10 Years of Expertise on Armed Non-State Actors

25 February 2021

From Syria to Mali, Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the majority of today’s armed conflicts are non-international in character and involve one or several armed non-state actors (ANSAs).

ANSAs are key players in today’s armed conflicts. They directly impact civilian populations and pose an increasing global challenge for States and non-State actors, such as humanitarian NGOs. Yet, the international community often struggles to understand and engage with them.

Moving Beyond a State-Centric Approach and Developing a New Field of Academic Research

While it is not controversial that international humanitarian law (IHL) applies to ANSAs this, however, has largely assumed a ‘top-down’ approach of the international legal system, employed to impose international obligations on ANSAs without considering their actual views or interpretation of the rules, or their capacity to implement them. This trend may in turn explain the lack of ownership of, and compliance with, international law by these actors.

To address these issues, the Geneva Academy started researching on ANSAs back in 2009 via a series of projects, which:

These projects and their outputs were not only based on solid academic research, but were also policy-driven and considered the views of practioners, NGOs, international organizations as well as States. The UN Secretary-General relied on the results of our research in his 2010 report on the protection of civilians (at para 54).

‘We also mainstream the question of ANSAs in all our research, teaching and training on armed conflict, including in our Rule of Law in Armed Conflict (RULAC) online portal, which provides, for each non-international armed conflict, a detailed analysis of the various ANSAs involved’ underlines Professor Gloria Gaggioli, Director of the Geneva Academy.

Current Focus

As one of the leading research institutions on the study of ANSAs, we continue to work on this issue via two dedicated research projects.

The first project aims at finding policy solutions to the difficult theme of human rights obligations of ANSAs.

The second will potentially impact the scientific and broader international community by:

  • Increasing knowledge of ANSAs’ perceptions and understanding of their international obligations
  • Providing tools to humanitarian organizations to engage with and encourage ANSAs to abide by the law
  • Informing future international law-making processes by considering these key actors’ views and capacities.
Colombia,  Mountains in the Valle del Cauca region, between Santander de Quilichao et Popayan. FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) combattant.

A Unique Expertise on ANSAs

Our Strategic Adviser on IHL and Senior Research Fellow Dr Annyssa Bellal is recognized worldwide as a leading expert on ANSAs. She is the author of several publications on this issue and is regularly invited at conferences and experts meetings to discuss the different aspects of ANSAs’ impact on international law and relations.

Her intervention before the United Nations Security Council for the 70th anniversary of the 1949 Geneva Conventions highlighted, as contemporary challenges in armed conflicts, the prevalence of non-international armed conflicts and the need to increase ownership of humanitarian norms among ANSAs.

In 2020, the Geneva Academy received through Dr Bellal a major grant from UKRI to conduct, in collaboration with Geneva Call, research on ANSAs and their practice and interpretation of IHL and human rights norms.

Dr Annysa Bellal during her intervention before the Un Security Council

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