This is one of six essays in the May 2018 report "Addressing Non-State Actors: Multiple Approaches" (see full report). Each essay is the independent work of its author.
For the past 20 years I have frequently been involved in engaging non-state armed groups in Asia; primarily on the issue of landmine use, but also on other issues. During that time, I also developed a training program for the country researchers involved in the Landmine Monitor, the annual publication of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). The ICBL uses the following definition for a non-state armed group:
Non-State Armed Groups include any identifiable group that uses armed methods and is not within the formal structure of a recognized state. This includes:
- counter-state armed political movements, guerrilla movements and rebel armed forces;
- militias or civil patrols often operating under the sanction of official entities, but not within the legal state structure; and,
- criminal groups, private military companies, others.[i]
Based on my experiences, this essay offers practical lessons for activists on whether and how to engage such groups.
Determine any existing basis for engagement
A political assessment of an opportunity to engage a non-state armed group would include any codes of conduct issued by the group. Many armed groups do have codes of conduct, the oldest known one being the Three Main Rules of Discipline and the Eight Points for Attention drawn up for the Red Army during the Second Revolutionary Civil War in China (1927-37).[ii] The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) certainly has the most experience engaging non-state armed groups to allow humanitarian access for their medical interventions. Rapporteurs for UN Special Mechanisms regularly engage non-state armed groups and recommend cessation from certain war behaviors. In Kashmir, local civil society organizations successfully engaged armed groups to halt the use of explosive weapons in highly populated areas.[iii] Groups that have no political platform whatsoever, or are solely criminal enterprises, will be difficult if not impossible to engage in a humanitarian dialogue.
The first thing that must be clear to an activist contacting a non-state armed group is why they have chosen to contact an armed group, and why the armed group may be responsive to such a request. If there is an identifiable political wing of an armed group, this is a probable first focus. The activist needs to understand the armed groups political motivations, and what if any entry points that opens. The armed group may have a constituency, claimed or real, such as an ethnic group or identifiable community which they claim to represent. The activist should search for allies within that group. The activist should have a clear sense of the armed group’s propaganda, especially if any of it relates to the issue about which they are being engaged.
Accessing non-state armed groups is not straightforward, as they are hunted by states and all apparatuses a state has to deploy, and are the subject of surveillance, likely by multiple parties.
Activists engaging armed groups need to be sure that their activities cannot be used by others. A negative example of this is a colleague who sought, and was granted permission, by a government, to engage a non-state armed group about possible negotiations. The state actually had no interest in negotiations, and deceptively made use of his engagement to clandestinely follow him to the meeting place. All the members of that group who agreed to meet him were then killed by government agents. My colleague survived but carried the psychological scars of this deception for many years. Never once in all my own interactions with non-state armed groups did I seek advance permission of state authorities. I might subsequently share some details of my meetings with an armed group with a state authority, but only as long as it was general and I determined it to be helpful.
Activists also need to assure their own security. Both in relation to the armed group and the armed groups enemies, which are usually the state but could also be other armed groups.
An armed group will be suspicious of anyone coming to engage them. An agreement by them to meet is usually a form of security guarantee from them (they will not harm you). However, they dictate the circumstances. This can involve waiting in an isolated area so that the activist’s approach can be observed, then being asked to move to a new location by cellphone, perhaps multiple times, sometimes blindfolding so that the activist cannot recall, even under duress, where they were.
Activists should assume they will be under surveillance by the state. In some cases, a state may reveal this in order to threaten the activist to cease their engagement with an armed group. This can be done by directly calling the activist on their cellphone with a somewhat threatening message like “We know why you are here.” and then hanging up, for example. Or it may be a blatant attempt at recruitment of the activist with offers of assistance or benefits. I’ve experienced all of these. I believe my best protection has been to make clear at all times to all actors my humanitarian agenda. Use any and all channels to put this message out, and the fact that humanitarian principles require engagement of all actors on those principles without favor.
Activists need to be on guard for assumptions, likely unstated, which an armed group may have about why they are being engaged with. Armed groups live within a tightly contained bubble and tend to see things in black and white. ‘Others’ are either with them or against them. In such a situation, how will an activist’s topic of engagement be perceived? I had a disastrous experience with an armed group who had become very open with me about landmine warfare, but once finished, then turned to me and asked when I would be teaching them how to breach the enemies’ minefields. Clearly, I had not laid the proper ground for them to understand why I was there. I found myself well within their military camp and some rapidly unhappy, but very well armed, combatants around me. Fast thinking managed to save the situation from deteriorating and for me to leave unscathed, but I learned a very valuable lesson from it in making sure the reason I have approached the group is unambiguous and regularly restated.
