What Are Non-State Actors?

A doctor working with 'Doctors Without Borders' at a hospital in Sri Lanka.
A doctor working with 'Doctors Without Borders' at a hospital in Sri Lanka.

Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

Non-state actors are organizations and individuals that while not affiliated with, directed by, or funded through any sovereign government, often exercise significant political influence and territorial control. Non-state actors (NSAs) typically include corporations, private financial institutions, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as paramilitary groups, armed guerrilla warfare resistance groups, and terrorist organizations, all of which may employ violence in pursuit of their objectives.

Key Takeaways: Non-State Actors

  • Non-state actors are groups that while not affiliated with, directed by, or funded by any government, can exercise significant control over them.
  • Non-state actors may include corporations, private financial institutions, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as paramilitary groups, armed guerrilla warfare resistance groups, and terrorist organizations, all of which may employ violence in pursuit of their objectives.
  • According to different narratives on international politics, non-state actors are regarded as either heroes or villains.
  • Non-state actors claim to have achieved some success in helping to achieve both national and international development goals.
  • Armed non-state actors, also known as violent non-state actors, are groups that threaten or use violence to achieve their goals.


Types of Non-State Actors 

Some common and influential types and examples of NSAs include:

Large national or multinational corporations that are authorized to act as single entities—legally as persons—and are recognized as such in law. These are typically very large businesses operating transnationally, such as The Coca-Cola Company, McDonald's, General Motors, Adidas, Samsung, Nestlé, and Toyota.

Individual business magnates, such as Bill Gates and Elon Musk, may be considered NSAs to the extent that they use their great wealth in seeking to influence national and international affairs.

Decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) that operate according to rules encoded as computer database programs called smart contracts or blockchains. The crypto-currency Bitcoin is an example of a DAO which since its invention in 2009 has grown to become economically influential worldwide.

International media conglomerates, which are also usually corporations, report on the social and political situation in countries worldwide, and may therefore be highly influential as NSAs. Examples of such agencies are Associated Press (AP), Reuters, Agence France-Presse (AFP), RIA Novosti, a state-owned Russian news agency, and Al Jazeera, a state-owned Arabic-language international radio broadcaster based in Qatar.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which include international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), are usually large nonprofit organizations seeking to effect change in humanitarian, educational, ecological, healthcare, public policy, social, human rights, environmental, and other areas. Examples of NGOs are Greenpeace, Red Cross/Red Crescent, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and World Wildlife Fund.

Goodwill ambassadors or humanitarian aid workers involved with International Non-governmental Organizations’ overseas efforts, such as CARE and Doctors Without Borders may also be considered non-state actors.

People's movements in the form of mass movements which have become influential with size and longevity. Examples include the movements arising during the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 and the Occupy Wall Street movement against economic inequality and the influence of money in politics that began in New York City's Wall Street financial district, in September 2011 and gave rise to the wider Occupy movement in the United States and other countries.

Some religious groups engage in political affairs at an international level. For example, the Quakers, as a historic peace church, operate offices at the United Nations. Another example is the Taliban, which is a religious group as well as a violent non-state actor.

Transnational diaspora communities are ethnic or national communities that commonly seek to bring social and political change to both their native countries and their adoptive countries. The Israeli diaspora is an example.

Unincorporated associations, secret societies, and civic organizations unknown to or unrecognized by the state or government may be considered non-state actors.

Unrepresented nations and peoples include many indigenous peoples and Fourth World societies.

Some religious groups engage in political affairs at an international level. For example, the Quakers operate offices at the United Nations, where they have long advocated for world peace. The International Islamic Charitable Organization and Catholic Relief Services are examples of religious NGAs that help the marginalized and the impoverished. Another example is the Taliban, which is a religious group as well as a violent non-state actor.

Violent non-state actors—armed groups, including groups such as ISIS or criminal organizations, such as drug cartels.

The Role of Non-State Actors 

According to different narratives on international politics, non-state actors are regarded as either heroes or villains. Optimists consider them to be the leading edge of an emerging global civil society, challenging the authoritarian tendencies of governments and the power of international capital. Supporters of the globalization movement see non-state actors as a key to building networks across borders, promoting shared understandings, and even international solidarity. Realists, on the other hand, see NGAs as either front organizations thinly disguising the interests of particular states, or as potential revolutionaries, seeking to undermine national solidarity and the stability of the state system.

