Armed Non-state Actors

by Anki Sjöberg [ Geneva Call ]

This article presents findings and lessons learned from a report on armed non-state actor1 involvement in mine action. The report shows that it is possible to engage in humanitarian mine action with NSAs. The main conclusion is that including NSAs in mine action has significant benefits since their involvement supports the implementation of the main objective of the Anti-personnel Mine Ban Convention2: to reduce the humanitarian impact of AP mines and unexploded ordnance.

Armed non-state actors are currently involved as fighting parties in conflicts all over the world; hence, for a true universalization of the rules and principles of human rights and international humanitarian law, the involvement of NSAs must be considered. This fact is equally true for prohibiting the use of AP mines because NSAs currently employ these devices. As NSAs are part of the problem, any solution must include them.

This article presents some of the main findings of a 2006 report, Armed Non-State Actors and Landmines. Volume II: A Global Report of NSA Mine Action,3 which maps and analyzes mine action by NSAs. The report is the second part of a wider project,4 following a 2005 report that focused on the negative aspects of the involvement of NSAs in the landmine problem.5 The 2006 report presents:

NSAs' Involvement in the Five Mine-action Pillars

The report found practical mine-action examples in the areas of each of the five mine-action pillars. A total of some 50 groups was documented as involved in some type of mine action, which was more than expected. The mine-action activities recorded were not entirely conducted by non-state actors. They were also performed by indigenous organizations mandated by NSAs or conducted by independent local or international organizations but facilitated by NSAs.

There are important differences in the numbers of NSAs involved in the different mine-action pillars. The greatest numbers of NSAs were involved in activities related to the mine-ban policy—35 NSAs have banned AP mines. Of these, 31 had signed Geneva Call's Deed of Commitment,7 and at least an additional 14 had allegedly introduced some type of limitations to their mine use. At least six NSAs, all of them signatories to the Deed of Commitment, have reportedly been involved in promoting the mine ban to other non-state actors.

Image 1
Landmines and unexploded ordnance cleared by a non-state actor. All photos courtesy of Geneva Call

NSAs are rarely involved in stockpile destruction, although this activity has occurred in a total of 10 instances. Sometimes NSAs do not destroy stockpiles because they have not yet agreed to a total ban on AP mines. In some cases, the failure to destroy their stockpiles has also been due to circumstances beyond their control—a lack of funds or non-cooperation by a concerned state, for example.

Thirty-one NSAs have participated in mine clearance and related activities. In 10 cases, these activities formed part of a mine-action program. The remainder participated on a spontaneous or ad-hoc basis, involving activities such as clearing camps when leaving them, clearing mines on the request of the population and adopting policies to map the mines employed.

Few NSAs have been directly involved in large-scale MRE programs; four groups were conducting mine-risk education programs themselves and 12 were facilitating projects or programs. NSAs engage more frequently in ad-hoc MRE by providing information about mines to civilians (14 cases documented).

NSAs have reportedly provided assistance directly to civilian victims of landmine accidents (in 20 cases) and have allowed or facilitated outside organizations to provide victim assistance in areas controlled by the NSAs (15 such cases were documented).8 While not always reported, it can be assumed that most NSAs generally provide their own combatant victims with assistance to the extent possible.

Assessment of NSAs Involvement in Mine Action and Its Advantages

Generally, NSAs that have banned mines are more likely to be involved in mine action than groups that have not. Some mine-action practitioners (as well as Action 46 of the Nairobi Action Plan)9 suggest that there should be greater support for mine-action activities when the concerned NSAs have committed to a mine ban.

There are different reasons why NSAs become involved in mine action. Recurring themes are humanitarian and development concerns and self-interest. Community pressure is sometimes highlighted as a main factor. An NSA's decision to engage in mine action could also be motivated by a combination of factors.

