Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Nonstate Armed Groups and Human Security (A Kasarinlan Essay)

Pablo Policzer

Director, Armed Groups Project

Canada Research Chair in Latin American Politics

University of Calgary

Alberta, Canada

Nonstate armed groups are increasingly understood to be central actors in building human security. Even a narrow definition of human security as “freedom from fear” (e.g., Human Security Centre 2005) encompasses armed groups as well as states. From the perspective of the victims of violence—the perspective that human security seeks to represent—it does not matter whether the perpetrators of violence are states or nonstate actors. Both are capable of causing the fear and suffering that human security aims to eradicate. Hence, recent calls for nonstate actors to respect the same human rights and humanitarian standard as states are entirely consistent with core human-security principles (e.g., International Council on Human Rights Policy 2001; United Nations 2004; United Nations Secretary-General 2005). The world is a less fearsome place when those with the power to harm others agree to restrain their behavior and to abide by commonly accepted standards. Consequently, any time an armed group agrees to respect human rights or humanitarian law, human security is clearly strengthened. This much, at least, we can take as given.

A key problem that remains unresolved, however, is how to bring such an agreement about. The challenge is that in a world where the state is the fundamental legal and political unit, the resulting asymmetries make any sort of engagement with armed groups, for human-security purposes or otherwise, highly contentious at best, and often next to impossible.

First, while there are many tools to pressure states when they do not respect human rights and humanitarian norms—from diplomatic pressure to legal and economic sanctions and, ultimately, war—there are fewer recognized tools to pressure armed groups. With few exceptions, armed groups do not belong to the United Nations, do not take out World Bank loans, cannot sign international treaties, and do not have formal diplomatic relations with states.

Second, many states are unwilling to recognize any sort of engagement with armed groups, for fear of providing them with legitimacy and thereby undermining the principle of sovereignty, which is at the heart of the state-centric international system. Consequently, any sort of engagement with armed groups, particularly when it requires either tacit or explicit cooperation by states (for example, to grant right of access to rebel-controlled areas), is often difficult.

Last, many armed groups themselves are also unwilling to recognize core human rights or humanitarian standards on the grounds that these are state instruments which they have had no part in developing, and that consequently do not apply to them. There is far less consensus among armed groups than among states over which standards apply to them.1

The question is how, in such a context, might it be possible to bring about any sort of agreement by armed groups to respect basic human rights and humanitarian principles? In the rest of this essay I want to briefly sketch some of the work of the Armed Groups Project, which is in a volume entitled After Leviathan: Restraining Violence by Non-State Armed Groups (Capie and Policzer, forthcoming). The book is neither a manual for engaging armed groups nor by any means the final word on this complex and challenging problem. Instead, it aims simply to provide some analytical tools to frame what we take to be core issues.

The book makes two claims. First, it calls for unpacking the “black box” of armed groups as a category, and distinguishing among different kinds of groups. We do not aim to provide a comprehensive catalogue of all differences among armed groups, but rather to suggest some critical ones. Armed groups differ in how they are organized. Some have clear hierarchies and others operate as loosely connected (but often highly effective) networks. Groups also provide different sorts of motivations and incentives for their cadres. Jeremy Weinstein’s chapter argues that some are driven by strong ideology, while others provide strictly material incentives for those who join. Will Reno’s chapter suggests that some groups also seek to represent a particular constituency, and provide them with clear “public” goods (such as security and well-being) while others are much more predatory, with little if any representative capabilities. Stathis Kalyvas, by contrast, suggests that warfare is also an important variable, which is too often ignored by human rights and humanitarian nongovernment organizations (NGOs). Some groups are engaged in highly conventional warfare, with front lines and set-piece battles, while others engage in much more unconventional guerrilla warfare, with “hit-and-run” tactics, no front lines, and often very ambiguous distinctions between combatants and civilians. All of these differences, among others, have profound consequences on how groups operate, and on how it may be possible to engage them.

The book’s second claim is that international and domestic actors have a “tool box” at their disposal to engage armed groups. This claim runs contrary to the common wisdom—at least in some circles—which holds that armed groups are beyond human rights or humanitarian engagement. We argue, by contrast, that a variety of different policy instruments is available to engage or pressure armed groups for the purpose of improving human rights and humanitarian standards. These range from “soft” instruments such as direct engagement or persuasion, to “harder” instruments such as legal or economic sanctions. Chandra Sriram’s chapter, for example, discusses the use of the Alien Torts Claim Act in US and other courts vis-à-vis armed groups. George Andreopoulos provides a broad overview of the status of armed groups in international law, and Marco Sassòli discusses the extent to which international law might incorporate armed groups’ own practices and precedents.