 Non-state actors claim to have achieved some success in helping to achieve both national and international development goals, such as those around the effects of climate change. In some cases, the actions of non-state actors have contributed to filling the greenhouse gas emissions gap left by inadequate or poorly executed government climate policies.

Operating in over 90 countries since 1992, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) is a global network of NGAs sharing a goal of making the world free of anti-personnel landmines. Drawing support from high-profile government figures such as Diana, Princess of Wales, they brought the issue to the United Nations General Assembly. ICBL's efforts led the international community to urge states to ratify the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty in 1997, and its contribution was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in the same year. 

A ban landmines sign is placed on a pyramid piled up by shoes gathered in the last few months by the U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines.
A ban landmines sign is placed on a pyramid piled up by shoes gathered in the last few months by the U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines.

Alex Wong / Getty Images

Especially over the last two decades, non-state actors have gained legal credibility and even recognition due to their heavy involvement in the international order. Their growing presence as a more flexible alternative to traditional governmental processes also holds them increasingly accountable to international law.

Among its many other complex effects, globalization has increased the influence of corporate non-government actors with mixed results on economic, social and cultural rights. The economic production of many of the world's largest corporations exceeds the gross domestic product of many countries. With operations in various countries, these corporations wield enormous power—even over countries' domestic economic policies—that challenges traditional government-based mechanisms of accountability. As countries compete with one another for foreign investment, they often relax labor and environmental standards, some become unwilling or unable to adequately protect human and individual rights. In addition to direct violations of human rights, corporations and banks risk becoming complicit in violations of human rights when they invest in countries facing violent conflict, struggles over resources, and governmental corruption and abuses of power.

The most obvious difference between state actors and non-state actors is that while state actors are the ruling governments of a country, non-state actors are the influential organizations or wealthy individuals having the potential to influence the actions of state actors, but are not directly allied to a particular country.

By definition, a state is a political unit holding ultimate authority or sovereignty over an area of territory and the people in it. Thus state actors include the governments of the world’s nations. For example, the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Germany, Russia, and France are some of the major and the most dominant state actors on the international stage. Unlike non-state actors, state actors, such as the United States Congress, hold the administrative power of a state. They have the ultimate authority in their decision-making procedure along with the right to possess military power. They have, for example, the legal right to declare war and use military force according to their wishes.

Similarly, state actors have the exclusive authority to issue currency, levy taxes, and spend public funds. All powers that not available to non-state actors.

While state actors have traditionally been regarded as the dominant actors in the international arena, technological developments, globalization, and social movements have increased the capacity of the non-state actors to influence state actors.

By not being allied with or committed to any government or state, non-state actors are free to work individually to influence and sometimes interfere with the actions of the state actors.

While state actors pursue state-related interests as exemplified by their domestic and foreign policies, non-state actors have varied self-motivated interests. For example, IGO s and NGOs mainly intend in promoting world peace, humanitarian measures, and social services. Meanwhile, the main intention of violent non-state actors is to create political transformations. Criminal non-state actor groups engage in transnational organized crime for economic and political gains.

Armed Non-State Actors

Armed non-state actors, also known as violent non-state actors, are individuals or groups that are wholly or partly independent of governments and which threaten or use violence to achieve their goals. Armed non-state actors vary widely in their goals, size, and methods.

Often comprised of rebel groups, militias, organizations led by tribal warlords, and criminal networks, armed non-state actors increasingly have the potential to disturb, undermine, or completely prevent the processes of peace- and state-building, leading to repeated periods of violence and abuse of human rights.

Today, the increasing power of armed non-state actors, such as militants, militias, and criminal groups, at the expense of states has become what The Brookings Institution has called “a highly consequential and complex dynamic in today’s international system.”

This trend comes as broader worldwide changes in power distribution and modes of governance and means that more people, especially in struggling and failed states, such as Somalia, depend on illegal economies for basic livelihoods and armed non-state actors for basic security and governance. As criminal and militant actors are empowered and legitimate governments are weakened, many states struggle to confront the problem—some even accommodate or incorporate such actors. Long the case in Brazil, Jamaica, Central America, Bangladesh, and India, but now more prevalent elsewhere, such weakened states negotiate with armed non-state groups to extort votes, obtain funding, settle scores with political or business rivals, or fend off other armed non-state actors. While these dynamics began before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the pandemic certainly exacerbated them.

