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News Roundup 22 March – 28 March

March 31, 2021

Myanmar’s armed ethnic factions will not stand by if more killed, says one group

Children Trapped by Colombia’s War, Five Years After Peace Deal

Probe announced into alleged Tigray rights violations: UN rights office

Saudi Arabia proposes ceasefire plan to Yemen’s Houthi rebels

Guterres welcomes Saudi peace initiative to end fighting in Yemen

Amidst ‘heightened intensity’ actions toward peace must be ‘in the best interests’ of Afghans

The end of Yemen

Report: 2020 saw more violence and abuses in Colombia

‘Not a noisy gun’: The women peacebuilders of Liberia

Thousands of Venezuelans flee to Colombia amid military operations

News Roundup 15 March – 21 March

March 24, 2021

Armed attacks kill hundreds, displace 40,000 civilians in northeast DR Congo

Amid Myanmar’s post-coup crisis, armed rebellion brews

UN calls for inquiry after rebels fired missiles into Yemen detention centre

Grisly Killing in Syria Spawns Legal Case Against Russian Mercenaries

Gambia: Alleged ‘Death Squad’ Member Arrested in Germany

ICC letter triggering deferral deadline sent to Israel, Palestinians

Egypt: Massive Sinai Demolitions Likely War Crimes

UNICEF condemns ‘horrific killings’ of civilians in Niger

Children as young as 11 beheaded in Mozambique: NGO

Syria: A decade of flight

Temporalities of Protection and the ‘End’ of Non-International Armed Conflict

March 24, 2021

Dr Nathan Derejko is a Lecturer in the School of Law and Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex. Previously, Nathan was Director of the Human Rights Centre Clinic at the University of Essex, Director of the Masters in Human Rights Programme at University College London, and a visiting lecturer at the International Institute of International Humanitarian Law in Sanremo Italy.

Nathan’s research and teaching interests span three interrelated fields: International humanitarian law, international human rights law, and the use of force under the jus ad bellum. He has a particular interest in the applicability and application of human rights during armed conflict, counter-terrorism and human rights, and the law and practice of non-international armed conflicts. Nathan is also actively engaged outside of academia, and has previously worked with a number of human rights and humanitarian organisations in Canada, Europe, East Africa and the Middle East, and continues to deliver advanced training sessions for military personnel and government agencies, support strategic litigation efforts, and serves as an expert member for various NGO committees. Nathan is currently on the Defend Digital Me Advisory Council, an NGO focused on children’s rights to privacy and family life. Nathan Tweets at @NathanDerejko

The looming threat of a ‘forever war’, characterised by the so-called ‘Global Battlefield’ and the perpetual applicability of international humanitarian law (IHL), has thrust the question of when and how non-international armed conflicts (NIAC) end to the forefront of international concern and debate.

In both practical and legal terms, identifying the end of a NIAC is notoriously difficult. There are several reasons for this, but three in particular are important to highlight. The first is the complex spectrum of social, political and economic factors that underpin, propel, protract and ultimately bring NIACs to an end. Indeed, history is replete with NIACs spanning several years and, in some cases, several decades. The second is IHL’s virtual silence regarding its temporal scope of application during NIAC. While conventional IHL speaks of the ‘end of hostilities’ and the ‘end of the armed conflict’, it stops short of providing any guidance on the precise meaning and scope of these expressions, or the relationship between them. The third is the broad range of stakeholders that declare the end of a NIAC, including governments, military advisors, international organisations, courts and tribunals, humanitarian actors, and human rights defenders. The national interests or organisational mandates that motivate these stakeholders to declare the end of a NIAC invariably influence their determinations in accordance with the specific legal or policy consequences of IHL’s continuation or termination (p165).

In a recent article, A Forever War? Rethinking the Temporal Scope of Non-International Armed Conflict, I undertake a forensic examination of IHL’s threshold of termination during NIAC. The article first explores the temporal architecture of Common Article 3 (CA3) and Additional Protocol II (APII) to determine what, if anything, IHL has to say about its threshold of termination. From here, it critically examines two of the leading approaches for determining IHL’s threshold of termination during NIAC: the ‘peaceful settlement’ approach advanced in the jurisprudence of International Criminal Law (ICL) and the ‘lasting pacification’ approach advanced by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). While both of these approaches possess advantages and limitations, I argue that neither produce entirely satisfactory results for determining IHL’s threshold of termination during NIAC. For these reasons, the article develops and proposes an alternative ‘functional approach’, which addresses both the silence and shortcomings of existing law and doctrine, while upholding the very object and purpose of IHL during NIACs.

