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Influencing Armed Nonstate Actors to Comply with Humanitarian Norms

Influencing Armed Nonstate Actors to Comply with Humanitarian Norms

Photo credit: David Jones

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Gleditsch, K. S., Hug, S., Schubiger, L. I., & Wucherpfennig, J. (2018). International conventions and nonstate actors: selection, signaling, and reputation effects. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 62(2), 346-380.

Talking Points

  • Signing a commitment banning landmines appears to influence armed nonstate actors (ANSAs) away from the use of landmines, suggesting that deeds of commitment can influence ANSAs’ behavior.
  • The same factor that may account for a government signing the Mine Ban Treaty—its previous non-use of landmines—may also account for its compliance with that treaty, suggesting that signing itself does not exercise any independent effect on state behavior.
  • State and nonstate actors’ behavior with regards to signing and complying with humanitarian treaties should be viewed as interdependent, where actors make decisions based in part on what their opponents do. 


With the increasingly prominent role that armed nonstate actors (ANSAs) play in violent conflict today—posing a threat, along with state actors, to civilian communities in war zones worldwide—more attention is being devoted to strategies for influencing their wartime behavior. The fact that states are the official parties to the international conventions that together constitute international humanitarian law (the so-called “laws of war,” which aim to limit the methods of warfare and protect non-combatants during war) complicates these efforts, as it is debatable to what extent these conventions apply to ANSAs. To address this problem, the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Geneva Call has pioneered a mechanism called a “deed of commitment”—an agreement that ANSAs can sign to publicly declare their support for a particular humanitarian norm (e.g., the non-use of landmines, protection of children, or prohibition of sexual violence), thereby providing them with the opportunity to demonstrate their status as norm-abiding actors.

This research aims to contribute to the growing body of scholarship on such mechanisms for strengthening ANSAs’ adherence to humanitarian norms, while also refining our understanding of governments’ behaviors concerning similar humanitarian commitments. According to the authors, most studies looking at state and non-state actors’ behavior in relation to signing onto and complying with such conventions and/or deeds of commitment examine their behavior in isolation. Consequently, they fail to account for the interaction between these actors and their opponents and the bearing it might have on decisions to sign and/or comply. This study, therefore, keeps this interactive element in focus as it asks two questions: “why would state and [armed nonstate actors] sign a constraining convention that limits their tactical repertoire,” and “what effects do such conventions have on the subsequent behavior of the signing parties?”

Focusing on the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and Geneva Call’s parallel 2000 Mine Ban Deed of Commitment, the authors generate several hypotheses based on rational choice and game theoretic assumptions about the strategic behavior of state and nonstate actors. They then test these hypotheses statistically to see what accounts for, first, their signing behavior and, second, their compliance behavior.

Rational choice theory: A framework for explaining individual decision-making and goal-oriented behavior on the basis of a person’s assessment of the course of action that will maximize benefits and minimize costs.

Game theory: A framework, based on rational choice assumptions about individual decision-making, for explaining how individual actors behave in strategic contexts, interacting with other actors and anticipating or responding to their decisions.

With the first, they find only mixed support for their hypotheses. With regards to states’ decisions to sign, they find that domestic and international reputation costs failed to have a significant effect but that military costs associated with signing (namely, previous use of landmines) did have a significant negative effect on decisions to sign. Only one ANSA characteristic—higher troop size, a measure of lower utility of landmines to ANSAs—had a significant (positive) effect on governments’ decisions to sign. When the authors examine states’ decisions to sign in relation to whether or not related ANSAs had yet signed, one finding is especially notable: while a government’s previous use of landmines still had a significant negative effect on its decision to sign if related ANSAs had not yet signed, this effect disappeared if related ANSAs had already signed, implying that an ANSA signing the deed of commitment might neutralize the government’s concern about losing the military advantage of itself using landmines. With regards to ANSAs’ decisions to sign, the results are again inconclusive, with the only significant finding being the bigger the ANSA troop size, the lower the expected utility of landmines and therefore the more likely the group was to sign on.

Turning to the question of compliance, the authors employ a simple model and a complex model for both states and ANSAs. The simple models analyze the likelihood of state and ANSA compliance in light of signing the treaty/deed of commitment, while the complex models take into consideration the fact that the same variables that might cause an actor to sign a treaty/deed may also influence whether it complies or not. In both models, governments were more likely to use landmines if they had used landmines in the past or if they were democracies. Governments were less likely to use landmines when the number of ratifying countries was high, presumably because the more widely the treaty was supported internationally, the higher the reputation costs of using landmines/not complying would be. The one important difference between the two models for states is that signing the treaty had a significant effect on state compliance in the simple model (signing made landmine use less likely), while this significant effect fell away in the more complex model—meaning that, since countries who did not already use landmines were both more likely to sign the treaty and more likely to comply with it, signing was only superficially related to compliance and had no independent effect on it. The opposite is true for ANSAs: although signing the deed of commitment initially seems to have had no effect on whether they would use landmines (in the simple model), the complex model, by controlling for other factors, shows that an ANSA was in fact less likely to use landmines once it had signed.

