Emergency governance: armed-non-state actors facing COVID-19

About the author(s):

Dr Sandra Krähenmann is a Senior Legal and Policy Adviser at Geneva Call. Prior to joining Geneva Call, she worked at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, the Swiss Ministry of Defence and as a consultant for various NGOs. As an academic, she focuses on the impact of counter-terrorism on human rights law and international humanitarian law. She also lectures at the Geneva Academy. Sandra Krähenmann holds a PhD from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

Ximena Galvez Lima is the Regional Legal and Policy Coordinator for Europe and Asia at Geneva Call. Ximena holds a Masters Degree in International Law from the Graduate Institute in Geneva with special focus on International Humanitarian Law, International Human Rights Law and International Criminal Law; and a Law Degree from the Bolivian Catholic University ‘San Pablo’. Prior to joining Geneva Call, she worked for the Permanent Mission of Bolivia in Geneva focusing on the Human Rights Council and the UN Declaration on Peasant Rights. She has published articles on the protection of health care in times of COVID-19, humanitarian access, gang violence and legal conflict qualification of conflict grey zones in Latin America, the protection of peasant rights, among others. Her areas of research include armed groups, armed conflicts, gang violence, counterterrorism and transnational organized crime.

Hiba Mikhail is the Regional Legal and Policy Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at Geneva Call. She holds a Public Law Degree from the Lebanese University and is currently completing her Master’s Degree focusing on International Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law. Prior to occupying her current position, Hiba has overseen Geneva Call’s operations in Lebanon where she gathered extensive experience engaging with a wide range of local and regional stakeholders to advance the protection of civilians. She has worked as a consultant for various organizations and her areas of research include humanitarian protection, the role of Armed Non-State Actors in situations of armed violence and conflict, as well as security sector governance and reform.

Batang Barangay. A ruined wooden house appears to be on the point of collapse in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan. Photographer: Olivier Matthys

*This blog is written in the authors’ personal capacities and does not purport to represent the views of Geneva Call*

For the past two years, governments have been adopting a wide range of measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 and limit its human and economic impact, with a profound effect on the daily lives of individuals around the globe. Unsurprisingly, armed non-state actors also responded to the outbreak of the pandemic, shaping the lives of the millions of people living in the areas under their influence.

Through its COVID-19 Response Monitor, Geneva Call has been tracking measures taken by armed non-State actors since beginning of the pandemic.  

Typical responses identified through the COVID-19 Response Monitor include containment measures restricting movement, including across contact lines, (see for the example the Luhansk People’s Republic’s order closing entry and exit checkpoint or the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army’s statement restricting movement into and within the territory they control in Myanmar) as well as other measures limiting gatherings, suspending schools and closing businesses (see for example the Ejercito de Liberacion National’s statement asking people to abstain from gathering in large crowds exceeding 20 people, or the suspension of mass public events and closing of bars by the Republic of Abkhazia), in addition to the imposition of curfews and lockdowns (see for example measures announced by the Southern Transitional Council in Yemen). In many instances, armed non-state actors also provided general information and encouraged people to stay at home and  follow the safety guidelines, including the wearing of masks and the adoption of social distancing (see for example the statement by the Alliance des Peuples pour un Congo Libre et Souverain or the awareness campaign conducted by the Karen National Union in Myanmar).  More resource intensive measures, such as the setting up of screening posts or the provision of economic support (see for example the regulation of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic) to individuals and businesses are less common, reflecting the differences in capacity between the various armed non-state actors. Finally, two sets of conflict-specific responses deserve to be highlighted. On the one hand, especially at the beginning of the outbreak of COVID-19, many armed non-state actors declared ceasefires (for example the Southern Cameroon Defence Forces or the Patani Malay National Revolutionary Front),  heeding the appeal of the UN Secretary General. On the other hand, many called for humanitarian and medical assistance (see for example the decision of the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad or the declarations of the Democratic Front of the Central African People and the Collectif des Mouvement pour le Changement in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), highlighting the lack of essential medical and sanitary supplies in areas under their influence. At the same time, many armed non-state actors also pledged to respect and guarantee the safety of humanitarian actors (see for example the statements of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan or the Collectif des Mouvements pour le Changement in the DRC).

The broad variety of responses adopted by armed-non-state actors largely mirror those implemented by governments. However, it is important to highlight that the measures taken by armed non-state actors interact with those implemented by the State in parallel. Consequently, the humanitarian impact of measures adopted in such a setting cannot be seen in isolation without due consideration of this overlap. Rather than delving into a detailed analysis of the various types of responses and their humanitarian consequences, the present contribution wants to highlight that the responses of armed non-state actors to COVID19 reveal two underexplored aspects in our understanding of how they regulate the life of the civilian population in areas under their influence. First, the measures responding to COVID-19 constitute a form of emergency governance, i.e. governance in response to an emergency. Second, they illustrate the roles armed non-state actors may play in responses to disasters, such as a health crisis.

Emergency governance by armed non-state actors

Armed non-state actors’ responses to COVID-19 reveal how they generally strive to regulate the life of civilians in areas under their influence during a crisis. There is significant literature on how armed non-state actors govern, whether alone or alongside state actors, and the factors that shape their governance; namely the degree of territorial control they exert, their institutional capacity and resources, their relationship with the local population as well as their objectives and ideology. However, less attention has been paid to the ways in which armed non-state actors define a state of emergency, and how they aim to govern during such periods of crisis, that often compound pre-existing emergencies triggered by the armed conflict. The various responses to COVID-19 thus provide an opportunity to add an additional layer to this existing literature, focusing on emergency governance by armed non-state actors.

Such emergency governance does not take place in a legal vacuum: Generally speaking, international humanitarian law does not cover or only insufficiently addresses governance issues during armed conflict. Accordingly, international human rights law is put forward as the applicable legal framework, notably for armed non-state actors that exercise territorial control. The most prominent responses taken by both states and armed non-state actors concern limitations of freedom of movement and assembly, issues squarely falling under human rights law. Yet under human rights law, States have the possibility to limit human rights for legitimate reasons through the operation of two separate mechanisms, derogations and limitations. First, human rights treaties allow states to derogate from their human rights obligations in times of an emergency that threatens the life of the nation. While states of emergency are often associated with armed conflict or terrorism, they are not limited to such situations of violence and could for instance include natural disasters, including a health crisis such as COVID-19. Indeed, an unprecedented number of States proclaimed a state of emergency during the pandemic and filed derogations to their respective human rights obligations, notably in relation to freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. In addition, a series of human rights, notably civil liberties, allow limitations if based on law and pursuing a legitimate interest, such as public health, that are necessary and proportionate. Both limitations and derogations require the existence of safeguards against abuse. However, as previously analyzed by Fortin, there remain many open questions linked to how derogations and limitations could apply to armed non-state actors.

More focused analysis on the question of derogations and limitations by armed non-state actors is required, not only against the background of the ongoing pandemic, but more generally for at least two reasons. On the one hand, derogations and limitations allow States, amongst others, to react to security concerns arising during an armed conflict. These issues being equally relevant in areas influenced by armed non-state actors, it would be reasonable to analyze if and how armed non-state actors could use the same mechanisms. On the other hand, armed conflicts often converge with other crises, including disasters such as COVID-19, which may also call for temporary limitations to human rights. This brings us to the second element to be discussed in this piece, highlighting how armed non-state actors’ responses to COVID-19 may be illustrative of ways in which they may also respond to disasters.

Disaster response by armed non-state actors

Often described as crises, disasters may result from natural or human induced hazards as well as other technological, biological and environmental events, such as floods, droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis or epidemics. Driven by climate change, disasters are expected to occur more frequently and with increased severity, all too often colliding with armed conflicts. In this context, climate change and disasters not only sustain the risk for armed conflict and influence on-going conflict dynamics, but also disproportionately impact conflict-affected countries, often amongst the least equipped to face such disasters. This is especially the case as armed conflicts weaken essential infrastructure and hamper authorities’ capacity to prepare, adapt and adequately respond to disasters. Against this background, the role of armed non-state actors tends to be underexplored, with some exceptions. Existing research focuses on the responses of particular armed non-state actors linked to different types of disasters, at different times in different places. For example, Mampilly analyzed how the governance structures of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam interacted with the international community in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, and the medium term impact on the peace process. In another instance, Walch argues that the pre-existing level of hostility with the State and the strength of the social contract with the local population, account for the differences in the responses of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the New People’s Army to the 2012 Typhoon in the Philippines.

The broad variety of COVID-19 responses adopted over the past two years by armed non-state actors across the globe with varying degrees of territorial control or influence and differing institutional capacity, resources, relationship with the local population, ideology and objectives, provides a unique opportunity to further develop our understanding of how armed non-state actors respond to disasters as well as of the factors that shape their responses, bringing forward the interaction between responses generated at the different levels by the armed non-state actors, the territorial States and the international community. A better understanding of the role of armed non-state actors not only in terms of challenges, but also in terms of opportunities is required in order to explore how the State-centric system of climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction may be tailored to countries affected by armed conflict, including areas under the influence of armed non-state actors, and this to ensure that, indeed, no one is left behind.

Geneva Call’s  COVID-19  Response Monitor

Populated with measures identified by Geneva Call staff around to world, the Response Monitor provides the humanitarian sector with key, diverse, and largely unknown information to tailor their strategies during the pandemic. To this end, measures and responses from Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Middle East have been included for information, documentation and analysis purposes. Data compiled at field and HQ levels underwent a proper verification/triangulation process to ensure the accuracy and objectivity of the information provided. In 2021, a new and improved version of the Response Monitor was launched offering a brief overview of the contexts where armed non-state actors operate, and allowing users to filter and disaggregate data through an interactive dashboard. While increasing user-friendliness, the latest version also paves the way for a future thematic expansion envisaged by Geneva Call to cover other disasters

This blog post is part of a series on ‘The Role of Non-State Armed Groups in Addressing the COVID-19 Pandemic’. It builds on the authors’ presentations at the 2021 Sanremo Roundtable on ‘ Pandemics, armed conflict, and international humanitarian law’. Recordings of the panel presentations can be found here


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