The primary benefits of mine action by NSAs are considered to be the same as those arising from other forms of mine action (i.e., principally humanitarian and developmental). Nevertheless, the complementary effects of NSA mine action (employment and stability; peace-building; security and disarmament; and openness to discussing other humanitarian norms) are different, and these are often perceived to be as important as—or even more important than—the primary benefits of working with NSAs. In addition, the primary benefits for the population in an area controlled or influenced by NSAs may be relatively more significant, given that these areas often greatly lack developmental and humanitarian activities.

The main factors that appear to make humanitarian mine-action organizations regard involvement by NSAs as necessary, rather than merely desirable, are:

Challenges, Tentative Solutions and Lessons Learned

The Armed Non-State Actors and Landmines. Volume II: A Global Report of NSA Mine Action3 report showed it is possible to work with NSAs in humanitarian mine action, although various difficulties and challenges involved were identified. The following sections present some of the tentative solutions and lessons learned it found.

Need to understand and adapt to the political and conflict situation. The report found it was particularly important for there to be flexibility and understanding with the circumstances in which NSA mine action takes place. This open-mindedness requires the situation be carefully analyzed in detail, taking into account local knowledge.

Although it has sometimes been argued that a ceasefire, or even a peace agreement, is a necessary condition for comprehensive mine-action operations, it is generally agreed that some mine-action opportunities may present themselves before the conflict ends. In fact, a step-by-step approach taking certain minimum actions may not only save lives, but also facilitate larger-scale mine-action activities following the cessation of hostilities.

Flexibility and adaptability are crucial features for security-related problems, a major concern for mine action involving NSAs. Mine-action organizations introduce new security procedures and use local guards to overcome such problems. Another possible solution, at least on a temporary basis, has been to work at a distance by training staff in a safer environment and undertaking other aspects of mine action that can be performed at a distance (e.g., certain parts of the survey).

Need for cooperation by the concerned state. One of the main conclusions of a workshop on mine action in the midst of conflict held in Zagreb, Croatia, in 2005 related to the allocation of legal responsibility for mine action in areas under control by NSAs. It was found that States Parties to the Mine Ban Convention are responsible for mine-action efforts undertaken in the parts of their territory that, while not under their control, are under their jurisdiction. Although a State Party can justify its failure to fulfill its mine-action obligations in the areas of its territory that it does not control, it is still bound to make "good faith" efforts to fulfill its Convention obligations.10

Lack of cooperation of the government is an often-cited difficulty faced in NSA mine action. Bureaucratic and administrative barriers have frequently hindered equipment and staff from entering a country. In some cases, the government has completely halted mine-action activities, but more commonly, the state interferes and obstructs the work, stopping short of total non-cooperation. It should be noted, however, that in some cases the concerned states were very supportive of mine-action activities despite complex situations, and successful actions were undertaken without difficulties.

Image 2
Members of the Polisario Front mine-action team preparing for a stockpile destruction.

Need for capacity-building and training of NSAs. One major challenge to NSA mine action highlighted both by humanitarian actors and non-state actors is the lack of capacity and equipment. In many cases, there is a clear need for training and capacity-building in technical and operational capacity as well as management skills. These capabilities would be especially necessary if, as has been proposed, NSAs should assume greater responsibility for facilitating and coordinating operations. General capacity-building and training have also been suggested as ways to confront the problems of NSAs' involvement in mine action that allegedly stem from the NSAs themselves—namely, lack of organization, lack of transparency and a predisposition to set biased priorities.11

In working with NSAs, it is important not only to stigmatize their use of mines and failure to participate in mine action but also to raise awareness and educate them about the need for transparency and action. It's a fine line. Too great an emphasis on stigmatizing NSAs could have the counterproductive effect of causing them to withdraw from dialogue about mine action.

Need for financial and priority control. Accusations of corruption arising out of the non-transparency of NSAs (although not numerous) are being taken seriously by international nongovernmental organizations and agencies. Consequently, most international organizations and NGOs choose to maintain some kind of financial and/or priority-setting control. In some cases, the problem has been solved by setting up systems of strict, independent financial control. Such measures may also avoid unnecessary tensions between mine-action organizations and NSAs.

