Colloque : Les acteurs non étatiques et la gouvernance des droits humains

NEW RELEASES – As part of the Semaine des droits humains 2016, the University of Geneva and other institutions organised a colloque aimed at shedding light on the importance of non-state actors in the governance of human rights. Since the end of the 20th century, non-étatiques (non-state) actors such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and, recently, even the Islamic State, play an essential role in the respect and violation of human rights. However, many questions arise: what truly are these non-state actors? How do we define them? Moreover, how do we engage them in human rights governance? The academic panels aimed at providing some answers to these questions.


Premier panel académique

    New conflicts, new actors? Armed groups

In the first panel, the speakers explored the role of armed groups in the domain of human rights governance. They importantly highlighted the fact that there is no clear definition of “armed group” and that the group can self-define itself in various different forms. Moreover, it was stressed how not all armed groups can be considered the same. There are groups of opposition (against a state or another group), militia (more connected to the state), terrorist groups (even though each group can commit actions of terror) and then armed groups of defense, the “vigilantes” (those organised to defend themselves from others.) Ultimately, however, the truth is that there armed groups exist: if we want to engage with them we need to analyse their action and define its boundaries.

Furthermore, if we consider the example of the Islamic state, it’s important to understand that they are the result of a crisis rather than their own beliefs. Without instability, in fact, they would have had no space to impose themselves. Thus, a moment of crisis was key in their success, explained Richard Atwood, since the radicalisation process was facilitated by insecurity – as it happened in Syria. Moreover, by declaring war to the armed group, the states legitimised the actors itself. By declaring war, states recognised the operations of the armed group, thus further promoting a state of instability. Finally, it was noted how the state itself can, at points, represent a non-state armed group. So, even the army represents the malicious side they are supposedly fighting. Primary violators of international humanitarian law are states themselves. And, some of them sit at the UN Security Council, as Professor Marco Sassòli pointed out.

    New conflict, new actors? The role of NGOs

The panelists noted how NGOs and states are complementary. The engagement of NGOs at different levels of policy-making processes and legislative procedures was agreed by the speakers as fundamental. However the panelists pointed out the need to define ‘NGOs’ and ‘civil society’. This problem is linked to the legitimacy of the organisations and to their involvement in the progressive evolvement of society. The questioning of such issues is, ultimately, absolutely crucial since NGOs are the real mediators between the idea of universality of human rights and the idea of culture. In this sense, they constantly work for a redefinition of the idea of human rights.

Ms Elisabeth Decrey-Warner specifically pointed out the main perk of NGOs’ activity: really quick decisions-making processes since there’s not much bureaucracy behind them. Moreover, she noted the high flexibility of NGOs. However, the co-founder of Geneva Call also mentioned NGOs’ weaknesses: difficulties on a financial level and problems of legitimacy.

Professor Marco Sassòli noted that NGOs play a fundamental role in shaping the drafting of international law (notably Amnesty International.) However, he also proposed the idea that there is now a counter tendency in the involvement of NGOs: are they less involved now as they were before?


Deuxième panel académique


    Human rights and religious sphere actors

How to put religious freedom in accordance with the idea of human rights? Professor Olivier Roy opened the discussion by pointing out the fact that religious actors should see the values on which human rights are based not as fundamentally ‘bad.’ On the other hand, multiculturalism could be the starting point to understand religious actors. Since the difficulties of finding a correspondence between religious values and human rights are deep and multifaceted, it was highlighted how a multi-confession approach could be the key in the framing process of these narratives.

Importantly, to respect religious freedom within the human rights domain, there needs to be the recognition of the autonomy of the religious sphere. Hence, it’s part of the function of the law to find out ways to manage religious norms within the public space. Nevertheless, Ibrahim Salama noted that more than anything there is the need of a sharing experience of law and subsequently of moral values to effectively implement this process.

In order to achieve this experience of shared values, there is the strong need for interdisciplinary learning through religious studies. Only by introducing this form of learning, we’ll be able to appropriately distinguish all the different levels of involvement of non-state religious actors: political, juridical, religious etc. There are not the same normative elements at each level and they need to be thoroughly understood and explored since living together is possible only if those levels are distinguished and dealt with separately, Professor François Dermange stated.

Particularly in relation to Islam, it was pointed out that many problems concern this religion nowadays (abortion, homosexuality etc.) But there is also another manifestation of it: political manipulation of Islam itself. This is why the need to nurture an understanding of religious actors that is inter-religious and inter-disciplinary is absolutely fundamental.


Troisième panel académique

    Aujourd’hui le désordre ? The case of public health policy

It’s not easy to understand the idea of “global health.” Antoine Flahault opened the panel stating that there is no universally accepted definition of “global health.” The concept presents a strong geographical dimension to it even though, ultimately, global health issues are unique since they affect the international community as whole. Accordingly, Professor Flahault explained, there are no borders to it. Moreover, global health should always be considered as a matter of human security, not as one of political security to avoid for monetary interests and political matters to be involved, noted Thomas Nierle.

It was highlighted as well how important the links with innovations and human rights are in the context of global health. Hence, the politics of development and, in particular, the 2030 Development Agenda aim at improving the current system of health which still is highly fragile in many regions of the world (especially in West Africa.) These initiativeas try to address the main problem with health system: the persistent inequality in terms of accessing health. The need for the whole of the global community to fully have the right to health is now clear and development policies should promote different ways to reach this goal.

Thus, international law mechanisms should really act to realise social justice and to implement human rights. They should also hold non-state actors accountable when they fail to take responsibility for specific actions. In this sense, as Professor Stéphanie Dagron pointed out, the World Health Organisation should take responsibility and enact the normative competences it has.

    Aujourd’hui le désordre ? What role and legitimacy for non-state actors?

Firstly, it was specified that NGOs, private enterprises and philanthropic foundations play a huge role in creating new norms related to global health and for this reason they ought to be taken into high consideration. What ‘norms’ do they create? What competence do they have? Many issues of legitimacy arise in relation to these questions and they need to be addressed through enforcement of accountability measures – for these non-state actors to prove that their action and involvement is effectively useful.

Thomas Nierle gave the example of Médecins sans frontières. The NGO is now refusing all funding resources from the USA since they wanted to force certain criteria of intervention on the operative actions of the organisation.

The question arises again: how to involve non-state actors in the global governance? First of all, they must be involved on a constitutional level, Valentin Zellweger suggested. But then an important question of legitimacy arises. Moreover, how can we define non-state actors’ rights and responsibilities within their obligations? We always need to bear in mind that these are very different groups. Would it be possible to regulate the action of non-state actors through the use of soft law? As solution could be found in a mechanism of control and monitoring of the main actions to actually enforce accountability of all non-state actors. It was, however, Professor Andrew Clapham that addressed the possibility of finding a solution within hard law instead. He highlighted the main hurdles which could be encountered when trying to involve non-state actors in the process of drafting a treaty: legitimacy, accountability and the effects of globalisation and privatisation processes. However, he underlined the presence of legal tools such as the criminalisation of abusive practices to foster accountability.


MR - Research Assistant at CIPADH