Building respect for humanitarian action and IHL among “other” weapon bearers

29-10-2010 Overview

The "other" weapon bearers– armed opposition groups and military/security firms–cannot be overlooked in modern armed conflict. They are playing an increasingly active role, sometimes a major role, in internal disturbances and other violent situations as well as in high-intensity conflicts such as Afghanistan and formerly in Iraq. They have great influence on what happens to people affected by these situations, and their members can also become victims of the hostilities due to injury or capture. The ICRC therefore strives to maintain and strengthen dialogue with them in order to ensure that they are aware of their obligations.

Sudan: SLA (Sudan Liberation Army 

Sudan. An ICRC delegate with a member of the SLA (Sudan Liberation Army)
© ICRC / HEGER, Boris / V-P-SD-E-01934

Dialogue with armed groups is nothing new to the ICRC.  As far back as 1871, Henry Dunant, one of the founders of the Red Cross, conferred with leaders of the Paris Commune to work out a way of releasing hostages. From 1936 to 1939, ICRC delegates visited prisoners held by the Spanish Republicans to ascertain whether they were being correctly treated, and sometimes arranged their release. These are but two examples of numerous interactions and today, thanks to its willingness to remain neutral and independent, the ICRC has numerous contacts around the world with groups like the Taliban and FARC rebels in Colombia.

Armed groups encompass:

  • armed opposition groups,
  • pro-government armed groups,
  • communal groups
  • territorial gangs.

Approaching these groups can be difficult, but they can be relevant for the ICRC in two respects:

  • They are part of a humanitarian problem that the ICRC wants to address: they create victims, and may also become victims themselves. Being part of the problem, no solution can exist that does not take them into account.
  • They facilitate or hamper ICRC activities (access and security).


The ICRC's dialogue with armed groups aims to:

  • enhance the security of humanitarian workers
  • gain access to individuals held by armed groups or to people affected by the situation and living in areas controlled by them
  • assess the willingness and ability of these groups to ensure respect for the law of war and support to the extent possible their efforts to take measures to better respect  international humanitarian law, such as integrating the law into their codes of conduct.

A number of tools are available to the ICRC to help build respect for IHL by commanders and fighters. These include dissemination sessions, first-aid courses, advanced courses for commanders; practical support to incorporate IHL into training, education, doctrine and sanctions; and policy tools such as unilateral declarations and special agreements between the parties can also be provided by the ICRC to specific armed groups.

The ICRC maintains a dialogue with armed groups as with all those engaged in conflict, and does this for one sole purpose: to protect and assist the people affected by that conflict.

It is with this same objective that the ICRC takes up contact with private military and security firms. Since the mid-1990s, these companies have been taking on a growing number of the activities of armed forces operating outside their countries' borders: training troops, gathering intelligence, arresting and interrogating prisoners, and taking direct part in hostilities. Since they are interacting ever more frequently with people protected by international humanitarian law and other relevant laws, the ICRC has a duty to remind them of their obligations.

Most private military/security firms have begun recognizing the need to comply with international humanitarian law. However, weak chains of command, the lack of codes of conduct and operational guidelines and the absence of any system to punish violations can sometimes have the effect of encouraging violations. The ICRC strongly urges these firms to take the steps needed to ensure that their staff know and respect the law.