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Binding Armed Opposition Groups

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 January 2008


This article considers how armed opposition groups fighting in an internal armed conflict are bound by the rules of international humanitarian law despite not being party to the relevant treaties. It assesses a number of explanations—customary international law, general principles of international humanitarian law, rules governing treaties and third parties and claims to succession—and argues that each has limited value. The ability of the state to legislate on behalf of all its individuals is considered the best explanation. This principle is explored and objections to it are countered. This article also examines the expressed commitment of armed opposition groups to the rules of international humanitarian law.

Copyright © British Institute of International and Comparative Law 2006

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1 See Report of the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenge and Change, ‘A More secure world: Our shared responsibility’ (2004) 11.

2 The term ‘armed opposition group’ is being used in this article to cover all armed groups that do not have a link with the government, irrespective of their political ideology. It includes those armed groups that conduct hostilities in a conflict in which the government does not participate.

3 Art 3 Common to the four Geneva Conventions of 12 Aug 1949.

4 Protocol Additional to the Geneva conventions of 12 Aug 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts, of 8 June 1997, Art 1(1).

5 1954 Hague Conventions for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict Art 19(1)

6 Amended Protocol II on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Mines, Booby-Traps and other Devices to the 1980 Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to have Indiscriminate Effects, Art 1(3).

7 Other instruments use different wording but raise issues similar to those considered in this article, eg Art 22(1) of the 1999 Second Protocol to the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict states ‘This Protocol shall apply in the event of an armed conflict not of an international character, occurring within the territory of one of the Parties.’

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16 Prosecutor v Jean-Paul Akayesu (Judgment) ICTR-96–4 (2 Sept 1998) para 608.

17 Lomé (n 12) para 47.

18 Tadić, (n 15) para 98.

19 Akayesu (n 16) para 608.

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36 Tadić (n 15) para 99.

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39 Tadić (n 15) para 143; Prosecutor v Dario Kordić and Mario Čerkez (Judgment) IT-95-14/2-A (17 Dec 2004) paras 44–6.

40 Cheng considers the line between custom and general principles to be ‘not very clear’: Cheng, BGeneral Principles of Law as Applied by International Courts and Tribunals (Grotius Cambridge 1987) 23. See also Barcelona Traction, Light and Power Company, Limited [1970] ICJ Reports 3, Separate Opinion of Judge Ammoun 286, 300–1.Google Scholar

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43 International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur (n 12) para 158.

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49 Cassese opines that, while the VCLT only relates to states, ‘the customary rules on the matter have a broader scope, in that they govern the effects of treaties on any international subject taking the position of a third party vis-àvis a treaty’ Status of Rebels (n 11) 423.

50 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, Art 36(1).

51 Emphasis added.

52 Casses International Law. (n 28) 130 states: ‘it would not make sense to lay down a set of obligations solely incumbent upon the central authorities vis-à-vis all the other contracting States, while leaving rebels free from any legal trammel.’

53 Additional Protocol II, Art 1(1).

54 For additional reasons, see Status of Rebels (n 11) 424–8.

55 Status of Rebels (n 11) 428 seems to implicitly note this stating, ‘it will of course be necessary to determine in each civil war whether rebels are ready and willing to accept the Protocol’.

56 Pictet (n 27) 37.

57 Zegveld (n 31) 15.

58 Pictet (n 27) 37 (emphasis added).

59 Official Records of the Diplomatic Conference on the Reaffirmation and Development on International Humanitarian law Applicable in Armed Conflicts (1974–1977) CDDH/III/SR.32, Vol XIV, p 314, para 22 (Federal Political Department Bern 1978).

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64 McNair, ADThe Law of Treaties (Clarendon Press Oxford 1961) 676. McNair adds ‘at any rate when the other party to a treaty grants recognition of belligerency to the insurgents’. However, with the decline of the recognition of belligerency, it is submitted that the redacted version holds true.Google Scholar

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67 Official records of the Diplomatic Conference on the Reaffirmation and Development on International Humanitarian Law Applicable in Armed Conflicts (1974–1977), Volume VIII (Federal Political Department Bern 1978) 213. All references to this phrase were subsequently dropped.

68 Bothe, M, Partsch, KJ, and Solf, WANew Rules of Victims of Armed Conflicts; Commentary on the two 1977 protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 (Martinus Nijhoff The Hague 1982) 700. See also Status of Rebels (n 11) 429;Google ScholarFlenier-Gerster, T and Meyer, MANew Developments in Humanitarian Law: A Challenge to the Concept of Sovereignty’ (1985) 34 International and Comparative law Quarterly 267, 272 and 277 who ask, if the obligation of armed opposition groups to observe common Art 3 is taken for granted, ‘are the revolutionary forces then subjects of international law, or are they bound to apply Article 3 because that provision has been incorporated into their State's internal law?’CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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78 Report of the International Law Commission covering its second session, 5 June–29 July 1950, A/1316 (1950) Formulation of the Nurnberg principles, para 99.

79 1954 Draft Code, Art 1; 1996 Draft Code and ILC Commentaries thereto.

80 See also Cassese International Law (n 52) 144–5 who notes that there are a number of international rules that directly impose obligations upon individuals ‘regardless of whether the national legal system within which individuals live contains a similar or the same obligation’, ie whether they have been translated into domestic law. Although limited by Cassese to customary rules, there would seem to be no reason why such a principle cannot be extended to treaty rules.

81 Status of Rebels (n 11) 16.

82 While certain national liberation movements participated in the diplomatic conference that culminated in Additional Protocol I, no armed oppositions groups were invited to participate in the formation of Additional Protocol II.

83 An interesting question is to what extent the degree of legitimacy of certain rules affects their degree of compliance by armed opposition groups.

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100 Moir (n 72) 131; Veuthey (n 93) 140.

101 Akayesu (n 16) para 627.

102 Commission on Human Rights Report of Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions: visit to Sri Lanka UN Doc E/CN.4/1998/68/Add.2, Para II.B.1.

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107 1962 Yearbook of the International Law Commission: Vol II, 161 (emphasis added).

108 ibid 164.

109 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, Art 3.

110 1966 Yearbook of the International Law Commission: Vol II, 177.

111 Tadić (n 15) para 143.

112 ibid paras 88–9. Zegveld (n 31) 30 notes that ‘At the time the Appeals Chamber made this statement, it had not decided whether the conflict in the former Yugoslavia was international or internal in nature. It may be inferred that the Tribunal referred to agreements concluded by both states and armed opposition groups.’

113 Lomé (n 12) para 42.

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126 Protocol of Agreement between the Government of the Republic of Rwanda and the Rwandese Patriotic Front on the Rule of Law, Ch IV.

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128 International Commission on Inquiry (n 12) para 155.

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130 See <>.

131 See <>. Listing 26 such armed opposition groups.

132 A standara ‘deed’ is available at <>.

133 Treatment of Prisoners (n 23) 853; Forsythe (n 84) 292.

134 Second Report of ONUSAL A/46/658, S/23222 at paras 64/5 cited in Zegveld (n 31) 17, n 27.

135 Human Rights Watch War Without Quarter: Colombia and International Humanitarian Law Ch II. Available at <>.