A generation ago the emphasis of human rights was primarily defined in the context of the State. This was based on the perception that a State was the protector of rights, and the assumption that only State was responsible for violations. This perspective has undergone changes in recent times since some serious human rights violations around the world have been committed by non-State armed groups. Though the State continues to be the primary institution responsible and accountable for human rights, the international community has increasingly broadened the definition of human rights violations to include both State and non-State groups engaged in armed conflict.
Yet, there are fundamental gaps. Even though non-State human rights violations are now recognized as a problem, the procedures and mechanisms to address them are still inadequate and in its formative stages. In the case of State and its institutions, there are existing frameworks of accountability; even though much is still desired in actually succeeding to hold a government responsible and accountable for human rights violations.
Many non-state groups are fighting for separation and political recognition from existing states and any formal dealings with them causes diplomatic controversy. Since they lack formal political status they are not susceptible to the same political pressures as governments and are not bound by the same sort of treaties, laws and institutions. Furthermore, since most non-state groups do not seek the same international or national legitimacy as states or governments, the ploy of international shaming does not have the same effect as it does on States.
The existing State-centered system which is premised on sharp distinctions between State and non-State groups causes a serious obstacle in addressing issues of rights. Though this predicts a widening contradiction, numerous overlap exist between State and non-State groups. In some cases, non-State groups look and behave like would-be States; in some other cases, non-State groups have de facto control and dismantled existing bureaucracies to create alternatives. In some cases, the only difference between State and non-State groups is international recognition.
Political violence on the ground operates along a continuum and hence a comprehensive approach that reflects and addresses this reality is required. It implies moving beyond the sharp distinction between domestic and international affairs and between political violence and violence per se. In a future where domestic and international jurisdiction is fluid and contested and where sovereignty is fragmented, the most effective and sustainable approach of preventing human rights violations in armed conflict, is to address core issues through a political process of negotiation.
The challenge will be for non-State groups to muster the political will to take responsibility, without justifications, in addressing violations committed from within its own ranks. Justice ought to be public for healing to be possible in the context of liberative institutional and societal transformation.