Reasoning with Rebels: the Nitty-Gritty of Engaging Armed Groups
[Editor's Note: In its efforts to enrich professional dialogue on contemporary challenges of humanitarian law and policy, the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR) at Harvard University, in partnership with ATHA, invites experts in international humanitarian law, humanitarian action, and associated fields to contribute their insights to relevant discussions. We are pleased to welcome the contribution below from Dr. Claudia Hofmann, one of the expert panelists at the 12 June 2012 Humanitarian Action Webcast on Peace Building and Humanitarian Engagement".]
Armed groups have become a more than common feature in today’s conflicts. As of 2010, all active conflicts involve at least one non-state armed actor, if not several, according to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program. Yet, the international community still faces severe difficulties in dealing with them.
Naturally, different strategies have been designed to deal with armed groups but none has proven to be the answer to the problem. Instead, a continuum of different actors now apply different strategies in the same place at the same time, causing a number of unintended consequences and creating new problems.
Without better communication and coordination among external actors the situations involving armed groups will not improve.
External actors, such as states, international organisations, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), command a number of strategies, each tailored to their individual strengths. States, for example, possess enough authority, international standing, and resources - although some more than others - to be capable of combatting, eliminating, deterring, containing, co-opting, and marginalising armed groups in an attempt to fight them (Kosovo 1999, Afghanistan 2001, Iraq 2003). They can also build coalitions with likeminded states to increase their impact and use their reputation and influence to talk armed groups out of or into something (Gaddafi 1976 in the Philippines, Germany setting up talks with the Taliban in 2011).
Within a multilateral institutional setting - such as the EU, UN, NATO or similar - their power increases exponentially if they find enough support among their peers.
On top of that, the institutional setting itself is able to act as an independent personae and create procedures and frameworks that are meant to regulate the behaviour of armed groups (for instance, through the UN Security Council’s recent resolutions for Côte d’Ivoire, Western Sahara, and Sudan). International organisations may send special representatives and special envoys to talk to armed groups and mediate or negotiate a settlement, such as the power-sharing agreements in Sudan (2005), Zimbabwe (2008), and Kenya (2008).
And if that was not enough, specialised NGOs now offer mediation between armed groups and their host states as well as mediation support (Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, Carter Center), or attempt to persuade armed groups with arguments that playing nice has its advantages (Geneva Call, International Committee of the Red Cross).
And some of these international approaches have been successful. Say, in Croatia in 1995, states were able to increase the level of security on the ground and (re-)establish a legitimate ruling authority. Of course, many other times states have failed to do so, such as in Somalia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
International organisations have a slightly better track record but they take an enormous amount of time to get going - building a working coalition among states takes time because willing states need to be sure about their stakes in the operation. Moreover, guiding the behaviour of armed groups through frameworks and procedures requires patience. And while NGOs gain advantages with armed groups by means of their non-official status, their reach tends to be limited for much the same reason.
But the actual danger in this continuum of actors and efforts is not so much that some approaches may fail. Failure is a part of life. The actual danger is the simultaneity of the approaches without much communication among the actors.
Picture this: In any given conflict there will be at least two parties to the conflict, possibly more. There will be neighbouring countries that feel the need to help or protect their interests in the region. State actors from outside the region will want to have a say or feel the pressure that, because of their authority, international standing, and resources, they ought to be doing something.
Which brings in international organisations, as the organised expression of the desire to help and the pressure to do something. And then there are usually several hundred humanitarian and development organisations, governmental and non-governmental, that are already on the ground to help.
And all these actors have very different approaches, capabilities, and goals. In this web of activity, armed groups have a walk-over with misusing and instrumentalising what is being offered.
So, while in theory all the different approaches available to the international community may complement each other, with each actor having its own strengths and capabilities that make them superior to other actors in specific settings, the uncoordinated activity on the ground obstructs that. And actors thinking of engaging armed groups should be aware of this. More knowledge about international actors and their approaches to dealing with and engaging armed groups, and more communications among each other may not only achieve a more coordinated and effective approach on the ground. It may also save some actors the effort because another, perhaps more suitable, actor is already on top of the situation. Certainly something to think about.