Non-State Armed Groups’ Perspectives of IHL: The FARC-EP Case
Non-State armed groups (NSAGs) are one of the dramatis personae in the current humanitarian landscape. Not only do these entities use armed violence to achieve their military and political goals, they also establish institutions that regulate the everyday life of individuals, adopt “laws” and other regulations, provide public goods, and recruit members and supporters. In doing so, NSAGs significantly shape the societies of which they are a part.
In this context, the international community has called for their sustained engagement to enhance international humanitarian law (IHL) compliance during armed conflict. Drawing on this premise, the Geneva Academy of IHL and Human Rights and Geneva Call, in collaboration with the University of Cairo and the Norwegian Refugee Council, have embarked on a research project on NSAGs’ practice and interpretation of IHL.
In 2021, a case study on the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia–Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP) was published with the goal of better understanding this group’s IHL perspectives. This post briefly highlights findings from the study and suggests broader implications for IHL compliance by NSAGs.
The FARC-EP was a NSAG mainly active in Colombia between 1964-2016—although some sources date its “official” origin to 1966. The group followed a Marxist-Leninist ideology and conducted its operations mostly in rural areas of Colombia. Throughout its existence, the group took part in various non-international armed conflicts (NIACs), including against the government of Colombia and other NSAGs.
While active, the FARC-EP developed its organizational centralized hierarchical structure in three stages. Originally, it served as a peasant self-defense movement. Then it evolved into a “mobile guerrilla formation.” Finally, the FARC-EP remodeled itself into an “army” (Gutiérrez-Sanín at 636). In its late stages, the group had a Secretariat comprised of seven high-ranking fighters and a Central Command (Estado Mayor Central) composed of 32 members, which exercised authority over a system of “bloc command structures” (Estado Mayor de Bloque), front blocs (Bloques de Frente), fronts, columns, companies, guerrillas, and squads.
Key Findings of the FARC-EP Study
The FARC-EP’s General Approach to IHL
The FARC-EP viewed IHL as created by States for their own benefit and convenience. According to an ICRC report, the group only partially adopted IHL and preferred “to end the war rather than humanize it” (at 39). A FARC-EP former commander, who also served as a member of its Secretariat, acknowledged that IHL “was never on the agenda, as a priority, as an element to regulate our behaviour” (Case Study at 12). He observed that as States developed the law,
[w]e were never considered…. For us it was a double-edged sword as we had rules of behaviour that arose from the essence, spirit and content of the political project we had. From there our behaviour derived, from there our norms derived, that had nothing to do with those that were elaborated by States throughout history (Case Study at 12-13).
Because the FARC-EP regarded IHL as “elitist” and disconnected from the realities of the Colombian conflict, the group largely refused to be bound by it. The FARC-EP believed it was their prerogative to determine how IHL should apply to its operations (Sjöberg at 193).
According to a former member of the group, there were two moments when it did address IHL before the negotiations that resulted in the 2016 peace agreement with the Colombian government: (1) the FARC-EP acknowledged certain international obligations in discussions with the ICRC on the ground; and (2) they also acknowledged IHL obligations when they sought recognition as a “belligerent movement” (Case Study at 13-14). In its pursuit of recognition as a belligerent force, the FARC-EP’s “international commission” tried to demonstrate that the group fulfilled the criteria to obtain this status, for which it produced a written document in 2000.
Importantly, this document was developed during the peace talks with the government. There, the FARC-EP affirmed that although it was not specifically committed to all IHL norms and did not use “the technical terms of IHL”, its own internal rules were adjusted to this legal framework. This is because the NSAG was a revolutionary movement that considered “humanism” as “one of its logical pillars.” In the same sense, the document explains that the group had “norms that [sought] to protect the civilian population from the conflict, establishing parameters that coincide with the basic principles of Humanitarian Law, such as the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, and the immunity [from attack] of the civilian population” (Beligerancia at 10).
It appears the FARC-EP regarded international law and IHL in particular as chiefly political tools to be used to secure political recognition.