Rather than repeating this analysis, the purpose of this post is  further to explore the logic that underpins and informs the foundational argument in the article: the need to bifurcate IHL’s threshold of termination during NIAC in accordance with the object and purpose of IHL itself. 

Striking the Right Balance Between Premature and Overdue

The underlying challenge in determining IHL’s threshold of termination during NIAC is striking a harmonious balance between a premature and an overdue termination of IHL. In practice, this balance is often skewed by our understanding of how and when NIACs end. Most, but not all (para 70) theories on when and how NIACs end focus on whether hostilities have ceased altogether (or more)(p10), or have been sufficiently reduced in terms of frequency and intensity (somewhere)(p310) below the threshold of activation (p180). While there are good legal and logical reasons for this focus, the rules of IHL applicable during NIAC are not limited to regulating the conduct of hostilities between the Parties but are equally concerned with providing legal protection for individuals who do not, or no longer, participate in hostilities.

Broadly speaking, the framework of IHL applicable during NIACs can be divided between two general sets of rules: the ‘hostilities regime’ and the ‘protections regime’. The ‘hostilities regime’ refers to the IHL rules that regulate the conduct of hostilities between the Parties to a NIAC, the majority of which are found in customary IHL. The ‘protections regime’ refers to the conventional and customary rules of IHL applicable to individuals who do not or no longer directly participate in hostilities, including civilians and members of armed forces who have laid down their arms or are otherwise placed hors de combat. 

Given the distinct function each regime performs during NIAC, their temporal scope of application inescapably varies. For example, while the cessation of, or significant reduction in, hostilities certainly call into question the factual necessity for the rules regulating hostilities, they do not challenge the factual necessity of the protections for individuals deprived of their liberty, subject to criminal procedure, displaced for reasons related to the NIAC, or for individuals who find themselves living in territory under the control of armed groups. In other words, while the hostilities may have ended, the need for IHL’s protections may nonetheless remain.

It is within this operational context that striking a harmonious balance between a premature and overdue termination of IHL’s applicability during NIAC is challenging, if not impossible. For example, if IHL’s threshold of termination during NIAC is determined by an exclusive focus on the cessation of, or significant reduction in, hostilities, this would effectively disregard the temporalities of IHL’s protections and, as a result, (very) likely result in a premature termination of IHL’s protections for individuals who do not, or no longer, participate in hostilities. At the same time however, if IHL’s threshold of termination during NIAC is determined by focusing on the continued need for its protections, this may result in the continued applicability of the rules regulating the conduct of hostilities long after hostilities have been significantly reduced, or even ceased altogether. Considering that a number of IHL’s protections can remain applicable for months or even years after the cessation of hostilities, such  an approach renders IHL vulnerable to abuse by way of providing a thin veneer of legality for conduct that would otherwise be unlawful under the law enforcement regime.

Evidently, the real challenge is the prevailing ‘all or nothing approach’ to IHL’s threshold of termination during NIAC. Moreover, this ‘all or nothing approach’ seems to be the product of International Criminal Law (ICL) interpretations of IHL (para70), rather than a strict interpretation of IHL itself. Indeed, a number of the provisions of APII contain distinct temporal scopes of application that are entirely divorced from notions of ‘end of hostilities’ or ‘end of the conflict’, as is evident in the protections afforded to persons deprived of their liberty, or whose liberty has been restricted. In addition, a number of customary IHL obligations may only be activated following the cessation of hostilities, which in effect are the “post-conflict obligations” of IHL (p24), such as the obligation to identify, remove or neutralise landmines;  the various obligations with respect to the missing or dead; and the obligation to investigate and prosecute alleged IHL violations, and provide any necessary reparations for such violations. As a result, any endeavour to identify a single point in time to terminate the applicability of IHL in toto pays scant regard to the varying temporalities of IHL’s protections and invariablyresults in the over-extension of IHL to factual circumstances that no longer warrant its application, or by the premature termination of its applicability before comprehensive protection is restored under international human rights law. Considering the object and purpose of IHL during NIAC is regulating not only the conduct of hostilities, but also the the consequences of hostilities, a more nuanced approach is necessary.

