Violent non-state actor

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Contras in Nicaragua, 1987

In international relations, violent non-state actors (VNSA) (also known as non-state armed actors or non-state armed groups) are individuals and groups, which are wholly or partly independent of state governments, and which threaten or use violence to achieve their goals.[1]

VNSAs vary widely in their goals, size, and methods. For example, VNSAs may include narcotics cartels, popular liberation movements, religious and ideological organizations, corporations (e.g. private military contractors), self-defence militia, and paramilitary groups established by state governments to further their interests.[1][2]

While some VNSAs oppose the state governments, others are allied to them.[1] Some VNSAs are organized as paramilitary groups (adopting methods and structure similar to those of state armed forces), while others may be informally structured and use violence in other ways (for example, by kidnapping, using improvised explosive devices, or hacking into computer systems).


Some common and influential types of VNSAs are listed here:

Phil Williams identifies five types of VNSAs:[9]


MS-13 gang graffiti.

Thomas, Kiser and Casebeer asserted in 2005, "VNSA play a prominent, often destabilizing role in nearly every humanitarian and political crisis faced by the international community".[10]

As a new species of actors in international relations, VNSAs represent a departure from the traditional Westphalian sovereignty system of states in two ways: by providing an alternative to state governance and by challenging the state's monopoly of violence. Phil Williams, in an overview article, stated that in the 21st century, they "have become a pervasive challenge to nation-states".[11]

Williams argues that VNSAs develop out of poor state governance but also contribute to the further undermining of governance by the state. He explains that when weak states are "unable to create or maintain the loyalty and allegiance of their populations", "individuals and groups typically revert to or develop alternative patterns of affiliation".[12] That causes the family, tribe, clan etc. to become "the main reference points for political action, often in opposition to the state".[12]

According to Williams, globalization has "not only... challenged individual state capacity to manage economic affairs, it has also provided facilitators and force multipliers for VNSAs".[12] Transnational flows of arms, for example, are no longer under the exclusive surveillance of states. Globalization helps VNSAs develop transnational social capital and alliances as well as funding opportunities, which have flourished.[13]

The term has been used in several papers published by the US military.[14][15][16][17]

Humanitarian engagement[edit]

Researchers at the Overseas Development Institute propose that engagement with VNSAs, which they call armed non-state actors, is essential to humanitarian efforts in conflicts, as it is often necessary to do so to facilitate access to those affected and for providing humanitarian assistance.[18] However, humanitarian agencies too often fail to engage strategically with them. The tendency has strengthened since the end of the Cold War, partly because od the strong discouragement of humanitarian engagement with VNSAs in counterterrorism legislation and donor funding restrictions. In their opinion, further study is necessary to identify ways in which humanitarian agencies can develop productive dialogue with VNSAs.[18]

The International Security Department, together with the International Law Programme at Chatham House, are seeking to understand the dynamics that will determine support for a principle-based approach to engagement by humanitarian actors with VNSAs.[19]

See also[edit]



Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]