Need for increased support. In general, mine-action practitioners have found third-party states and the international community quite supportive of mine-action efforts involving NSAs, although not sufficiently so. Third-party actors could make greater contributions in raising funds and pressuring non-cooperating states. Both the financial and political aspects of support are crucial; however, despite the problems related to funding for NSA mine action, it has been argued some governments are only interested in supporting mine-action work with NSAs largely because of the expected peace-building gains. It has also been claimed that humanitarian actors themselves ought to make greater efforts to convince governments of the need for mine action and the humanitarian benefits it brings.

Need for confidence-building, commitment and cooperation. To work in difficult situations, mine-action practitioners need to build relationships of trust, not only with the NSAs, but also with the local communities and authorities. In some cases, a mine ban on behalf of the NSAs (such as the Deed of Commitment) would be crucial to ensure non-state actors' cooperation with mine-action organizations. Since some NSAs have begun mine-action activities on their own before enrolling in international programs, this may facilitate the commencement of such programs. Mine-action issues should also be included (but not exclusively) in exploratory discussions and peace negotiations between governments and NSAs.

Implementing mixed demining teams (made up of NSAs and government forces), aimed at confidence and peace-building, is likely to require communication among all parties and leadership by an independent NGO to facilitate the process.

Need for transparency. One key practice to facilitate mine-action activities in difficult situations is transparency. By being open and clear about their activities, humanitarian actors can convince NSAs and concerned states of their neutrality in order to avoid security risks and accusations of "spying." In return, NSAs and the concerned state(s) also need to be transparent with humanitarian actors in order to maximize the benefits from mine action since restrictions on the sharing of information may cause delays or lead to the cancellation of operations. Humanitarian actors should also be open with each other in order to solve common problems with joint solutions. Finally, the main parties (NSAs and states) should ideally be as forthcoming as possible with each other in terms of sharing relevant information about mined areas and the progress of mine-action activities.

Need for organization and coordination. When strong NGOs serve as implementing or intermediary agencies, the process works. The donors provide the funding to the NGO, which works directly with the NSAs. It requires coordination, information-sharing and open communication among all the parties.

Need to involve the local communities. Mine-action practitioners are increasingly working with local communities, notably in so-called community-liaison roles.12 NSAs are sometimes part of these local communities. When NSAs are involved in ad hoc mine-action activities, it is especially important that mine-action practitioners deal with them by considering, consulting and including them in the execution of the mine-action program to avoid tensions between international/national and local efforts. In addition, involving NSAs in mine action is relevant to the issue of accountability, since the people who demine stay in the area afterwards and would therefore have a vested interest in the program's success.

It can be beneficial to include affected communities in the processes of dialogue and negotiation with NSAs since their relationship with the NSAs allows community representatives to put pressure on the armed actors. However, it can also put the population at risk. In these cases, it is of the utmost importance to carefully analyze the situation and, if necessary, take measures to protect the communities or to limit their involvement in NSA mine action.

Elements of Analysis

When considering involving NSAs in mine-action activities, there are some relevant parallels that can be drawn to the involvement of the regular military in mine action. As for the regular armed forces, the political situation and the NSA's link to the population determine whether:

Sensitive issues that need to be carefully considered in different conflict and post-conflict situations include:


In conclusion, Armed Non-State Actors and Landmines. Volume II: A Global Report of NSA Mine Action3 shows it is possible to engage in humanitarian mine action with NSAs. Given the benefits of such engagement, it is important not to discriminate against populations in areas under the control or influence of NSAs, which, as compared to populations in areas controlled by a state, benefit less frequently from mine-action programs. The main conclusion of the research is that engaging NSAs in mine action has significant benefits, since their involvement supports efforts to reduce the humanitarian impact of landmines and unexploded ordnance. Bullet

