In their words: perceptions of armed non-state actors on humanitarian action

Geneva Call


What do armed non-state actors (ANSAs) think of humanitarian action? This paper finds that while they are willing to engage positively with humanitarian actors, they feel left out of the processes which determine humanitarian principles and international law. Understanding of rules around humantarian access is relatively limited and needs to be addressed. It calls for a more principled and consistent engagement with ANSAs at all levels to inform negotiation of access and greater compliance with humanitarian action.

A growing body of literature exists on humanitarian negotiations with specific groups in Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan, and also on ANSAs’ attitudes towards IHL and the protection of civilians. However, there has been little substantive research conducted on how ANSAs perceive humanitarian action. This report draws on data collected between June 2015 and February 2016 from consultation with 19 ANSAs (and several relief organisations affiliated with these groups), active in 11 countries. Additional interviews with aid workers, researchers and academics contextualised ANSAs’ statements.

Key findings

  • Despite the diversity of the ANSAs consulted, there is a high degree of uniformity in views expressed on what humanitarian action is – alleviating suffering or providing relief to those affected by armed conflict or natural disaster. Related issues of protection are rarely mentioned.  Many also see a direct link between the integrity and quality of assistance and the adherence to principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence. Those consulted were all largely familiar with the core humanitarian principles, but recognised that a range of issues challenge these principles in practice.
  • ANSAs consulted, including those with only notional understanding, expressed overwhelmingly positive attitudes towards International Humanitarian Law (IHL), including humanitarian access. They expressed frustration that they are largely excluded from the development of IHL and that states are rarely ever held accountable for violations. However, their comprehension of relevant humanitarian access rules is limited and significantly influenced by whether humanitarian agencies have directly engaged with them on these issues.
  • Those consulted all have relationships with humanitarian actors and claim to allow humanitarian access. All felt entitled to regulate and control access, and many also expressed responsibility for the security of aid workers in their areas.
  • Few ANSAs, if any, ban specific types of humanitarian actors, but failure to secure consent for activities or to follow rules are most likely to lead to expulsion or harm.
  • The degree of territorial control and objectives, the broader context and conflict dynamics are some of the factors which inform how consulted ANSAs see as their responsibilities towards civilians.  Many ANSAs claim they would be open to entering into humanitarian agreements with their enemy.


  • Build on ANSA’s existing acceptance of principled humanitarian action through dialogue and training on the rules of IHL governing humanitarian access. ANSAs cannot be expected to comply with rules they do not know about or fully comprehend.
  • Engage more proactively, consistently and over the long-term in order to improve humanitarian access. Non-engagement or limited, ad-hoc engagement with ANSAs ultimately hinders their compliance with IHL.
  • Practice stricter and more consistent observance of humanitarian principles. Any perceptions that humanitarians are not doing so can have dangerous consequences ranging from the denial of access to attacks on aid workers and their property.
  • Include ANSAs in international normative and policy processes to enhance their ownership and boost compliance.


Geneva Call. (2016). In their words: Perceptions of non-state actors on humanitarian action. Geneva, Switzerland: Geneva Call.