Engaging Armed Groups (Live Seminar 45)

June 26, 2012 - 9:30am - 11:00am
Online, United States

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As the occurrence of non-international armed conflicts (NIACs) has increased in recent years, humanitarian actors face pressing challenges to help protect civilians. These challenges stem not only from the behavior of state actors but also from the need to engage with armed groups that affect vulnerable populations.  

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Armed groups in NIACs often exercise control over territory and populations. Humanitarian actors must therefore seek the consent of those groups to access people in need. Yet engaging with armed groups may result in legitimizing these entities, and this legitimization may raise a range of concerns for states, which seek to curtail such benefits through laws, policies, and practices.

In this context, humanitarian actors face increasing restrictions on their efforts to build the capacity of armed groups to respect the rules of international humanitarian law, especially in terms of dissemination and developing enforcement mechanisms within those groups. The establishment of international criminal tribunals has complicated these efforts, as armed groups are expected to ensure compliance with legal norms while not having a say in the content of the law or in international enforcement mechanisms. Further complicating matters, humanitarian actors are sometimes called to provide information and material as witnesses in international proceedings against the very armed groups with whom they need to negotiate access.

Yet, despite these constraints, the humanitarian community continues to engage with armed groups on a daily basis. Often done in an idiosyncratic manner and with little overarching guidance and coordination, this increasing engagement points to a divide between the state-centric system of international norms, on the one hand, and the practical need for engagement with armed groups in order to reach vulnerable populations, on the other hand.

Earlier this year, the Harvard Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR) and the International Review of the Red Cross (IRRC) hosted a Live Web Seminar on the law applicable to armed groups on April 5, 2012, which reviewed the legal framework of these engagements (a recording is available by clicking here). To further stimulate discussion on the challenges posed by armed groups to humanitarian action, this seminar examined — against the backdrop of the recent publication of an IRRC volume on “Engaging armed groups”— current practices in terms of engagement, negotiation, and communication for the purpose of promoting compliance with relevant international humanitarian and human rights norms. The seminar focused on key challenges and opportunities arising from tensions concerning engagement with armed groups. Expert panelists and participants addressed such questions as:

-       What strategies can humanitarian actors develop in order to enhance armed groups’ compliance with IHL and human rights standards?

-       How can humanitarian actors contribute to the enforcement of IHL and human rights norms while maintaining access to populations in need?

-       In developing engagement strategies, what considerations are most salient for humanitarian actors in light of the diverse nature of armed groups?

-       How can humanitarian actors best identify and develop professional standards concerning engagement with armed groups?

In partnership with:

The Federal Department for Foreign Affairs (FDFA) formulates and coordinates Swiss foreign policy on the instructions of the Federal Council. A coherent foreign policy is a precondition for the effective protection of Swiss interests vis-à-vis foreign countries.

The International Review of the Red Cross is a quarterly published by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Cambridge University Press. It is a forum for debate on international humanitarian law and humanitarian action and policy, during armed conflict and other situations of violence. 

Sida works according to directives of the Swedish Parliament and Government to reduce poverty in the world. The overall goal of Swedish development cooperation is to contribute to making it possible for poor people to improve their living conditions.