As the rate of major civil wars has almost tripled over the past decade,[i]governments around the world have increasingly relied on auxiliary security forces – namely, paramilitaries and pro-government militias (PGMs) – to fight counter-insurgency campaigns. Although the use of these groups is widespread – for instance, governments collaborated with PGMs in over 81% of country-years of armed conflict between 1981 and 2007[ii]- we know very little about the longer-term consequences of relying on and empowering such groups during conflict.[iii]This research project aims to understand how such groups impact post-conflict peace. The research will also identify evidence-based policy interventions that can mitigate the risks these groups frequently pose to post-conflict transitions.
Auxiliary forces in Nigeria, Somalia, Iraq and other contemporary conflicts have played key roles in winning back territory from designated terrorist and insurgent groups. Such forces are often convenient, short-term solutions for governments facing insurgencies that outmatch regular security forces. Among other benefits, auxiliary forces: are cheap force multipliers; have local knowledge and language skills that makes them more effective fighters and intelligence gatherers; and – particularly those with informal links to the state – offer governments more plausible deniability for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in the context of counter-insurgency campaigns.[iv]Further, some governments may prefer to rely on informal armed groups over the state’s regular armed forces, if they view the latter as posing a coup threat or as being otherwise unreliable.[v]
While governments may find it expedient and even necessary to rely on auxiliary forces in the short-term to beat back insurgents, supporting the rise of these groups during conflict often carries long-term consequences. Research shows that the use of PGMs as counterinsurgents makes conflicts last longer, with higher levels of violence and abuse.[vi]The presence of PGMs also makes conflicts substantively more likely to recur,[vii]because members of PGMs “develop a strong incentive to spoil post-conflict peace.” This is because a) their privileges and relevance to the government declines after conflict subsides; b) they are often excluded from peace negotiations, which reduces their commitment to peace agreements; and c) they are often excluded from disarmament, demobilization, reintegration (DDR) processes, which reduces their real and perceived benefits from peace.[viii]
Research also shows that when governments use PGMs, human rights conditions worsen.[ix]The rates of certain types of violations, including sexual and gender-based violence, torture, killings and disappearances, rise when such groups are active in a conflict.[x]Governments have trouble training and controlling PGMs, and sometimes deliberately delegate violence to them, allowing them to shift blame to the militias and away from themselves for repression of civilians.[xi]From a criminal justice perspective, governments mayhave little incentive to ensure auxiliary forces are held accountable for crimes, because in doing so they might inadvertently implicate themselves.Moreover, given their roles in fighting armed groups frequently labeled as terrorist, auxiliary forces are often seen as heroes by parts of the population. This can raise the political costs of trying to bring their members to justice.
In many cases, auxiliary forces also acquire powerful economic roles during and after conflict, especially through participation in – and sometimes domination of – illicit markets. They collude with local and national officials in ways that corrupt and erode the state from the inside. All of this makes it very difficult to disembed such groups from the state, government and/or local-level elites, and to hold their members accountable for human rights violations and criminality, even after the security threats that justified their rise in the first place have abated.
Governments will continue to rely on auxiliary forces in counter-insurgency campaigns, in particular where regular security forces lack the capacity or legitimacy to undertake such campaigns themselves. We need to better understand how government-affiliated informal armed groups shape attempts by countries to transition out of conflict, and what policies and tools can minimize the longer-term damage these forces can have for post-conflict peace, stabilization and state-building.
[i]Von Einsiedel, Sebastian et al. (March 2017) “Civil War Trends and the Changing Nature of Armed Conflict” UNU-CPR.
[ii]Carey, Sabine et al. (2013) “States, the security sector, and the monopoly of violence. A new database on pro-government militias” Journal of Peace Research 50(2): 249-258.
[iii]Steinert, Christoph et al. (2018) “Spoilers of peace: Pro-government militias as risk factors for conflict recurrence” Journal of Peace Research (1-15).
[iv]Bohmelt, Tobias et al. (2017) “Auxiliary Force Structure: Paramilitary Forces and Progovernment Militias” Comparative Political Studies 51(2).
[v]Carey, Sabine et al. (2015) “Risk Mitigation, Regime Security, and Militias: Beyond Coup-proofing” International Studies Quarterly, 60(1).
[vi]Carey, Sabine et al (Oct. 2016) “Pro-Government Militias and Conflict” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics.
[vii]Steinert, Christoph et al. “Spoilers of peace: Pro-government militias as risk factors for conflict recurrence” Journal of Peace Research (1-15) 2018.
[viii]Steinert, Christoph et al. (2018) “Spoilers of peace: Pro-government militias as risk factors for conflict recurrence” Journal of Peace Research (1-15).
[ix]Mitchell, Neil J., et al. (2014) “The Impact of Pro-Government Militias on Human Rights Violations” International Interactions, 40:5, 812-836.
[x]Militias that recruit children are linked to higher levels of sexual violence.Carey, Sabine et al (Oct. 2016) “Pro-Government Militias and Conflict” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. See also Mitchell, Neil J., et al. (2014) “The Impact of Pro-Government Militias on Human Rights Violations” International Interactions, 40:5, 812-836.
[xi]Mitchell, Neil J., et al. (2014) “The Impact of Pro-Government Militias on Human Rights Violations” International Interactions, 40:5, 812-836.