Holding Armed Groups Accountable

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Date: 
November 13, 2012

A database containing the humanitarian commitments made by armed non- state actors (ANSAs) was launched on Nov. 8, 2012.  Entitled, Their Words, Directory of Armed Non-State Actor Humanitarian Commitments, it provides access to more than 400 commitments, including ones related to the protection of civilian populations in armed conflict and respect for the Geneva Conventions, and is searchable by region or theme. It was created  by Geneva Call with the goal of improving engagement with ANSAs and to promote their compliance with the norms of international humanitarian law (IHL) during times of armed conflict.  

Geneva Call reaches out to ANSAs to address what it calls the “ownership gap” in the international legal order: while international law imposes humanitarian obligations on ANSAs, such the requirement to  allow neutral and impartial aid groups to offer assistance to civilians in their territory, as non-governmental entitites they cannot become party to treaties such as the Geneva Conventions. Additionally, ANSAs are often left out of peace talks because of counterterrorism legislation that prohibits contact with a formally listed terrorist group, even when they are key parties to a conflict.  Studies from the Overseas Development Institute, Harvard Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research, Berghof Foundation and the United Nations have found these rules create unnecessary barriers to humanitarian access and should be changed to reflect the important role ANSAs can play in “promoting adherence to international norms.”

“Depending on the type of documents - from communiqué, letter, or peace agreement with governments, these documents can have [a] different legal standing. ANSAs are usually not recognized as subjects of international law. These documents could be used to hold the groups accountable in case of violation of IHL,” said Maud Bonnet, the project’s coordinator at Geneva Call.

For example, one commitment is a 1995 agreement by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey to “respect the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the First Protocol of 1977.”  Under the International Humanitarian Law theme there are 149 commitments.  It includes ones from El Salvador’s Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) which pledged that its “army will treat adequately PoWs and will respect the Geneva Conventions of 1949” to the Patriotes Résistants Congolais - Forces d'Autodéfense Populaire (PARECO-FAP) in Congo, signatories to the “Des Principes Humanitaires et du Respect des Droits de l'Homme.”

The database is available for public use, but Geneva Call, who has compiled this resource over many years of ANSA engagement and research, hopes it will encourage armed groups to follow in the footsteps of others who sought greater protection for civilian populations in armed conflict by agreeing to a commitment to uphold widely recognized. 

Easy to follow instructions on using the database are available here.