Geneva Call Report: Perceptions of Armed Non-State Actors on Humanitarian Action

About the author(s):

Katharine Fortin is an Associate Professor at Utrecht University where she teaches IHL and IHRL. Before joining Utrecht University, she worked at the ICTY, ICC and Norton Rose Fulbright. She is the author of The Accountability of Armed Groups under Human Rights Law (Oxford University Press, 2017) which won the 2018 Lieber Prize. She has written widely about the framework of law that applies to armed groups in non-international armed conflicts and is one of the editors of the Armed Groups and International Law blog.

Pages from WHS_Perception-of-armed-non-State-actors-on-humanitarian-actionTo coincide with the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in Istanbul, Geneva Call has published a report on Perceptions of Armed Non-State Actors on Humanitarian Action. This study by Geneva Call aims to address the fact that ANSAs were not consulted in the two year consultation that lead up to the WHS endeavour, despite playing an integral role in allowing or hindering humanitarian operations in conflicts from Syria and Somalia to Colombia and the Central African Republic—

Between June 2015 and February 2016, Geneva Call consulted 19 ANSAs (and several relief organizations affiliated with these groups) in 11 countries. The report’s key findings are reproduced below:-

Understandings of humanitarian action: Despite the diversity of the ANSAs consulted, there is a high degree of uniformity in many of the views expressed on a range of issues related to humanitarian action and access.2 Many of the ANSAs consulted see humanitarian action, in broad terms, as alleviating suffering or providing relief to those affected by armed conflict or natural disaster. Very often, they only refer to assistance; the protection of civilians, or related protection issues, is rarely mentioned. Additionally, the ANSAs consulted see a direct link between the integrity and quality of assistance, on the one hand, and the humanitarian agency’s adherence to the principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence on the other.

Knowledge and acceptance of humanitarian principles: The ANSAs consulted are broadly familiar with the core humanitarian principles. Though the two principles are sometimes conflated, neutrality and impartiality are integral to the acceptance of aid work by these groups. Independence is important as well, but ANSAs recognize that geopolitical concerns, funding, and other factors challenge the ability of humanitarian actors to be independent in practice. With all of the principles, the focus is on observed behaviour (rather than, for example, where an agency’s funding comes from). Although, at times, ANSAs have sought to co-opt humanitarian aid or undermine humanitarian principles (much like States sometimes do), there is also a strong expectation that humanitarians should keep to their principles.

Acceptance of IHL: The ANSAs consulted express overwhelmingly positive attitudes towards IHL, including humanitarian access. This is true even among those with only notional understandings of IHL and documented histories of violations. Additionally, several ANSAs offer nuanced critiques of international law in direct relation to how it affects them or their concerns. They express frustration that they are largely excluded from the development of IHL and that States are rarely held accountable for arbitrary denial of access or other violations.

Lack of knowledge of the rules of IHL relating to humanitarian access: Although the ANSAs consulted express support for IHL, their comprehension of relevant rules on humanitarian access is limited and significantly influenced by whether humanitarian agencies have directly engaged with them on these issues. Consequently, there is greater expressed acceptance of IHL where there has been long-term humanitarian engagement. This underscores the importance of donors supporting and humanitarian agencies conducting a sustained dialogue with ANSAs. This should include repeated dissemination of IHL at all levels, including rules about access.

Support for humanitarian action: The ANSAs consulted overwhelmingly claim to allow humanitarian access and want aid agencies to operate in areas they influence or control. Every single movement surveyed has relationships with humanitarian actors other than Geneva Call. These range from Hamas coordinating with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Gaza on the evacuation of the wounded, to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and UNICEF agreeing to an action plan to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers, and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army-Minni Minawi faction (SLM/A-MM) participation in a humanitarian-facilitated prisoner exchange.

Regulation of humanitarian access: All of the ANSAs consulted feel entitled to regulate and control humanitarian access. Many have some form of policy governing access and have created structures to coordinate, facilitate, and monitor humanitarian action. Access is, without exception, tied to specific conditions. Some of these conditions are consistent with IHL as many ANSAs emphasize the importance of humanitarians behaving in accordance with the principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence. Many also consider themselves responsible for the security of aid workers in their areas. However, it is important to note that the degree to which ANSAs’ “rules” are applied in practice is not examined in this study, and there are documented instances of the arbitrary denial of humanitarian access, aid diversion, and attacks on aid workers by some of the ANSAs consulted.

Expulsion of and attacks on aid workers: Failure to secure consent for aid activities or follow “the rules” imposed by the ANSAs interviewed are seen as the most likely factors to lead to the expulsion or harm of aid workers and their property. Some ANSAs consulted admitted to having expelled specific aid agencies that they believed were spying. Few, if any, ban specific types of humanitarian actors in general terms. The exception is Sudan, where ANSAs perceive the country’s own humanitarian organizations, particularly those associated with the government, to be neither neutral, impartial, nor independent. Many ANSAs elsewhere are circumspect about denial of access and reluctant to elaborate on examples where aid workers have been either deliberately or mistakenly attacked.

Perceived responsibilities towards civilians: The ANSAs consulted often differ on what they see as their responsibilities toward civilians. This is influenced by their degree of territorial control and objectives, the broader context (i.e. what assistance the government, other ANSAs, and aid agencies already provide), the conflict dynamics, and other factors. Many ANSAs feel responsible for the physical protection of civilians and express concern for their wellbeing. Some have established their own relief departments and report a broad list of services which they provide to civilians, including food distribution and medical care. Others, however, mention simply first aid or small, localized relief activities. Though only a few examples exist in practice, many ANSAs claim that they would be open to entering into humanitarian agreements with their enemy.


(Visited 29 times, 1 visits today)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: