Paul Reuter Prize Award Conference on Contemporary Challenges of Non-International Armed Conflicts


On 7 November 2013, a gathering of experts and practitioners invited to the ICRC’s Humanitarium discussed the various challenges of contemporary armed conflicts. The conference was organized in honour of Associate Professor Sivakumaran, the 10th Paul Reuter Prize Laureate, for his book ‘The Law of Non-International Armed Conflict’.

The conference opened with a keynote address by the ICRC’s Permanent Vice-President, Mrs Beerli, who detailed the continuous work of the ICRC to enhance compliance by armed groups with IHL. After a presentation on his book by Professor Sivakumaran, a panel composed of Ms Jelena Pejic, Prof. Sivakumaran and Mrs Bouchet-Saulnier answered questions on the contemporary challenges of non-international armed conflicts from both the on-site and online audience.

The event was attended by some 200 Geneva-based diplomats, IHL professors, humanitarian practitioners from non-governmental organizations and Red Cross/Crescent Societies, as well as UN agencies based in Geneva and the wider world. A podcast of the conference can be downloaded here.

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ICRC operations and engagement with non-State armed groups in non-international armed conflicts

Paul Reuter Prize Ceremony, Address by Christine Beerli, ICRC permanent vice-president,

Representatives of the Geneva Government,
Representatives of the UN,
Distinguished guests,
Dear colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good evening. It is a pleasure for me to be here with you to open this panel on the Contemporary Challenges posed by Non-International Armed Conflicts. This topic is, of course, extremely relevant to the ICRC’s work, in particular its engagement with non-State armed groups.

Before saying a few words on this aspect of our work, allow me to congratulate Professor Sandesh Sivakumaran for his excellent book The Law on Non-International Armed Conflict. We are delighted that he is here with us tonight to receive the Paul Reuter Prize in recognition of his outstanding contribution.

In his book, Professor Sivakumaran identifies a series of complex challenges linked to the development of the law of non-international armed conflicts and raises a number of questions such as:

  • What arguments can be used to convince armed groups to enhance their compliance with international humanitarian law?
  • How can their compliance with that law be strengthened when they are themselves outlawed by domestic law?
  • How can there be engagement with armed groups in an international context in which any dialogue may be perceived as a form of betrayal or complicity?

These urgent questions are also very much shared by all those working in the field of humanitarian law and action, including the International Committee of the Red Cross. The vast majority of the armed conflicts we see today are non-international. This includes ongoing conflicts such as those in Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Philippines, and Somalia. It also includes new non-international armed conflicts, such as those that have broken out in Mali and Syria.  Countless people around the world are being affected by these armed conflicts facing death, injury and immeasurable other suffering, being forced to flee their homes, losing their property and livelihoods, and in many cases becoming separated from family members. Many thousands have been detained, leaving them exposed to the risks of ill-treatment and "disappearance".  

Let us look at some of the main features of these conflicts, as observed by the ICRC today.

The first notable trend among non-international armed conflicts is that they are long-lasting. This is illustrated by ICRC operations, since 10 years ago we were already operating in connection with most of the conflicts in which we remain present today.

Secondly, the lines separating the various warring parties, between combatants and civilians, and indeed between types of armed violence have become increasingly blurred in recent years. It is generally the population at large which bears the brunt of those challenges, mainly because it finds itself caught up between State and non-State armed entities. The ICRC has observed that direct confrontation – either between different armed groups or between State armed forces and armed groups – has grown rare. The violence primarily targets civilians, who not only suffer all the pain and destruction that armed conflicts bring, but may also have to choose between allegiance to the government or to the armed group, without knowing which side, if either, can guarantee their safety.

In order to address the consequences from a humanitarian viewpoint of today’s conflicts, dialogue remains essential with all parties in these conflicts. This obviously includes direct interaction with armed groups.

The ICRC is talking with more than 200 armed groups in about 50 countries affected by non-international armed conflict as well as by other widespread violence under the threshold of armed conflict. As a result, the organization is able to constantly refine its understanding of armed groups, a term that embraces more than just opposition groups. For armed groups may hold a communist ideology or have an Islamist and jihadist outlook. Others, however, may be inter-tribal fighters, rural or urban self-defence groups, territorial gangs, or business-oriented organizations.

We therefore have to deal with the great diversity and ongoing fragmentation of these groups. Take Syria for instance, where today there are more than 200 different factions. This array of participants also means that we need to get a better understanding of shifting alliances and motivations. We recently heard that the M-23 was announcing an end to its insurgency in the eastern Congo. Yes, this could help bring down the level of violence. However, dozens of armed groups remain present and active, and may fill the vacuum left by the M-23.

When it comes to dialogue with this broad variety of actors about the consequences of their actions in humanitarian and legal terms, it is therefore crucial for us to ensure that our approach fits the context.
However this dialogue is often difficult, sometime impossible to establish owing to the structure and political characteristics of armed groups. In addition, some governments deny, prohibit, and even criminalize any form of contact with armed groups, if only by humanitarian agents. In the dozen years since 11 September 2001, certain countries have enacted legislation criminalizing material support for organizations deemed by the governments concerned as terrorist organizations, including many armed groups that are taking part in a non-international armed conflict. States have a right and even a duty to protect their citizens from acts of terrorism. However, a broad or vague definition of what constitutes such material "support" could, in practice, preclude any interaction at all with armed groups, including for the purpose of enhancing compliance with the law or of assisting people affected by the fighting.

Allow me to be a bit more specific about how the ICRC approaches engagement with armed groups.

A first and necessary step is often to create an environment conducive to dialogue on humanitarian issues. Experience has shown us that it is easiest to persuade armed groups to see the protective force of humanitarian law when their own members benefit from protection when captured.

To that end, the ICRC visits members of armed groups detained in government prisons and does its utmost to ensure that their conditions and treatment are consistent with  international norms and standards.
The ICRC provides health-care training ranging from basic first aid courses for combatants (in eastern Congo, Afghanistan and Sudan for example) to war-surgery courses such as those given to FARC surgeons in Colombia.

The ICRC strives to ensure that the bodies of members of armed groups are returned to their families in places such as Colombia and Afghanistan.

In addition, given the diversity of armed groups, we find it essential to have an accurate understanding of the norms that armed groups do comply with and to gauge their motivation – or lack of motivation – to respect the law.

The ICRC’s work on codes of conduct is part of this effort. In addition to keeping an up-to-date record of the codes of conduct of various armed groups, we also offer to comment on them where feasible, and encourage armed groups to better incorporate the law. This also enables us to identify bridges between international humanitarian law and cultures, religions and traditions inspiring armed groups. And to use these as a means of developing constructive dialogue.

For instance, the ICRC has worked for more than a decade on a better understanding of Islamic law and on finding the points it has in common with international humanitarian law. In Somalia, the has ICRC conducted a study of traditional Somali behaviour in warfare, entitled “Spared from the Spear”, which it identifies parallels between the customary rules followed by Somali tribes, on the one hand, and humanitarian law on the other. Similarly, in Papua New Guinea, the ICRC has carried out an anthropological study called “Under the protection of the palm – Wars of dignity in the Pacific”.

An understanding of the behaviour, characteristics and motivation of an armed group  is essential to bringing about a sustained commitment on its part to compliance with the law. Experience has taught us that simple information campaigns to make them aware of the rules in force are not sufficient to achieve this.

The ICRC also endeavours to understand the actual practice of these groups. Let me give you a few examples:

1) The ICRC’s has been working with non-State armed groups in the framework of the “Health Care in Danger” campaign. Violence against patients and health-care workers is one of today's most crucial yet largely overlooked issues of humanitarian concern. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is running a global campaign aimed at improving security for impartial health care in armed conflicts and other emergencies. We are therefore consulting various armed groups about their practice and the extent to which they respect the rules safeguarding health care in those situations. The armed groups thus receive recognition as key entities regarding issues of humanitarian concern, which we hope is an incentive to abide by the law.