Types 

Armed non-state actors engage in combat in all terrains. Common types include:

Drug cartels and similar criminal organizations, such as the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico, for example, carry out assassinations, kidnappings, thefts, and extortions to defend their turf against rival gangs and the state military and police.

Extremist people’s movements, such as the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency in central India, which employ guerrilla tactics—also known as asymmetric warfare—to pursue their aims.

Pirates who threaten international shipping lanes by robing ships or taking hostages to get a ransom. Recent examples include piracy off the coast of Somalia. Some pirates falsely claim that they serve as "coastguards" in place of a failed state.

Somali pirates holding the merchant vessel, MV Faina, stand on the deck of the ship with crew members on October 19, 2008.
Somali pirates holding the merchant vessel, MV Faina, stand on the deck of the ship with crew members on October 19, 2008.

US Navy / Getty Images

Private military companies and corporations that either have their own, or hire, private paramilitary services. An example of armed non-state actors that combat other armed non-state actors, the floating armories in the Indian Ocean are active in counter-piracy.

Religious or ideological groups, such as Boko Haram in and around Nigeria, espouse armed violence as their moral or sacred duty.

Paramilitary groups that make use of military methods and structures to pursue their agenda, such as the now-decommissioned Provisional Irish Republican Army.

Warlords are indigenous local or regional leaders using armed violence to exercise military, economic, and political control over territory within a sovereign state. Warlords have a long history in Afghanistan, for example.

Use of Children

The peaceful international community has widely condemned armed and violent non-state actors for recruiting—sometimes forcing—children under the age of 18 as to serve as them as combatants, scouts, porters, spies, informants, and in other roles in which their lives are at risk. While many state armed forces also recruit children, the United Nations has identified at least 14 countries where children are widely used by armed non-state groups: Afghanistan, Colombia, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria, Gaza and Palestinian Territories, The Philippines, Singapore, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Since 1999, approximately 60 groups with histories of using children in military roles have entered into agreements to reduce or end the practice.

Humanitarian Assistance

According to research performed at the Overseas Development Institute, the engagement of armed non-state actors can be essential in helping states carry out humanitarian efforts during conflicts. “In situations of armed conflict, humanitarian organizations rely on the principles of independence and impartiality to facilitate acceptance of their work by belligerents,” stated the researchers. “Engagement with [armed non-state actors] is required in order to explain these principles, obtain security guarantees and facilitate the free movement of affected populations.”

However, noted the Institute, governments often fail to engage strategically with violent non-state actors, a tendency that has strengthened since the end of the Cold War, partly because of the strong discouragement of humanitarian engagement with violent non-state actors in counterterrorism legislation and donor funding restrictions.

Sources

  • Ataman, Muhittin. “The Impact of Non-State Actors on World Politics: A Challenge to Nation-States.” Alternatives, Fall 2003, https://ciaotest.cc.columbia.edu/olj/tjir/v2n1/tjir_v2n1atm01.pdf.
  • \Kruck, Andreas. “Researching Non-state Actors in International Security: Theory and Practice.” Routledge; April 28, 2017,  ASIN: ‎B0716F3VSJ
  • Felbab-Brown, Vanda. “The key trends to watch this year on nonstate armed actors.” The Brookings Institution, January 15, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/01/15/the-key-trends-to-watch-this-year-on-nonstate-armed-actors/.
  • Jackson, Ashly. "Briefing Paper: Talking to the other side: Humanitarian engagement with armed non-state actors". Overseas Development Institute, June 2012, http://cdn-odi-production.s3-website-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/media/documents/7711.pdf.
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Longley, Robert. "What Are Non-State Actors?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 28, 2022, thoughtco.com/non-state-actors-5443123. Longley, Robert. (2022, July 28). What Are Non-State Actors? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/non-state-actors-5443123 Longley, Robert. "What Are Non-State Actors?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/non-state-actors-5443123 (accessed October 1, 2022).