While it is possible to engage armed groups using a range of instruments, many of these remain poorly understood. For example, the basic tool of the human rights community is “naming and shaming”: publicizing abuses committed by different actors. But David Petrasek’s chapter argues that human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch have perhaps been too cautious in “naming and shaming” armed groups, fearful of sacrificing their capacity to engage them on other issues. (By contrast, such NGOs are normally forceful in how they report on states.) In other words, the fear of losing the ability to “engage” armed groups may result in somewhat more tepid reporting on their activities, as compared to states.

The book suggests that the core challenge for the future—where we should direct our collective attention—will be to match the “black box” of armed groups with the “tool box” of different instruments. Some instruments may work vis-à-vis some groups, but not others. For example, naming and shaming may be more effective against groups that have clear constituencies to whom they aim to provide public goods, than against more predatory groups for whom reputation is less important. Some types of legal sanctions may be more effective against groups that have clear hierarchies—through which it is possible to establish direct chains of command and control—than against groups that operate as looser networks. Calibrating instruments to groups will require knowing much more about different groups and about the instruments at our disposal than we do at the moment.

The larger goal of bringing armed groups into the human-security framework—of improving their respect of human rights and international humanitarian law—will also require addressing at least three fundamental political dilemmas.2 First, are armed groups pariahs or legitimate political actors? Armed groups are clearly “legitimate” political actors from the human-security perspective. This does not refer to any political or legal status, but rather to the notion that human security seeks to engage whichever group has control over populations at risk. Whether such control is de facto or de jure is not important from the perspective of the victims, the view that human security represents. But this is by no means the consensus view. Many states hold armed groups to be pariahs, and this view has arguably gained increasing importance internationally since the recent so-called war on terror.

Second, why should armed groups abide by norms they have had no part in developing? From the human-security perspective it may be obvious why armed groups should abide by core human rights and humanitarian norms: to protect the victims of violence. Yet many armed groups reject this notion, on the grounds that these are state-based instruments that simply do not apply to them. Not all groups hold this view, to be sure, but it is common enough to pose a significant dilemma for those who expect that the most serious obstacles to engaging armed groups are likely to come from states. In many cases, armed groups themselves are likely to resist the very premise of engagement.

The third dilemma is what, if anything in this politically challenging context, is the international community prepared to give armed groups in exchange for engagement? If the world were made up of fully sovereign states—able to exercise a complete monopoly of coercive control within their legal boundaries—there would be no armed groups. Armed groups operate, by definition, where sovereignty and legal authority are limited or fragmented. Engaging armed groups consequently requires a different framework than, for example, policing criminal activity.3

These dilemmas remain, for moment, unresolved. It is not possible in a brief essay to provide any more than a few suggestions about how to approach them. What is beyond doubt, however, is that if the welfare of those who are victimized by violence matters, we have no choice but to begin to address the fundamental analytical and political challenges armed groups pose.


1. Despite some outstanding issues (such as the United States support for the International Criminal Court [ICC]), there is a fairly high degree of consensus over the basic “package” of human rights and humanitarian standards that bind states. For human rights, this roughly includes the body of international treaties and conventions including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention Against Torture, the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. For international humanitarian law (formerly called the laws of war), the list includes the body of international law codified in the Geneva Conventions, as well as in associated treaties and conventions including the Hague Conventions, the Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict, European Convention on the Compensation of Victims of Violent Crimes, the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, the United Nations (UN) Convention on Conventional Weapons, the Ottawa Convention against Anti-Personnel Mines, and the Optional Protocol on the Rights of the Child, among others.

2. See also International Council on Human Rights Policy (2001).

3. I am not suggesting that armed groups (or, indeed, states) are or are not criminals. The point, rather, is an analytical one: that the tools that they can be engaged with are by definition different than those available to states that exercise a full coercive monopoly. Holding criminals accountable requires strict enforcement of the law. Holding armed groups accountable requires some degree of political engagement. In many cases there will no doubt be an overlap, and the tools of criminal law will also apply to armed groups. (The recent ICC indictment against the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda is an example of the emerging application of international criminal law vis-à-vis armed groups.) In many cases, if not most, however, armed groups are likely to remain quite literally outside the law.


Capie, David, and Pablo Policzer, eds. forthcoming. After Leviathan: Curbing violence by non-state armed groups. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Human Security Centre. 2005. Human security report: War and peace in the 21st century. New York: Oxford University Press.

International Council on Human Rights Policy. 2001. End and means: Human rights approaches to armed groups. Versoix: International Council on Human Rights Policy.

United Nations. 2004. Report of the secretary-general to the security council on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. New York: United Nations.

United Nations Secretary-General. 2005. In larger freedom: Towards development, security and human rights for all. New York: United Nations.

(This essay appears in the Perspective Section of Kasarinlan: Philippine Journal of Third World Studies, Vol. 21, No. 1 [2006]. Kasarinlan is an internationally refereed journal published twice a year by the Third World Studies Center, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines-Diliman that provides a forum for critical and interdisciplinary perspectives on the Philippines and the Third World with special reference to political economy. Subscribe to Kasarinlan.)