2) In Colombia, the ICRC engages in confidential dialogue with all the parties to the conflict there to remind them of the harm that improvised explosive devices and the explosive remnants of war can cause to civilians. We encourage activities to improve the lives of communities suffering the effects of contamination by mines and so on.

3) The ICRC also engages in dialogue with armed groups on detention. It should be noted that armed groups frequently detain people, sometimes in large numbers. For instance, in the first decade of the twenty-first century alone, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army and Movement in Sudan, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional in Colombia – among many others – frequently deprived various people of their liberty. To meet the prisoners' needs from a humanitarian viewpoint, the ICRC draws upon its unique experience of State detention, adapting it to the exigencies of armed groups and the peculiarities of their detention practice. For many detainees around the world in the hands of armed groups, ICRC remains brings sorely needed hope.

Finally, building on our context-oriented approach, the ICRC is keeping pace with armed groups’ increasing use of sophisticated digital technology. In particular, we are developing "distance learning" courses that can be used by non-State armed groups involved in hostilities. These include virtual-reality tools that present concrete situations and dilemmas faced by combatants on the battlefield. They are being developed for entities involved in the Syrian conflict, and will accompany the on-site training in humanitarian law organized in recent months by the ICRC in Jordan.

I have just presented some examples of how the ICRC addresses humanitarian concerns on the ground through dialogue with armed groups. This is only one aspect of our work to meet the challenges posed by modern-day non-international armed conflicts.

Naturally, the ICRC continues working to clarify and develop the law itself. For instance, you may know that our organization received a mandate from the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent to conduct four regional consultations. In 2012 and 2013, therefore, it met with 170 government experts representing 93 States to strengthen legal protection for people deprived of their liberty in non-international armed conflict. At the same time, the ICRC and the Swiss government launched a series of discussions on how to strengthen compliance with the law. An initial informal meeting with all States was held in Geneva in July 2012, followed by a second meeting in June 2013. My colleague Jelena Pejic will further expand on these two processes during the panel discussion.

On this note, I will now leave the discussion to our distinguished panel.

Thank you very much.


IHL teaching tools and methods were discussed and tested live during the four-day course. 

IHL teaching tools and methods were discussed and tested live during the four-day course.

Advanced Training Course in IHL for University Professors

The course took place at the ICRC Humanitarium from 4-7 November 2013. Organized in conjunction with the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) course for diplomats and the 10th Paul Reuter Prize Award ceremony, it brought together 32 professors and researchers from more than 20 countries to discuss cutting-edge IHL topics. These included the scope of contemporary armed conflicts, cyber-warfare, law enforcement versus modes of conduct during hostilities, and compliance of non-state armed groups with IHL. The course also allowed for exchanges on teaching tools and methodologies.

The university professors participated in a co-chaired workshop on the rights and responsibilities of medical personnel in situations of armed conflict and other emergencies. 

The university professors participated in a co-chaired workshop on the rights and responsibilities of medical personnel in situations of armed conflict and other emergencies.

Following the course, participants are expected to further support the work of the ICRC in various domains, among them providing updates to the IHL customary law database, new commentaries to the Geneva conventions, national implementation of IHL and introduction of ‘health care in danger’ issues related to the rights and responsibilities of medical personnel in their respective teaching.

>> Listen to the audio-recordings of the course sessions


The conference also enabled an ‘online conversation’ to take place, engaging academics and humanitarian practitioners from around the world. 

The conference also enabled an ‘online conversation’ to take place, engaging academics and humanitarian practitioners from around the world.

ICRC Permanent Vice-President Mrs Beerli gives the keynote address. As well as participants at the conference in Geneva, the proceedings were followed by an online audience worldwide. 

ICRC Permanent Vice-President Mrs Beerli gives the keynote address. As well as participants at the conference in Geneva, the proceedings were followed by an online audience worldwide.

Professor Sivakumaran, the 10th Paul Reuter Prize Laureate, introduces his award-winning book on ‘The Law of Non-International Armed Conflict’. 

Professor Sivakumaran, the 10th Paul Reuter Prize Laureate, introduces his award-winning book on ‘The Law of Non-International Armed Conflict’.

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