Relations with Other Parties to the Conflict(s)
Relationships with other parties, including paramilitary groups and the Colombian government, also shaped how the FARC-EP interpreted IHL norms. For example, when paramilitary groups were actively engaged in the Colombian conflict, the FARC-EP considered civilians who supported or were perceived to support paramilitaries as legitimate targets. A 1994 communiqué, reported by the José María Córdoba Bloc, identified the following as military objectives:
(1) Paramilitary informants and collaborators;
(2) Traders who sell goods to hired gunmen;
(3) Farmworkers on farms which are paramilitary bases;
(4) So-called “hope commandos,” shown to be linked to those who massacre the people;
(5) Peasant farmers who receive earnings from recognized paramilitaries;
(6) Peasant farmers who sell their products to cooperatives which are paramilitary fronts, such as Coramar;
(7) Police and soldiers who carry out massacres in collusion with hired gunmen;
(8) The Urabá regional prosecutor’s office based at the 17th Brigade headquarters;
(9) Anyone who knows something about [the paramilitarism] phenomenon but does not inform the FARC-EP disciplinary commissions;
(10) In general, anything that smells paramilitary, including farmers, politicians or members of the military who support the paramilitaries (Case Study at 18-19).
The document reflects not only a broad conception of targets but also an outlook closely tied to the character of the party the FARC-EP fought, reflecting a specific time and scenario in which paramilitary groups were active in the Colombian context. Similarly, public reports have indicated an increasing number of IHL violations by the FARC-EP, such as the prohibition of forced displacement, at the time it was actively in conflict against the aforementioned NSAGs. This shows that the attitudes of the FARC-EP with respect to IHL changed according to the party it was fighting against.
Compared with the Legal Obligations of the Territorial State
A final point relates to the content of the FARC-EP’s internal regulations when compared to international legal standards and those applicable to the territorial State. For instance, the group’s prohibition on using and recruiting children below the age of 15 was adopted during its Seventh National Guerrilla Conference (1982). The Conference instructed,
Recruitment: The Fronts will create recruitment commissions, which must be prepared with strict tact to recruit men and women, who must be evenly matched between 15 and 30 years old … The recruits must be physically fit and mentally mature, i.e., clear about why he or she is joining [the FARC-EP]. Recruitment depends on the area of population and the development of the Front (at 27).
In a later document, drafted during the discussions that led to the 2016 peace agreement, the group affirmed that “[c]oinciding with the IHL, the FARC-EP rules of recruitment don’t allow enlistment of children under 15 years and those rules are clear regarding age.” Note the prohibition against recruiting children who have not attained the age of 15 years only became applicable to Colombia in 1995 when it ratified the 1977 Additional Protocol II.
Conclusions Related to IHL Compliance by the FARC-EP
Overall, the study revealed that the FARC-EP emphasized the enforcement of some rules more thoroughly than others. For example, the group’s internal regulations rarely addressed the protection of schools, gender-based violence (with the exception of rape), and forced displacement. On the other hand, the administration of justice, both within the group and among the civilian population, as well as child protection were highly important.
Despite support for these rules, violations of specific IHL norms, such as the prohibition of forced displacement (e.g., here at 10), were evidenced when the FARC-EP was actively in conflict against both paramilitary groups and governmental forces.
Two complementary explanations for the FARC-EP approach emerge. The first explanation relates to the interaction of the FARC-EP with various entities, including other NSAGs, and the time at which the violations took place. The group, like any actor in a conflict setting, was not an isolated entity. It interacted with local communities and leaders, international organizations, other NSAGs, and governmental and paramilitary forces. Based on a number of sources, some of these interactions affected the way the FARC-EP fought in the conflict and interpreted its legal obligations.
Second, “weaknesses of monitoring mechanisms” within the group may have undermined adherence to orders from the Central Command (Roots of Restraint in War, at 42). Given the diverse and remote locations in which it operated in Colombia, failure of the group’s command-and-control system is not surprising.
In light of the findings of the study, it is clear that more work is needed to ensure NSAG respect for IHL. In particular, efforts to secure stronger IHL implementation must include understanding the reasons why these non-State actors behave in certain ways and the root causes of violations. With this information, protection strategies can be better developed and tailored for each context and group.
Ezequiel Heffes is a Senior Policy and Legal Advisor at Geneva Call.
Photo credit: Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS)