. Besides, they can be detained, interrogated, tried and convicted by national tribunals because of this participation in hostilities.
This provision is relevant to reflect the exceptional and temporary participation of civilians in certain types of hostilities, such as revolutions or liberation movements. This provision is however more difficult to apply to members of non-state armed groups who have a continuous combat function. The risk is to create a legal fiction that would jeopardize the whole category of civilians. It is for this reason that the Interpretive Guidance on the Notion of Direct Participation in Hostilities published by the ICRC in 2010 distinguishes between civilians who participate in hostilities and members of non-state armed groups who do so.
This notion illustrates the asymmetry that exists between the military and judicial means put in place by States, and the non-state armed groups’ ability to challenge those States. It strengthens the responsibility of governmental forces regarding the extent and form of their recourse to force against civilians. This notion also implies that humanitarian law and human rights law are complementary; States must abide by those rules in a complementary manner, notably concerning the right to life or the judicial guarantees on detention.
The complementarity between the rules of humanitarian law and the ones of human rights law is notably relevant for the protection of the right to life, and the principle of proportionality in the use of force by national authorities against their own population. Indeed, the rules of human rights law in respect of proportionality are more stringent. They notably provide that the use of force shall only be used when it is impossible to arrest someone by other means. By doing so, they limit the notion of legitimate military target for a civilian who would take part in hostilities. Similarly, the necessary precautions that need to be taken to prove the direct participation in hostilities, justify the attack and limit the collateral damages on civilians are theoretically and legally stronger in human rights law.
Protection and obligations visàvis civilians and persons hors de combat
Additional Protocol II and rules of customary international humanitarian law have extended the fundamental guarantees provided by Common Article 3 in favour of:
- The wounded and sick (GCIV art. 3, APII art.7, Rule 109)
- Persons who have been placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause (GCIV art.3, APII art.4). Article 4 of Additional Protocol II completes the fundamental guaranteed provided by Article 3. It requires that all persons hors de combat shall in all circumstances be treated humanely. It also forbids ordering that there shall be no survivors, and prohibits, inter alia, the following acts; murder, torture, mutilation or any form of corporal punishment, collective punishments, the taking of hostages, acts of terrorism, rape, enforced prostitution, and pillage. Specific guarantees are spelled out concerning the protection of children, notably those who participate directly in hostilities. Rules 87 to 105 of the customary IHL study have enshrined the fundamental guarantees provided by Additional Protocol II. They prohibit rape, the use of human shields and reprisals against persons who do not take part in hostilities (Rules 93, 97 and 148).
- Persons deprived of their liberty for reasons related to the conflict, whether they are interned or detained (APII art.5). Members of non-state armed groups belong to this category when they are captured and detained by another group or governmental armed forces. Persons deprived of their liberty shall i) be treated with dignity and humanity; ii) be provided with food and drinking water and be afforded safeguards as regards health and hygiene; iii) be allowed to receive individual or collective relief; iv) be allowed to practise their religion; and v) have the benefit of working conditions and safeguards similar to those enjoyed by the local civilian population. Their physical or mental health and integrity shall not be endangered by any unjustified act or omission by the Detaining Power. Additionally, Rule 99 of the customary IHL study prohibits arbitrary deprivation of liberty.
- Persons prosecuted and accused of criminal offences related to the armed conflict (APII art.6). Those provisions are particularly important for members of non-state armed groups who are considered criminals by domestic law for the simple fact of having taking up arms against the State. Article 6 of Additional Protocol II and Rule 100 of the customary IHL study set out judicial guarantees that must be respected and that prevail over contrary provisions provided by domestic law. They provide that no one may be convicted or sentenced except pursuant to a fair trial affording all essential judicial guarantees (Rule 100) and recommends that at the end of hostilities, the authorities grant the broadest possible amnesty to persons who have participated in hostilities (APII art.6.5). This recommendation concerns acts of participation in hostilities but do not cover war crimes that could have been committed by State or non-State actors in the course of the conflict.
- Contrary to what was foreseen in Common Article 3, Additional Protocol II modified judicial guarantees so that activities of detention and the sentences pronounced by non-state armed groups are not considered arbitrary by humanitarian law, even if this is the case under national law (APII. art.5.1 and 6.2). This illustrates the intention to compel non-state armed groups to respect those guarantees for their own activities of detention.
