In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nonstate Actors

  • Introduction
  • Legal Theoretical Studies
  • International Legal Personality and Subjectivity

International Law Nonstate Actors
Nicolás Carrillo Santarelli
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 November 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0085


There are competing definitions of what entities classify as nonstate actors. The broadest notion holds that nonstate entities are all entities different from states. Most theories concur in any case that nonstate actors differ considerably among themselves. Nonstate actors are examined in light of international law for multiple purposes. Some legal materials and analyses examine all nonstate actors, although it is often the case that they focus on certain types of nonstate entities, considered relevant for their purposes. Generally, nonstate actors are relevant for international law insofar as they are often able to impact legal values and must accordingly be regulated. The aforementioned impact may be a positive or a negative one, and this justifies both the existence of rights and the special status of nonstate entities that enables them to contribute in fields of their competence, as revealed by ECOSOC Resolution 1996/31 (consultative relationship between the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations), or to consider that they can have responsibilities, be they social and sometimes legal, as happens with international criminal law. Furthermore, responding to nonstate actions is crucial in certain fields. For instance, the fact that nonstate conduct can be inimical to human rights, as evinced by state obligations to prevent or respond to such violations and to protect rights, explains why several authors discuss if a human rights framework that ignores the need to directly protect individuals from nonstate actors is flawed and fails to uphold its foundation: human dignity. Altogether, although they have acquired greater power and formal relevance, nonstate actors have impacted international law and participated in international legal processes throughout history, which explains why state-exclusivist approaches to international law and international relations are deficient and the study of nonstate actors and their interaction with multiple international legal dimensions and processes is called for. The importance of nonstate actors and the possibility that they might be addressees of international law makes it troublesome to consider that they are irrelevant for international law. Moreover, given their power, participation, influence, and impact on legal interests and processes, some nonstate entities are properly referred to as actors. Furthermore, they may have direct, indirect, formal, or informal impact on such legal processes as lawmaking, law enforcement, or dispute settlement.

Definitions and Relevance

Contrary to what may be thought at first glance, there are several contradictory attempts to define nonstate actors. Some texts that do this, examined herein, favor notions dependent on such factors as independence from states, private nature, or the mere difference from states, among others. Choosing one or the other theory is relevant, and entities as international organizations, whose members can be entities different from states, may be classified as nonstate or not depending on the election. By contrast, nonstate actors have been examined from different disciplines, which acknowledge their relevance and attach importance to the international and transnational dimensions of nonstate conduct given their power or impact. Some of those studies have sought to define nonstate actors. However, given the diverging goals and substrata of different studies, definitions often differ widely among them. Clapham 2009 examines this problem of the notion of nonstate actors from a legal perspective, acknowledging that all entities different from states are nonstate in nature and that yet some narrower definitions exist, with more limited scopes. Additionally, it examines legitimacy and accountability concerns related to nonstate conduct. Del Arenal 2002 examines the phenomenon of increased nonstate power and relevance in international society in a changing landscape; and McDougal 1955 highlights the importance of studying nonstate actors, given their participation in power processes. Schachter 1997 examines the changing role and relevant actions of nonstate actors and their interaction with international law in a global context; Halliday 2001 studies nonstate dynamics, their relevance throughout history, and the importance of regulations of nonstate conduct. Reinalda 2001 has insights on the classification of nonstate entities based on their goals, origin, and scope of participation, and examines in detail nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and corporations from the perspective of some theoretical paradigms. Josselin and Wallace 2001 offers a definition that is narrower than the one presented in Clapham 2009 and examines, among others, conditions that encourage nonstate participation, also formulating questions on nonstate roles. Calame 2008, in turn, arguing that nonstate actors are important given the international and transnational relevance of their operations and their abilities to contribute to the provision of public goods, discusses several relevant issues, including those related to their responsibility, regulation, activity, legitimacy, advantages, or influence. Finally, Reinalda, et al. 2001 highlights the importance of studying nonstate actors from multiple disciplines, given their relevance, and proposes a way to classify them.