Contemporary Relevance

International humanitarian law has a complicated relationship with war prevention, the substantive focus of the Peace Science Digest. On the one hand, anything that limits the methods of warfare or the “acceptable” targets of war’s violence must be seen as an undeniable good. The presence of the various conventions that make up international humanitarian law provide a tool for concerned global actors to rein in the atrocities of warfare. On the other hand, one could argue that the existence of international humanitarian law (as well as its philosophical underpinnings in just war theory) enables humanity to draw a line between “good” violence and “bad” violence—and that the very drawing of that line can facilitate our ability to feel okay about our use of some forms of violence, thus making the use of such violence possible. In other words, should we feel uneasy about the fact that a state or armed group that signs and then abides by an international convention or deed of commitment banning landmines then gains legitimacy from its status as a signatory, even as it engages in myriad other forms of killing in the context of an armed conflict? Even if a state or armed group only targets combatants in its military operations—thereby engaging in “acceptable” wartime violence—we still must contend with the fact not only that non-combatants are regularly killed or hurt in the crossfire or that the combatants being targeted may themselves only be young people caught up in the power plays of their commanders’ strategies but also that the very “acceptability” of this sort of violence is what enables commanders to justify it to themselves and to their soldiers and supporters in the first place. It is unclear, therefore, what bearing such prohibitions against particular kinds of violence have on the broader practice of warfare. But we can certainly celebrate the more immediate effects of presumably fewer landmines in countries where ANSAs and/or governments have signed their respective convention or deed of commitment. We can also condemn those ANSAs and governments—including the U.S.—which have not yet signed on, or who do not adhere to their obligations once signing on. More work remains to be done: in the last couple years, despite a previous drop in the number of casualties due to landmines after the adoption of the Mine Ban Treaty (and subsequent Deed of Commitment), casualties worldwide have begun to climb again, reaching 8,605 in 2016, mainly due to armed conflict in Afghanistan, Libya, Ukraine, and Yemen. (See New York Times article under Continued Reading).

Practical Implications

Taking into consideration the ambivalent relationship between international humanitarian law and war prevention outlined above, it is still heartening to note the main finding of this study: that many armed nonstate actors (ANSAs) appear to care about their reputations and their perceived legitimacy and that once they have signed a deed of commitment (at least in the case of landmines) this signature exercises an independent influence on their behavior. In short, ANSAs are subject to non-military forms of influence. This has enormous implications for thinking about the range of tools available for confronting these armed actors. Most importantly for war prevention, it suggests that the old adage, “all they understand is force,” does not hold up to scrutiny. ANSAs, like states, care about how they are perceived because they know that much of their power comes from the support they receive from surrounding communities, as well as from the international community in some cases. The more their actions align with the high-minded ideologies or self-proclaimed honorable identities that justify their existence, the more credence local and international communities will give to them and their objectives. This concern for reputation and legitimacy, however, may even go beyond this sort of instrumental concern, whereby a good reputation is only as good as the material benefits it provides. It is also possible that some individuals within an armed group genuinely see themselves in this noble light, and the existence of deeds of commitment provides an opportunity for them to live up to their stated ideals. Or, at the very least, it puts them in the position of having to come down on one side or the other of one of these normative commitments. Whatever the motivation—material or moral—having a non-military tool for influencing ANSA behavior makes governments’ arguments for the necessity of military force to stop an ANSA’s war crimes or other violations much less credible. Concerned global actors should therefore remind states about this policy tool and, in cases where an ANSA has already signed a deed of commitment, publicize this fact so more pressure is put on the ANSA to comply. Furthermore, even if a deed of commitment does not exist in a certain issue area, the findings from this study suggest that other forms of pressure linked to reputation and legitimacy may exercise some effect on ANSAs.


Geneva Call:

Continued Reading

Why Do Land Mines Still Kill So Many? By The Editorial Board. The New York Times, January 6, 2018.

Engaging Armed Non-State Actors in Mechanisms for Protection By Pauline Lacroix, Pascal Bongard, and Chris Rush. Forced Migration Review, Vol. 37, March 2011.

Engaging Non-State Armed Actors in State- and Peace-building: Options and Strategies By Claudia Hofmann and Ulrich Schneckener. International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 93, No. 883, September 2011.

The Art of Humanitarian Negotiation: 5 Things You Need to Know By Rob Grace. Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, November 20, 2017.

Humanitarian Negotiation: A Handbook for Securing Access, Assistance and Protection for Civilians in Armed Conflict By Deborah Mancini-Griffoli and André Picot. Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, October 2004.

Incentivizing Armed Non-State Actors to Comply with the Law: Protecting Children in Times of Armed Conflict By Sarah Hafen. BYU Law Review, Vol. 2016, No. 3, April 2016. 

Keywords: civil wars, civilian protection, landmines, international treaties/conventions, deeds of commitment, Geneva Call, armed nonstate actors

This analysis is from Volume 3, Issue 3 of the Peace Science Digest.


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