- The civilian population in general. In the context of their participation in hostilities, non-state armed groups must limit the damages on the civilian population and respect the rules concerning the use of methods of warfare. Moreover, they must grant access to humanitarian relief organizations, as provided by Additional Protocol II and customary IHL.
Individual criminal responsibility of members of nonstate armed groups
The fact that members of non-state armed groups are not entitled the combatant status in humanitarian law exposes them to prosecutions before the courts of their own State. Nonetheless, this must not be confused with an accusation for war crimes or crimes against humanity before international courts. International criminal law today includes also war crimes committed in non-international armed conflicts. As such, individuals can be held criminally responsible for war crimes they commit (Rule 151) and commanders and other superiors can equally be held criminally responsible for war crimes committed pursuant to their orders (Rule 152).
International Criminal Tribunals and the International Criminal Court are competent to try members of non-state armed groups for war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide, provided that all jurisdictional criteria are met.
This is illustrated by the conviction by the International Criminal Court of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, leader of a Congolese non-state armed group (UPC), on 14 March 2012 ( Prosecutor v. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo , ICC-01/04-01/06, sentence pronounced on 10 July 2012). Another example is the international arrest warrant issued in 2006 and renewed in 2012 by the ICC against Bosco Ntaganga, another leader of a Congolese non-state armed group operating in North Kivu.
International Criminal Tribunals have also applied the doctrine of individual criminal superior responsibility for commanders to internal armed conflicts. In the Hadzihasanovic, Alagic and Kubura Case (July 16, 2003, paras.14-18), the ICTY Appeals Chamber held that the existence of a “responsible command” in the context of an internal conflict triggers the responsibility of commanders. Consequently, such commanders can be held criminally responsible for war crimes committed by their subordinates and may in some circumstances be responsible for failing to prevent such crimes.
Obligations of nonstate armed groups under international human rights law
It is widely admitted that non-state armed groups are also bound by certain obligations under international human rights law in situations of internal disturbances or tensions or armed conflicts.
Those obligations stem from the fact that non-state armed groups remain subject to the law of the State in which territory they are operating. Domestic law remains applicable to parts of the territory and to the population placed under the authority of non-state armed groups who de facto assume administrative obligations vis-à-vis this population.
As an example, article 4.1 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict reads that “armed groups that are distinct from the armed forces of a State should not, under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities persons under the age of 18 years.” Nonetheless, the use of the term “should” shows that this rule is more of a recommendation than an obligation. This recommendation has been restated by the African Union in its Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which was adopted in July 1990 and ratified by 41 of the 54 AU States Parties. Article 22 of this Charter holds that States Parties shall take all necessary measures to ensure that no child shall take a direct part in hostilities, and to protect the civilian population and the welfare of the child in armed conflicts. The article adds that these rules apply to children in situations of internal armed conflicts, tensions and strife.
The African Union Convention on the Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons in Africa, adopted in 2009 and ratified by 13 countries, also proposes to frame armed groups’ activities in internal armed conflicts. Its Article 7.5 states that:
“Members of armed groups shall be prohibited from:
- Carrying out arbitrary displacement;
- Hampering the provision of protection and assistance to internally displaced persons under any circumstances;
- Denying internally displaced persons the right to live in satisfactory conditions of dignity, security, sanitation, food, water, health and shelter; and separating members of the same family;
- Restricting the freedom of movement of internally displaced persons within and outside their areas of residence;
- Recruiting children or requiring or permitting them to take part in hostilities under any circumstances;
- Forcibly recruiting persons, kidnapping, abduction or hostage taking, engaging in sexual slavery and trafficking in persons especially women and children;
- Impeding humanitarian assistance and passage of all relief consignments, equipment and personnel to internally displaced persons;
- Attacking or otherwise harming humanitarian personnel and resources or other materials deployed for the assistance or benefit of internally displaced persons and shall not destroy, confiscate or divert such materials; and
- Violating the civilian and humanitarian character of the places where internally displaced persons are sheltered and shall not infiltrate such places.”
▸ Parties to the conflict ▸ Legal Status of the parties to the conflict ▸ Fundamental guarantees ▸ Combatants ▸ Civilians ▸ International armed conflict ▸ Non-international armed conflict ▸ Internal disturbances and tensions ▸ Private military companies ▸ International humanitarian law ▸ Customary international humanitarian law ▸ War crimes/Crimes against humanity
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