Skeptics tend to see international law as ineffective in stopping atrocities and human suffering in armed conflict. Most contemporary armed conflicts are civil rather than interstate wars, but nonstate armed groups, such as the Syrian Free Army, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or the Taliban, are generally precluded from signing international conventions protecting human rights. Yet, our research shows that armed groups can be incentivized to commit to and abide by international humanitarian norms, and that they can even induce state actors to do the same.
The nongovernmental organization Geneva Call has been working to engage armed groups from numerous war-affected countries such as Sudan and Syria — and get these groups to comply with international humanitarian law. The organization has had success in getting many of them to commit to specific humanitarian norms. One of their main areas of engagement is the use of land mines.
Land mines: Lasting legacy of war
Land mines are a major humanitarian problem. Fewer mines mean fewer civilian casualties in the short- and long-term, since land mines continue to harm and kill people long after wars end. According to the 2017 Land mine Monitor, 2016 saw an exceptionally high number of casualties due to mines (8,605), reflecting extensive mine use in places like Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. This is the highest number of mine casualties recorded since 1999 and an increase of 150 percent over the 2013 estimate.
The 1997 Mine Ban Treaty aims to eliminate the use of mines around the world. To date, 163 states have signed the treaty, although governments of important non-signatory countries, such as Syria, continue to use mines extensively in ongoing conflicts. In countries such as Afghanistan, it is mainly nonstate armed groups such as the Taliban that continue to use mines.
Geneva Call approaches armed nonstate actors in conflict zones, and encourages rebel leaders to sign a public “deed of commitment” banning the use of land mines, intended to parallel the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty. These “deeds of commitment” also contain rules on information dissemination and put monitoring schemes in place. Signing the deed is a way to publicly signal commitment to humanitarian norms and can help bolster the international legitimacy nonstate actors often crave.
Nonstate actors are key for elimination
Are these commitments more than mere scraps of paper, and do they really make an impact on actual behavior? Our research shows that nonstate actors who have signed conventions do subsequently reduce their use of land mines. Moreover, by signing a convention on banning land mines, nonstate actors can also make governments more likely to follow suit.
When nonstate actors sign the mine ban convention, this can generate reputation costs for a government that exceed the military value of using land mines, which ultimately makes it favorable for the government to sign as well. Indeed, this is exactly what happened in Sudan, where nonstate actors moved first in committing to a ban, and the government subsequently joined the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty.
Basically, the nonstate actors gain standing, and the government cannot afford to lose face.
The 2017 Land mine Monitor notes that the new use of mines in conflict is extremely rare, as international support for anti-mine action is rising. Higher casualties from mines in 2016 occurred largely in areas of conflict where states or nonstate actors have not signed anti-mine commitments. In fact, by this account, the efforts to ban land mines seem highly successful.
Even in Syria, there are suggestive trends in land mine use. The Syria government is not a signatory to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, and it may be difficult to get actors to stop using mines in very intense conflicts. Strikingly, much of the mine use in Syria has been by the militant group Islamic State, which generally rejects secular international law.
After its success with land mines, Geneva Call expanded its focus toward bans on child soldiering and sexual violence. In June 2017, they succeeded in getting four divisions of the Syrian Free Army to sign a deed of commitment not to use child soldiers and to protect civilians against sexual violence.
The lesson from the mine ban commitment shows that compliance with international law does not need central enforcement, but it can be induced by changing the incentives of actors, even starting with nonstate actors.
Kristian Skrede Gleditsch is regius professor of political science at the University of Essex and a research associate at the Peace Research Institute Oslo.
Simon Hug is a political-science professor at the University of Geneva.
Livia I. Schubiger is an assistant professor in comparative politics at the London School of Economics.
Julian Wucherpfennig is assistant professor of international affairs and security at the Hertie School of Governance.