Do your research
The first casualty of armed conflict is the truth. Activists approaching an armed group need to know all the available facts, but be equally aware of where their knowledge of the situation ends. This will aid the activist in cutting through propaganda and distortion, and assist in bolstering the activist’s argument for the issue or topic of engagement. One armed group said to me, and regularly to the media, that there were no civilian mine victims from their mines as they were battery operated and ceased working shortly after being laid. My own research showed the number of civilian victims, and the persistence of the mine for much longer that this claim. Clearly laying out these facts before they raised the issue did two things: (1) it demonstrated that I knew what I was talking about, which gave me standing; and (2) it cut through a layer of propaganda and allowed us to talk about the real issues directly.
Protect your colleagues and yourself
It is frequently a criminal offense to meet with a non-state armed group within the country of the government against which it struggles. It is usually safest to meet them in their rear base, which may well be in a neighboring country. This is also likely where their leadership or decision-makers reside. Planning must be taken very seriously if any member of the activist delegation to engage the armed group resides in a country in which contact with such a group is illegal, or where the authorities are likely to take punitive action, even extra-legally, against one of the delegation. While activist organizing may be quiet and discreet, there should be no illusion that it can be protected by secrecy. Although engagement is likely to be organized as a non-public event, it should be assumed that it will be known to the authorities sooner or later. As security services have it in their own interest to portray any contact with an armed group in the most negative light, it will assist the activist’s group’s security if they issue a public report immediately after the fact announcing the engagement, humanitarian goal of the engagement, and result. Such reports will require extreme diplomacy and tact in their production. A press conference can be helpful in dissemination, if suitable to the situation.
No conflict situation is waged by a single side, and meaningful intervention in support of humanitarian principles requires the engagement of all sides to a conflict. Engaging non-state armed groups should be approached as a high-risk activity. Activists doing so must have clear goals, and a comprehensive analysis of the situation. Even with the best of preparation, a fall back plan should be in place in the case that things go wrong. Tread carefully!
Ben Saul, “Enhancing Civilian Protection by Engaging Non-State Armed Groups under International Humanitarian Law,” Journal of Conflict and Security Law, Volume 22, Issue 1, 1 April 2017, pages 39–66.
Andrew MacLeod, Claudia Hofmann, Ben Saul, Joshua Webb, Charu Lata Hogg, “Humanitarian Engagement with Non-state Armed Groups,” Chatam House, April 2016.
Mackenzie Kennedy, “Engaging Non-State Armed Groups in the ‘Fight’ Against Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Eastern Congo,” The Yale Review of International Studies, February 2016.
Podcast, “Perspectives on Access: Engaging with Non-State Armed Groups,” Harvard Humanitarian Program, 22 October 2015, 1hr 11min.
Ashley Jackson, “Negotiating perceptions: Al-Shabaab and Taliban views of aid agencies,” HPG Policy Brief, Humanitarian Policy Group, 2014.
Jérémi Labbé, Reno Meyer “Engaging Nonstate Armed Groups on the Protection of Children: Towards Strategic Complementarity,” International Peace Institute, Issue Brief, April 2012.
Claudia Hofmann, Ulrich Schneckener, “Engaging non-state armed actors in state-and peace-building: options and strategies,” International Review of the Red Cross, Volume 93 Number 883 September 2011.
Andrew Clapham, “The Rights and Responsibilities of Armed Non-State Actors: The Legal Landscape & Issues Surrounding Engagement,” Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, February 2010.
Max P. Glaser, “Engaging with non-state armed groups in the context of the ‘Global War on Terror’: observations from Lebanon and Gaza,” Humanitarian Exchange, No. 37, March 2007, Humanitarian Practice Network.
Claudia Hofmann, “Engaging Non-State Armed Groups in Humanitarian Action”, International Peacekeeping, Vol.13, No.3, September 2006, pp.396–409.
Conciliation Resources, “Choosing to engage: Armed groups and peace processes,” Accord, Issue 16, 2005.
Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan is an independent expert.
[i]See Landmine Monitor, “Key Developments, Non-State Armed Groups,” November 2008, http://archives.the-monitor.org/index.php/content/download/31633/489450/file/NSAG_Fact_Sheet_Nov_08.pdf.
[ii]See ICRC, “A collection of codes of conduct issued by armed groups,” International Review of the Red Cross, Volume 93 Number 882 June 2011, https://www.icrc.org/en/international-review/article/collection-codes-conduct-issued-armed-groups.
[iii]After public manifestations condemning use of grenades by insurgents in urban areas which resulted in a number of civilian casualties, the United Jihad Council, the coordinating entity for the insurgency issued instructions to its combatants to halt such activity. See Olivier Bangerter, Internal Control Codes of Conduct within Insurgent Armed Groups, Small Arms Survey, Occasional Papers 31, November 2012. http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/B-Occasional-papers/SAS-OP31-internal-control.pdf.