A Functional Approach to IHL’s Threshold of Termination During NIAC

Given the distinct function the hostilities and protections regimes perform during NIAC, the factual necessity that underpins and informs their temporal scope of application will rarely, if ever, terminate simultaneously. For this reason, a bifurcated approach whereby the threshold of termination of the hostilities and protections regimes are determined separately, is both necessary and appropriate. This functional approach, considered as such, is both legally and operationally sound. Legally sound insofar that it reflects and respects the varying temporalities inherent to the protections of APII, and is predicated on the idea that the temporal scope of IHL must be interpreted in a manner that gives effect to its object and purpose. In operational terms, this functional approach equally guards against a potential premature or overdue termination of IHL during NIAC, and therefore also aligns with the object and purpose of IHL during NIAC.

So how does this work in practice? At its most basic, the temporal scope of the hostilities regime should be interpreted in a manner that gives effect to the function that it serves: regulating the conduct and consequences of hostilities during NIAC. As a general rule, if hostilities are ongoing, the rules designed to regulate hostilities are applicable. Importantly however, the termination of the hostilities regime should not require the complete cessation of hostilities but, rather, a sufficient and factual reduction in their intensity and frequency to the point where the residual armed violence can be factually described as isolated or sporadic, and therefore once again regulated by the law enforcement regime. This determination requires a careful and comprehensive assessment of the prevailing factual circumstances in order to distinguish between a mere lull in hostilities or the temporary suspension of hostilities, from a factual reduction in hostilities that warrants the termination of the hostilities regime. Importantly, the termination of the hostilities regime will have no effect on the applicability of the protections regime.

Along similar lines, the temporal scope of IHL’s protections regime must be construed in a manner that gives effect to the function that it serves during NIAC: to provide legal protection to the victims of NIAC. As a general rule, IHL protections remain applicable until the objective conditions that gave rise to their activation no longer exist, or until such time that individuals benefit from equal or more favourable legal protection under international human rights law. This approach creates a balance between the temporal scope of IHL protections, and the role and relevance of international human rights law during NIAC. This determination can only be made on a case-by-case basis, and through a careful assessment of the prevailing factual circumstances and reference to the specific protections under consideration. As a result, the temporal scope of the various protections during NIAC may in fact vary in accordance with the prevailing factual circumstances.

Conclusion

To sum up, what I have attempted to demonstrate is that neither the ‘end of hostilities’ nor the ‘end of NIAC’ will necessarily bring about the termination of IHL in toto during NIAC. This is because IHL is a pragmatic and functional legal regime comprised of a diverse range of obligations and protections applicable to specific factual circumstances. It is these specific factual circumstances, coupled with the object and purpose of the corresponding provisions of IHL, that will determine the temporal scope of IHL during NIAC. Any other approach would be contrary to the very object and purpose of IHL itself.

News Roundup 8 March – 14 March

March 17, 2021

Syria war: Average of one child injured or killed every eight hours over past 10 years – UNICEF

Ten years on, Syrian crisis ‘remains a living nightmare’: UN Secretary-General

Myanmar junta removes Rakhine rebels from terrorist list

Myanmar crackdown has led to likely crimes against humanity, Human Rights Council told

EXCLUSIVE: Burkina Faso’s secret peace talks and fragile jihadist ceasefire

Yemen’s Houthis attack Saudi oil heartland with drones, missiles

War crimes court orders record $30 million compensation for Congo victims

In Pictures: How new CAR violence has made women more vulnerable

Inclusive political process key to Sudan’s transition, Security Council hears

Climate Change Is Fueling Recruitment into Armed Groups

AGIL Podcast: Legal identity and birth registration in territory controlled by armed groups – a conversation

March 11, 2021

When I was chatting to my colleague (and long-time podcast-er) Willem Janssen at Utrecht University about how to make podcasts, he said that the best thing to do was “just go for it”. I have followed his advice and this first episode of the Armed Groups and International Law podcast is the result! It is a conversation between Kathryn Hampton and myself where we discuss the topic of birth registration in territory controlled by armed groups.

Kathryn Hampton is the author of an article in the International Review of the Red Cross entitled ‘Born in the Twilight Zone: Birth Registration in Insurgent Areas’. It is great to be able to put her excellent article in the spotlight, as she learnt last week that it has won the 2021 Lieber Prize for best article. An accolade which is thoroughly deserved. At the time her article came out, I had already finished my article that has just come out in the February issue of the Human Rights Quarterly entitled ‘To be or not to be? Legal Identity in Crisis in Non-International Armed Conflicts’ *. Both articles explore the issue of how civilian populations obtain documentation pertaining to life events in territory controlled by armed groups. We take slightly different angles to the law and as a result our articles make interesting companion pieces on this issue which is of considerable humanitarian importance. Kathryn and I thought it would be interesting to have a chat about this topic, relating why we both found the topic so critical, explaining how our respective articles had come about and identifying what had surprised us in our research. As Kathryn also has experience as a humanitarian practitioner, she brings this perspective to the table too. Have a listen!

