On ICRC Engagement with Non-State Armed Groups: Recent Developments

Engaging with non-state armed groups has been at the core of ICRC actions for decades. For example, Henri Dunant, the founder of the ICRC, brought humanitarian help and tried to negotiate the release of hostages during the Paris Commune in 1871. According to an ICRC publication from 1900, only 39% of Red Cross operations between 1863 and 1899 happened in "international wars", while 55% were carried out in contexts involving the equivalent of modern-day armed groups. These included both insurgents and non-recognized States. In the 20th century, ICRC action involved dialogue with countless armed groups. For example, following the First World War, the organization was active in Silesia (1921) and Ireland (from 1922). During the Second World War, the ICRC had contact with a number of resistance organizations in occupied Europe and tirelessly worked for better protection of their members, while also visiting German prisoners held by the French Forces Françaises de l’intérieur (1944). In the immediate aftermath of the war, it maintained contact with parties in China, Greece, Palestine under British mandate, and Vietnam. During the Cold War, the ICRC engaged in dialogue with armed groups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, such as the New People’s Army in the Philippines, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) in Angola, and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMNL) in El Salvador.
Today, given the explosion of non-international armed conflicts and the proliferation of armed non-state actors, far from being a merely temporary phenomenon, they are here to stay as participants in armed conflict and other situations of violence. The question is not whether to deal with them, but rather how to engage them. In the ICRC perspective, dialogue with armed groups can centre around three parallel and linked goals. First, engaging armed non-state groups will serve to improve access and security for the ICRC in the field and to get a better understanding of the groups. Second, this engagement will serve to facilitate the humanitarian response and actions of the ICRC. Finally, engaging non-state armed groups on more sensitive issues such as the conduct of hostilities and the use of force can contribute to an improved respect of all relevant laws through prevention and integration of the law into the doctrines and trainings of those groups.
This news release concretely illustrates the work of the ICRC in the field. It also shows how the ICRC engages non-state armed groups in a dialogue articulated around access, humanitarian response and an improved respect of IHL. This is only one example among many. However, it is encouraging to see that IHL is being discussed more and more among armed groups as greater respect for IHL can make a huge difference for the populations affected by armed conflicts. Understanding why non-state armed groups chose to respect IHL or not is key to working with them on improving the situation. The article, "Reasons why armed groups choose to respect international humanitarian law or not" is a good starting point to make sense of the actions of non-state armed actors.

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