The Era of Armed Non-State Actors – Void in international Law

International law about war and peace fails to respond to the shift from “traditional” wars among states to violent conflicts with and among armed non-state actors. At its core are the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions that were developed in the aftermath of WWII with the hope of preventing similar devastating wars among states. Violent conflicts with and among armed non-state actors, although they existed then as now, were considered internal affairs of states and not a matter for international law.

Since the end of the Cold War, however, the UN’s collective security system almost exclusively had to deal with armed conflicts that involve nonstate actors, a kind of conflict for which it was not created. Multiple Security Council and General Assembly decisions, anti-terrorism and transnational crime conventions, Responsibility to Protect principle or the International Criminal Court are examples for efforts to overcome this problem. But these efforts remain constrained by an international law exclusively designed for wars among states. This limited, if not blocked, collective security decisions in solving conflicts with armed non-state actors and opened the door to unilateral interventions circumventing the UN Charter and international humanitarian law. The Syrian conflict in which hundreds of state and non state actors and several foreign armies battle it out, causing unspeakable human sufferings without a fair peace solution in sight, is a stark reminder for collective security failures and the negative impact of unilateral interventions.

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