I’d like to thank Kathryn very much for taking part in this conversation which was recorded in July 2020. It’s taken a while to get the episode out into the world, as my technical skills are somewhat lacking in the audio department and I’ve been juggling homeschooling and work for the last few months. However now it’s up on the blog, we’d love to hear your feedback on the topic, format and future topics we might cover in audio form. Hopefully there will be more conversations to come!

Below are some documents and reports referenced in the podcast:-

Melanie J Khanna and Peggy Brett, ‘Making Effective Use of UN Human Rights Mechanisms to Solve Statelessness’ in Laura Van Waas and Melanie J Khanna (eds), Solving Statelessness (Wolf Legal 2016) 13

Michael Schoiswohl, ‘De Facto Regimes and Human Rights Obligations – The Twilight Zone of International Law, Austrian Review of International and European Law, 6: 45-90 2001

UNICEF, Birth Registration in Armed Conflict, 2007

IRC, Identify Me: The Documentation Crisis in Northern Syria, 2016

NRC, Paperless people of post-conflict Iraq, 2019

NRC, Barriers from birth: undocumented children in Iraq sentenced to a life at the margins, 2019

*this is not open access, but please feel free to email me if you would like a copy.

News Roundup 1 March – 7 March

March 10, 2021

Colombia Seeks Justice for War Atrocities Via New Court

Analysis: Syria’s peace process and the Russian and US roles

Army, private firm, fighters accused of Mozambique war crimes

Amidst ‘conflict, blanket denials and finger-pointing’, UN rights chief calls for probe in Ethiopia’s Tigray

ICC Prosecutor opens probe into alleged crimes in occupied Palestine

Yemen pledging conference: Severity of suffering ‘impossible to overstate’ says Guterres

Fate still unclear of ‘tens of thousands’ of civilian detainees in Syria

South Sudan’s transition from conflict to recovery ‘inching forward’ – UN envoy

Yemen: UN ceasefire monitoring mission condemns attack on civilians in Hudaydah

Protecting the Information Space in Times of Armed Conflict

Online Side Event at the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council

March 4, 2021

Friday, 5 March, 2021, 13:00-14:30 CEST.

The pervasiveness of armed non-State actors’ (ANSAs) involvement in armed conflict and other situations of violence worldwide highlights the importance of effectively implementing the existing international legal protections to safeguard the human dignity of individuals, as protected under International Human Rights Law (IHRL) and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) – irrespective of the status or character of the perpetrators.

The precise extent and content of the legal obligations of ANSAs under IHRL are subject to an evolving discussion among States, academics, civil society and corporate actors. Nonetheless, the international community – including international tribunals, UNGA, UNSC and UN human rights mechanisms – have repeatedly held ANSAs accountable for conduct harming the human rights of individuals and called on States to reaffirm and strengthen the international human rights obligations of ANSAs.

This online side-event to the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council follows a joint public statement just issued by a large group of United Nations Special Procedures Mandate Holders. Focusing on armed conflicts and other situations of violence, the joint statement highlights the far-reaching negative human rights impact of ANSAs on rights’ holders and provides recommendations to States and other stakeholders in view of safeguarding the human rights of individuals from transgression on the part of ANSAs.

Co-organized by the Geneva Academy, the Geneva Human Rights Platform, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – mandates of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions – the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, it aims at:

  • Recalling human rights norms and standards, including jus cogens norms and non-derogable rights, which must be safeguarded against any perpetrator, including ANSAs regardless of their level of control, organisation or structure;
  • Taking stock of Special Procedures Mandate Holders’ recommendations and interpretation on ANSAs obligations under IHL and IHRL;
  • Identifying challenges in safeguarding human rights in situations of armed conflict and other situations of violence, including through formal and informal channels of engagement with ANSAs;
  • Providing recommendations to States and other stakeholders in view of safeguarding the human rights of individuals from transgressions on the part of ANSAs.

Online Participation and Registration:

Prior registration required through this link.

Please note that the number of attendees is limited and that virtual space will be attributed on a first-come-first-served basis.