This article is drawn from a report produced by Geneva Call, Armed Non-State Actors and Landmines. Volume II: A Global Report of NSA Mine Action,3 which was published in November 2006. The report can be downloaded from Geneva Call's Web site at Hard copies can be obtained by writing to


HeadshotAnki Sjöberg received her bachelor's and master's degrees from Södertörns högskola in Stockholm, Sweden. She is a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. Sjöberg has authored The Involvement of Armed Non-State Actors in the Landmine Problem: A Call for Action, Armed Non-State Actors and Landmines. Volume I: A Global Report Profiling NSAs and Their Use, Acquisition, Production, Transfer and Stockpiling of Landmines, and Armed Non-State Actors and Landmines.5 Volume II: A Global Report of NSA Mine Action.3


  1. An NSA is defined as any armed actor with a basic structure of command operating outside state control that uses force to achieve its political or allegedly political objectives, for example non-state armed groups and unrecognized governments.
  2. Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, Oslo, Norway. 18 September 1997. Accessed 10 May 2007. The document was opened for signature in Ottawa, Canada, 3 December 1997, and thus is commonly known as the Ottawa Convention.
  3. Geneva Call and the Program for the Study of International Organization(s) (2006). Geneva Call, Armed Non-State Actors and Landmines. Volume II: A Global Report of NSA Mine Action. Text available online at Accessed 10 May 2007. Hard copies can be obtained by contacting
  4. The report is part of a project supported by the Geneva International Academic Network, the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the government of Italy, and the continued support of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. Institutions contributing to the report are the Program for the Study of International Organization(s), the United Nations Mine Action Service, the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, the University of Geneva and the Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva. The research for Volume II was mainly based on interviews with mine-action practitioners, field trips, accumulated data such as the Landmine Monitor Report, input from NSAs, and media reports.
  5. Armed Non-State Actors and Landmines. Volume I: A Global Report Profiling NSAs and their Use, Acquisition, Production, Transfer and Stockpiling of Landmines. Geneva Call and the Program for the Study of International Organization(s), Geneva, 2005. The report was introduced in an article entitled "Armed Non-State Actors: The Main Users of the 'Poor Man's Weapon'," which was published in the August 2006 issue of the Journal of Mine Action (10.1). Available online at Accessed 19 April 2007.
  6. The report employs an expanded concept of "advocacy," which includes the commitment to an AP mine ban, or a stated moratorium on, or limitation of, landmine use and production.
  7. The full name being the Deed of Commitment under Geneva Call for Adherence to a Total Ban on Anti-Personnel Mines and Cooperation in Mine Action. For full text see Accessed 17 January 2007.
  8. Whereas this pillar also covers activities relevant to socioeconomic reintegration of mine victims, NSAs rarely participate in activities other than physical and medical treatment.
  9. According to the Nairobi Action Plan, States Parties in a position to do so will "[c]ontinue to support as appropriate mine action to assist affected populations in areas under the control of armed non-state actors, particularly in areas under the control of actors which have agreed to abide by the Convention's norms." Nairobi Action Plan, 2004. Available at: Accessed 2 June 2006.
  10. For the full proceedings, see Mine Action in the Midst of Internal Conflict: A Report on the Workshop Organized by Geneva Call and International Campaign to Ban Landmines Non-State Actor Working Group, Zagreb, 27 November 2005. Geneva Call and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines Non-State Actor Working Group, Geneva, 2006. Available at Accessed 17 January 2007.
  11. A note of caution should be expressed in this regard; it may be difficult to arrive at a balance between supporting the NSAs on these issues without supporting them politically or financially. Hence, this work could be implemented with the help of independent humanitarian organizations, such as agencies of the United Nations and international NGOs.
  12. These activities are designed to create a fruitful information exchange between mine-action organizations and the communities.

Contact Information

Anki Sjöberg
Research Coordinator
Geneva Call
P.O. Box 334
1211 Geneva 4 / Switzerland
Tel: +41 22 879 1050
Fax: +41 22 879 1051
Web site: