Through the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, human rights advocates focused their attention on human rights violations directly attributed to government authority. Such abuses included trumped-up charges and unfair trials for political dissidents, imprisonment, torture, capital punishment, enforced disappearances, and political assassinations. Researchers for Amnesty International in those years documented a wide range of human rights violations committed by state agents, and Amnesty members around the world addressed their appeals for redress to government officials.
As time progressed, some governments began to distance themselves from abusive acts by employing paramilitary proxies, and at the same time, abusive acts by insurgent groups became more difficult to ignore. Nebulous “death squads” with hidden ties to the state threatened peasants in El Salvador, for example, and leftist guerrillas in Colombia took high profile political hostages. These changing circumstances and changing perceptions challenged practitioners to re-think an exclusive focus on the state as perpetrator of human rights violations. As Ken Roth explains, Human Rights Watch “solved” this problem by invoking standards of international humanitarian law, applicable to both state and non-state actors in times of conflict. For Amnesty International that solution was not immediately workable, as the organization was not oriented toward abuses that transpired in times of war.
Wilder Tayler recounts Amnesty International’s efforts to address the question of accountability by non-state actors and he presents the term it coined in the 1980s, non-governmental entity (NGE). Amnesty developed this term to designate a political actor that, while not recognized as a sovereign government, nevertheless acted like a government in exercising authority — and engaging in abusive behavior. Amnesty International asserted that such groups, like bona fide governments, are subject to provisions of international human rights standards and must be held accountable to them.
The specific term non-government entity never gained much currency beyond Amnesty International circles, and today it has largely been replaced with the term non-state actor (NSA). The principle that extends from AI’s work on NGEs, however, has been widely embraced. Human rights practitioners today generally agree that insurgents and other armed groups are state-like actors and as such are directly accountable for abuses they commit – whether in the context of conflict or peacetime.
Some specialists with sensitivity to nuance nevertheless prefer to use the generic term human rights abuse to describe offenses by non-state actors while reserving the term human rights violation for state-originated offenses. Abuses in a context of conflict may be referred to as war crimes, whether committed by government troops or rebel forces.
For more information:
Ken Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, explains how and why Human Rights Watch decided to invoke international humanitarian law alongside international human rights law to condemn crimes committed in wartime by all parties to conflict in his narrative, “The International Human Rights Movement and International Humanitarian Law.”
Wilder Tayler, Secretary General of the International Commission of Jurists and former Legal Adviser and Program Director of the Americas Program at Amnesty International, recounts how Amnesty International came to address the issue of accountability of non-state actors for human rights abuses in his narrative, “International Human Rights, Rebel Forces and Non-Government Entities.”
International Standards — Treaties and Other Human Rights Instruments
- International Committee of the Red Cross. “Customary International Humanitarian Law: Rule 156, War Crimes.”
- UN Treaty Collection. Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, 1998.
- International Committee of the Red Cross. “Understanding Armed Groups and Applicable Law.” 2011.
Mechanisms for Implementation of Legal Standards and International Policy
- International Criminal Court. “News and Highlights.” (Note: See website section on situations and cases taken up by the Court.)
Reports and Analysis by NGOs, IGOs, Policy Centers and Governments
- International Council on Human Rights Policy. “Ends and Means: Human Rights Approaches to Armed Groups.” 2000.
- International Council on Human Rights Policy. “Talking about Terrorism: Risks and Choices for Human Rights Organizations.” Recounts the conceptual evolution, from “non-governmental entity” to “non-state actors.”
On standard-setting work by advocacy groups
Dudai, Ron and Kieran McEvoy. “Thinking Critically about Armed Groups and Human Rights Praxis.” Journal of Human Rights Practice, 4 (2012): 1-29.
On the accountability of non-state actors
Andreopoulos, George, Peter Juviler, and Zehra Kabasakal Arat, editors. Non State Actors and the Human Rights Universe. Kumarian Press, 2006.
- Clapham, Andrew. “Human Rights Obligations of Non-State Actors in Conflict Situations.” International Review of the Red Cross (2006).
Constantinides, Aristoteles. “Human rights obligations and accountability of armed groups.” Blogpost. Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research, Harvard University, 2012.
Advocacy Groups and Training Tools
- Harvard University, Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research.
- Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Training Manual on Human Rights Monitoring,” Professional Training Series No. 7, chapter I, Section D, “Definition of Key Terms — ‘Human Rights Violation’ and ‘Human Rights Abuse’.” United Nations, 2001.
- For use of the term “non-governmental entity” see Amnesty International, “El Salvador: The Spectre of Death Squads” (1996) and “A broken circle: “Disappeared” and Abducted in Kosovo” (1999). The term was never widely used outside of Amnesty International, and since 2000 it has generally fallen out of use even within Amnesty, replaced with the term Non-State Actor (NSA) or armed group. See for example, “Invisible Victims: Migrants on the Move in Mexico.”
- Bellal, Annyssa, Gilles Giacca, and Stuart Casey-Maslen, “International Law and Armed Non-State Actors in Afghanistan” International Review of the Red Cross, 2011.
- McEvoy, Kieran. “Holding Armed Opposition Groups Accountable: A Comparative Study of Obstacles and Strategies. The Northern Ireland Experience.” ICHRP Working Paper, 1999.
- Oberdiek, Helmut. “Holding Armed Opposition Groups Accountable: A Comparative Study of Obstacles and Strategies. The Situation in Turkey.” ICHRP Working Paper, 1999.