News Roundup 22 February – 28 February

March 3, 2021

Syria torture: German court convicts ex-intelligence officer

India, Pakistan militaries agree to stop cross-border firing in rare joint statement

Anger, fear run deep after months of ethnic violence in western Ethiopia

Avoid ‘risky winner-take-all tactics’ in Somalia, UN Security Council hears

Colombia’s Military Killed Three Times More Civilians During FARC War Than Previously Reported

Sudan: The Rebels Come to Khartoum – How to Implement Sudan’s New Peace Agreement

Central African Republic ‘very volatile’, despite important progress – UN peacekeeping chief

Saudi-led attacks devastated Yemen’s civilians infrastructure, dramatically worsening the humanitarian crisis

People, medical facilities hit during violence in southern CAR

‘Disturbing spike’ in Afghan civilian casualties after peace talks began: UN report.

News Roundup 15 February – 21 February

February 24, 2021

Violence in South Sudan engulfs country, 10 years after independence ‘children all have guns’

Victims to testify in Swiss war crimes trial of Liberian rebel commander

Probes on extrajudicial killings, ‘important step’ in fighting impunity in Colombia – UN rights office

Yemen: UN rights office calls for de-escalation in Marib Governorate

In Cameroon’s separatist war, children are the biggest losers

Why Ethiopia’s tensions are boiling over in Tigray

Amid a rebel offensive, a push for justice in Central African Republic

Children seen at risk of recruitment in Central African Republic fighting

‘Put Syrians first…finally’, UN rights investigators urge after deadly decade of conflict

 Climate change is fueling recruitment into armed groups

Sustainable Development Goal 16: can armed non-state actors act, or only obstruct?

February 23, 2021

Deborah Casalin is a PhD researcher in the Law and Development Research Group at the University of Antwerp Faculty of Law. She previously worked for several years in the humanitarian and development sectors, mainly on issues relating to IHL and human rights, and has previously published on armed group detention under IHL. This contribution draws on her recent chapter Legal Obligations of Non-state Armed Groups and Sustainable Development Goal 16, in Walter Leal Filho et al, Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions: Encyclopedia of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (Springer, 2021).

Introduction

Are people living under armed group control merely beneficiaries of basic humanitarian protection? Or are they still rights-holders, who may make claims against entities with power over their lives – and even perhaps aspire to development, within the constraints of the situation? From the latter starting point, this post addresses the situation of people living under armed group control from the perspective of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 (Just, Peaceful and Inclusive Societies / Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions), a goal with clear relevance for people in armed conflict situations. For purposes of this goal, it would certainly be ideal to have no armed conflicts and no armed groups to participate in them. But readers of Armed Groups and International Law will be well-acquainted with this kind of conundrum: what can be done to improve the situation of civilians under prevailing circumstances, short of ending all conflicts and demobilizing all armed groups by the SDG deadline of 2030?

The aim of this post is to explore which targets within SDG 16 could still be promoted in favour of people living under the de facto control of armed groups, pending conflict resolution. Firstly, it maps some of the impacts of armed conflict on SDG 16 targets. Secondly, it examines which of these impacts can be addressed by armed groups. Thirdly, it outlines the legal bases for potentially engaging armed groups towards these goals. In concluding, it suggests how the SDGs might support promotion of the well-being of civilians living under armed group control.

Armed conflict and Sustainable Development Goal 16

Tens of thousands of people are killed in conflicts every year, amongst which record numbers of children, who may be vulnerable to abduction, sexual violence and forced recruitment. Birth registration is often impeded during conflict, which facilitates such serious abuses. Conflict also creates a conducive environment for diversion of arms, illicit financial flows and corruption, which are in turn connected to arms supply. Thus, armed conflict in itself negatively affects various Sustainable Development Goal 16 targets – in particular, the objectives of reducing violence and related deaths, exploitation of children, illicit arms flows and organized criminal activity; as well as the aim of ensuring legal identity for all. The activities of armed groups – which are part and parcel of the majority of contemporary armed conflicts – are (often rightly) considered to be especially harmful to these goals. Indeed, since armed groups already operate beyond the pale of domestic law, they may engage in illicit activities to sustain themselves, such as unlawful mining or logging, or trading in prohibited goods to procure arms illegally. Their operating methods in conflict may also rely on prohibited activities such as violence against civilians or recruitment of children.  However, armed groups in conflict situations are often already beyond the reach of state justice systems, and may have control over territory and resources, as well as the daily lives of civilians. It is in such situations that they have especially significant influence over the SDG targets mentioned.