  • Calame, Pierre. “Non-state Actors and World Governance.” Forum for a New World Governance Discussion Paper. 2008.

    Highlights the relevance of nonstate actions across boundaries and nonstate contributions to provide public goods. Additionally, the paper examines nonstate responsibility, representativeness, regulation, cooperation, coordination, legitimacy, and governance; areas in which actors play a key role; their advantages in comparison to states; and the influence they can wield.

  • Clapham, Andrew. “Non-state Actors.” In Post-Conflict Peacebuilding: A Lexicon. Edited by Vincent Chetail, 200–212. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Defines nonstate actors as all entities different from states, acknowledging that some legal materials use narrower definitions. Legitimacy and dilution fears about engaging with nonstate actors are rebutted, and their monitoring is discussed. Additionally, examines related issues of accountability and entitlements of those actors, state obligations, and implementation of law.

  • del Arenal, Celestino. “La nueva sociedad mundial y las nuevas realidades internacionales: Un reto para la teoría y para la política.” In Cursos de Derecho Internacional de Vitoria-Gasteiz 2001, 17–85. Bilbao, Spain: Servicio Editorial de la Universidad del País Vasco, 2002.

    Analyzes multiple types of power gained by nonstate actors in the current world social landscape and the new important roles they play therein. Those factors are considered related both to dynamics of interdependence, globalization, and transnationalization and to the weakening of territoriality as an element of power.

  • Halliday, Fred. “The Romance of Non-state Actors.” In Non-state Actors in World Politics. Edited by Daphné Josselin and William Wallace, 21–40. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781403900906

    Explores the goals, alleged impact, operations, and relations with states of some nonstate entities: those not being under state directions. Considers that they have been relevant throughout history and that not all of them are benign, and argues that all actors must respect norms upholding certain democratic and good governance-related values.

  • Josselin, Daphné, and William Wallace. “Non-state Actors in World Politics: A Framework.” In Non-state Actors in World Politics. Edited by Daphné Josselin and William Wallace, 1–20. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781403900906

    Independence from states is not considered to define nonstate actors, but the text focuses on entities with autonomy from public actors that are transnational or participate in transnational networks. They are considered to flourish in liberal and stable contexts and participate more given certain social developments. Briefly analyzes problematic issues.

  • McDougal, Myres S. “The Realist Theory in Pyrrhic Victory.” American Journal of International Law 49 (1955): 376–378.

    DOI: 10.2307/2194869

    Stresses the importance of studying the participation of nonstate and substate entities in world and social power processes, and their objectives, dynamics, practices, and relevance therein.

  • Reinalda, Bob. “Private in Form, Public in Purpose: NGOs in International Relations Theory.” In Non-state Actors in International Relations. Edited by Bas Arts, Math Noortmann, and Bob Reinalda, 11–37. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001.

    The chapter offers a classification of nonstate actors based on their interests (profit or not), origin (private or public), and geographic scope of operations. Focusing on NGOs and corporations, the impact and role of those actors are analyzed from the perspective of three paradigms: pluralism, transnationalism, and collective social action.

  • Reinalda, Bob, Bas Arts, and Math Noortmann. “Non-state Actors in International Relations: Do They Matter?” In Non-state Actors in International Relations. Edited by Bas Arts, Math Noortmann, and Bob Reinalda, 1–8. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001.

    Emphasizes the need for studying nonstate actors with an interdisciplinary approach given their proliferation in the international arena; classifies them in three categories based on their private or public constitution and goals; and considers that they are relevant because of their influence, expertise, and participation. Provides overviews of articles on the subject.

  • Schachter, Oscar. “The Decline of the Nation-State and Its Implications for International Law.” Columbia Journal of Transnational Law 36 (1997): 7–23.

    Discusses issues of the globalized context as nonstate and substate loyalties and identities; nonstate power; nonstate governance or aid functions; private regulation and functional norms; the interaction between nonstate actors and international law; the role of the so-called civil society, their diversity and conflicts; and the power of criminal actors.

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