International humanitarian law (IHL) imposes certain obligations upon, and asserts certain rights to, “parties to the conflict”. Remarkably, nearly 200 provisions of the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols include this phrase, without providing a definition of it. Terrorist groups and organisations may be using armed force during armed conflicts, yet States appear reluctant to recognise such groups as “parties to a conflict”. The present contribution explains what is to be understood by the term “parties to the conflict”, for both types of armed conflict under IHL, namely international armed conflicts and non-international armed conflicts. In particular, it discusses whether, or to what extent, (alleged) terrorist organisations can qualify as such parties. The article asserts certain obligations to the “parties to the conflict”. In addition to that, it critically assesses the findings in the recent Belgian case law, the latter providing that various armed actors involved in the Syrian conflict cannot be considered to be parties to the said conflict.
This article is particularly relevant to the subject of the armed conflict in Southeast Turkey and the ramifications following from it. In this regard, the article elaborates on the Belgian court’s ruling which states that the PKK is not considered a terrorist organisation, since the Turkish government and the PKK are engaged in a (non-international) armed conflict.