Daily life under armed group control (c)Deborah Casalin

Sustainable Development Goal 16 without a state: what is still possible?

The SDGs are not a legal instrument outlining rights and obligations, but a set of objectives which are in principle for the benefit of all people, regardless of who governs them. As such, they do not have a clear addressee. However, the SDGs are an agenda which has been adopted by UN member states, and are therefore formulated from a state-centric perspective. SDG 16 is a clear example of this, as especially its “justice and strong institutions” aspects presuppose the presence of state authority, and relate to issues which are closely connected to the core functions of the State. This can be seen, for example, in the various targets which require action in accordance with national legislation or in international fora, or those relating to institution-building, governance or law enforcement.

Nevertheless, there are a few elements of SDG 16 that do not inherently require state authority to work towards their achievement. In conflict situations, besides having a negative impact on these targets, it may also be within the capacities of armed groups to contribute to their achievement. These targets include reduction of violence and violent deaths, protection of children, and ensuring legal identity for all. External actors already engage with armed groups towards certain aspects of these targets – and what is more, some armed groups have shown themselves willing and able to modify their operating methods so as to reduce civilian killings, halt the recruitment of child soldiers, and facilitate birth registration.

On what legal bases can armed groups be engaged towards achieving (parts of) SDG 16?

Above, we have seen that effective state authority is not a prerequisite for working towards important elements of at least three SDG 16 targets – i.e. reducing violence and related deaths, protecting children from violence and exploitation, and ensuring legal identity for all. These targets coincide to a large extent with armed groups’ established international humanitarian law (IHL) obligations. Therefore, there is room for external actors to work towards these targets through humanitarian engagement on the basis of Common Article 3, which aims at promoting compliance with these rules. For example, the reduction of violent deaths could be addressed via NSAGs’ obligation to respect the principle of distinction; the protection of children via prohibitions on recruitment and participation of children in hostilities, as well as obligations regarding family reunification and special protection; and ensuring legal identity via humanitarian access obligations, as birth registration may be integrated into broader humanitarian assistance activities.

Of course, it is increasingly recognized that non-state armed groups may have even further-reaching human rights obligations in situations where they control territory and the daily lives of populations, even in relation to issues that have little to do with the conflict. Therefore, depending on the context, armed groups may be required to do more than what is outlined above (e.g. protecting people living under their control from violence or exploitation by third parties). In terms of international law, nothing prevents local populations from claiming these rights vis-à-vis an armed group. However, the extent to which external actors can engage to support them might vary according to the context, as rights-based or developmental activities could be constrained by State or armed group interpretations of the boundaries of humanitarian access; the international law principle of non-interference in internal affairs; and/or international or domestic counter-terrorism regulations. Where these activities cannot be integrated into an expanded understanding of humanitarian engagement, it may be necessary to conduct them in terms of a bilateral agreement with the territorial State or under a UN mandate. However, while this may work for humanitarian-adjacent activities, it is still difficult to envisage state agreement to external engagement on the “justice and strong institutions” aspects of SDG 16 – even where armed groups have in practice taken charge of decision-making, public order and welfare, and institutions such as courts and prisons. Still, basic IHL protections for people in detention or undergoing trial (e.g. humane treatment, limiting use of the death penalty) may be promoted via classic humanitarian engagement.

Conclusions

While SDG 16 may seem completely incompatible with situations of armed conflict – and especially those involving armed groups with control over people and territory – a closer observation reveals a number of important aspects which can be worked on even in the absence of State authority. On some issues with far-reaching effects on basic rights and well-being – such as civilian killings, child protection and birth registration – IHL provides the bases and parameters for engagement, which has already proved successful in many situations. More may be demanded in terms of human rights where armed groups exercise control over territory, institutions, and civilian life, although external engagement may more easily run into international, state or armed group restrictions.

But if even human rights runs into difficulty in situations of armed group control, what can the SDGs bring to the table? There are possibilities from two different perspectives. Firstly, from the perspective of promoting civilian protection in a broad sense, the SDGs – as a set of broad objectives which are not framed as legal obligations – might in some contexts provide less contentious entry points for engagement than human rights. This may in turn facilitate setting the bar higher on civilian protection, especially on issues less closely connected to conflict. Secondly, from the perspective of SDG implementation, those involved in this process (including States) should be taken up on their commitment to leave no-one behind, including people living in conflict or under armed group control. In such contexts, partnerships for the goals should at least include those with access to and expertise in these areas – where possible, even going beyond international actors to support local organizations working for the rights and welfare of civilians.