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Debate: Mind the Gap? Human Rights and Non-States Parties to Armed Conflict

If you missed the event, you can watch it here.

On 14 July 2020, Fight for Humanity organized an online event hosted by France, Slovenia and Liechtenstein, for the 43rd session of the Human Rights Council. The webinar discussed the existing gaps in the application of Human Rights to non-state parties to armed conflict.

An all-female panel of four human rights professionals and academics, moderated by Ambassador Peter Matt of Liechtenstein, responded to the question: “Should human rights laws be applied to, and respected by, non-state parties?

An uncertainty on whether human rights legally binds non-state actors

As Emilie Max, Researcher, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights; explained it, non-state parties are bound by rules of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) either under common Article 3 of the Geneva conventions or under Article 1 of additional Protocol II.

However when it comes to Human Rights Law, “there is an uncertainty or even a controversy on whether human rights law actually binds as a matter of law, non-state parties because it is a legal framework that only speaks to states, whereas, for instance, IHL speaks to the parties to the conflict,” commented Emilie Max.

In fact, the international community expects non-state parties to respect human rights in the areas they control, but, legally speaking, “While there are certain mechanisms in place […] that regularly monitor the situation and enter into dialogue with states on the respect of human rights, there is no similar mechanism to engage with non-state actors,” stressed Professor Vasilka Sancin, Head of the Department of International Law, Faculty of Law, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Being pragmatic

“I don’t believe that the international legal framework is fit for purpose” explained UN Special Representative Agnes Callamard, “by privileging a narrow reading of human rights law, which was meaningful in 1948 […] we have denied the experience of people who live under the control of armed groups. […] The discussion today is challenging us to re-think how we are making sense of the lived experience of millions of people around the world who have been neglected by the legal framework.

Even if the legal framework is not adapted to the non-state actors, the panelists agreed that the most important was to focus on the question “What can we do to improve their respect for human rights law?” For that, it is necessary to understand why non-state actors do, or do not, respect human rights.

“Non-state parties to conflict often see human rights as something that they can claim that belongs to them, and not necessarily something that they should also respect and provide” said Anki Sjoeberg, Fight for Humanity’s Co-Director “This perspective needs to be challenged and slowly changed, so that non-state parties to conflict take measures to increase respect for human rights."

Recommendations to better protect people living in territories controlled by non-state actors

Noting that, in this context, the situation is complex, the four panelists made several recommendations on what can be done by the international community to tackle this challenging situation:

  • Engage in dialogue with non-state parties and raise awareness and knowledge of human rights;

  • Work with members of non-state parties to modify their rules in favour of human rights

  • Support local human rights organizations on the ground and engage with them;

  • Support research and reporting of what is happening on the ground. It can help advocacy work and engagement work;

  • Think about creating a mechanism to hold non-state actors accountable for human rights violations.

Following this event, Fight for Humanity will start a process to build tools and approaches towards a better respect for human rights by non-state parties to conflict.


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