The ICRC engagement with armed groups: a humanitarian necessity

The ICRC engagement with armed groups: a humanitarian necessity

For the past years, the ICRC estimated that tens of millions of people lived in areas controlled by non-state armed groups and thus outside of regular services provided by state-run governance systems. An additional but unknown number of people delve in contested areas where states and armed groups compete for control. In situations of armed conflict or other situations of violence, people living in these areas are vulnerable and in need of protection and assistance.
Article 30 June 2021

Throughout its history, and across the world, the ICRC, pursuant to its mandate and fundamental principles of neutrality and impartiality, has sought to engage with all parties to a conflict in order to secure access to vulnerable populations for essential needs and services. The dialogue with all weapons bearers, be they State or non-state actors, is a cornerstone of our work as a neutral and impartial humanitarian actor.

The ICRC's right to offer its services does "not affect the legal status of the parties to the conflict", as stated explicitly in Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions. From a practical point of view, acceptance of an ICRC offer of services by an armed group can only come about as a result of a dialogue and a relationship of trust.

The ICRC engages with hundreds of armed groups worldwide that are of humanitarian concern.

The proliferation of armed groups over recent years has created more complex, multi-layered, transversal and fast-evolving operational environments which require continuous adaptation. It has also led to an increased control and restraint on all activities seen as providing support to non-State armed groups or individuals designated as "terrorists", including activities carried out by impartial humanitarian organizations such as the ICRC.

While States undoubtedly have a right and duty to protect the safety and well-being of their populations, these anti-terrorism measures have an adverse impact on the delivery of humanitarian activities and the conduct of principled humanitarian action, notably by obstructing engagement with certain armed groups resulting in hindering access to the most vulnerable people.

In this challenging environment, the ICRC has continued to seek and engage in direct contact and dialogue with all actors in a given conflict, including non-state armed groups, in order to achieve tangible results. These include, for example, the exchange of prisoners, the provision of life-saving assistance to persons living in areas controlled by armed groups or ensuring the support to health-care facilities in these areas to treat the sick and wounded. 

We see every day how this approach can save lives, protect people affected by conflict and defend the very idea of human dignity even in the midst of war.

Street fighting in Misrata, Libya. Protecting the civilian population in such situations is a priority for the ICRC.
Street fighting in Misrata, Libya. Protecting the civilian population in such situations is a priority for the ICRC. André Liohn/ICRC

In brief, the objectives of our engagement with armed groups are:

  • to secure safe access to populations affected by armed conflict or other forms of violence and provide impartial humanitarian assistance;
  • to build trust and to promote understanding and acceptance of the ICRC as an independent, neutral and impartial humanitarian organization in order to enable it to perform its humanitarian tasks in safety; and
  • to promote an understanding of humanitarian principles and the implementation and respect for the legal obligations of parties to armed conflict, i.e. international humanitarian law.

What does our engagement enable ?

  • The ICRC regularly organizes dissemination sessions on humanitarian principles and trainings on International Humanitarian Law for non-state armed groups (NSAGs) across the globe, including in highly operational contexts such as Syria, Iraq, South Sudan or the DRC.
  • The ICRC also regularly acts as a neutral intermediary in the release of both civilians and security and armed forces members held by NSAGs. For instance, in the past few decades, the ICRC facilitated the release of more than 1,800 people held by NSAGs in Colombia.
  • In 2020, the ICRC likewise acted as a neutral intermediary in the exchange of more than 1,000 detainees between the Yemeni authorities and the Ansarullah movement in that country, in the largest prisoner swap to date between the warring sides.
  • This role of the ICRC as a neutral intermediary has also been called upon by State authorities to deliver basic services such as health care, including vaccines, to vulnerable populations living in areas controlled by armed groups.
  • Recently, the ICRC and the Norwegian Red Cross started support to medical infrastructure in a province of Afghanistan for people living under NSAG control. This includes the full rehabilitation of a health centre (water, electricity, waste management) and its surgical wards, as well as a training program for medical personnel.
  • In Gaza in 2014, working with the parties, including Hamas, the ICRC helped local farmers whose lands were destroyed by the fighting to get back on their feet by facilitating the clearance of unexploded remnants of war and the releveling of damaged agricultural land.

Learn more about engagement with armed groups:

  • The ICRC's engagement with non-state armed groups – This position paper published in 2021 introduces the approach taken by the ICRC for humanitarian engagement with non-state armed groups.
  • Religion & Humanitarian Principles blog – This ICRC-managed site consolidates the most relevant information on the intersection between religion and humanitarianism and helps us promoting better understanding and acceptance of international humanitarian law (IHL) and humanitarian principles across cultural and religious divides.
  • ICRC Humanitarian Law & Policy blog – This blog is a unique space for timely analysis and debate on international humanitarian law (IHL) issues and the policies that shape humanitarian action.
  • ICRC Roots of Restraint Study – this study is an update of the 2004 Roots of Behaviour in War. Based on two years of research collaboration between the ICRC and six distinguished scholars, the report identifies sources of influence on various types of armed forces and armed groups, ranging from those with a highly decentralised structure to those embedded within their communities.