Protecting civilians in armed conflict

Humanitarian norms


International humanitarian law

Most armed conflicts involve armed non-State actors (ANSAs), either fighting Government forces or other ANSAs. Widespread international humanitarian law (IHL) violations occur during such conflicts. Examples include: deliberate attacks against civilians and civilian facilities such as schools and medical centres; hostage-taking; torture and other forms of ill-treatment, including sexual violence; summary executions; use of civilians as human shields; recruitment and use of children; indiscriminate use of anti-personnel (AP) mines; forced displacement; obstruction to, or diversion of, humanitarian assistance; and looting. Despite being protected under IHL, civilians, particularly women and children, are the primary victims of these and other acts of violence.

ANSAs and International Humanitarian Law

Many IHL violations — though by no means all — are committed by ANSAs. Indeed, ANSA lack of compliance with IHL has been identified as one of the five most critical challenges to the protection of civilians by the United Nations Secretary-General in his reports on the issue.

Yet the State-centric nature of international law poses a challenge. Even though they have obligations under IHL, ANSAs cannot become parties to relevant international treaties, and are generally precluded from participating in norm-making processes. Consequently, ANSAs may not feel bound to abide by rules that they have neither put forward nor formally adhered to. Sometimes they are simply not aware of their obligations under IHL, or lack the means to disseminate rules amongst their fighters.

Engaging and training ANSAs on IHL is therefore a critical element in any effort to enhance their adherence to and respect of existing rules.

Geneva Call’s innovative approach

In addition to engagement on specific norms (AP mine ban, protection of children from the effects of armed conflict and prohibition of sexual violence and gender discrimination), Geneva Call seeks to build ANSAs’ knowledge of broad IHL rules, and their capacities to implement them.

In recent years, Geneva Call has increasingly provided trainings and technical advice to ANSAs on how to incorporate IHL into their policies, codes of conduct and other internal regulations. In some cases, especially where Geneva Call’s current themes of engagement are not priority concerns or best starting points for dialogue, such activities around IHL can serve as a method for engagement.

Main Achievements

  • Geneva Call has engaged with over 15 ANSAs on broad IHL rules, and in most cases provided relevant training and follow-up activities.
  • ANSA-specific IHL training modules in different languages, which address ANSAs’ practical concerns and include realistic exercises relevant to their operating contexts, have been created and used in several contexts.
  • In Syria, a specific campaign called Fighter not Killer has been launched using the internet, social media networks and TV with the aim of disseminating a number of basic humanitarian norms to a wide audience.
  • Geneva Call has also designed a unique online directory of more than 400 commitments and agreements made by ANSAs on IHL rules (