Guest post by Anita Gohdes and Sabine Carey
Images capturing the protests in Kiev last week, and now also in Caracas and Bangkok, are demonstrating once again how quickly civilian uprisings are countered with violent state responses. In Caracas and Bangkok, eyewitnesses and the media are reporting that major parts of the government’s repressive efforts are not being conducted by regular police or military forces but instead by militias siding with the government or paramilitary groups. Why do some governments delegate the task of “restoring order” to groups that are not strictly organized under their control, and that are usually not as well equipped and trained as police and formal government forces?
The Pro-Government Militias Project has been trying to offer some insights into this question by collecting data on the type, location and various characteristics of these groups across the globe. Within this project, a pro-government militia is defined as a group that:
- Is identified by media sources as pro-government or sponsored by the government (national or sub-national),
- Is identified as not part of the regular security forces,
- Is armed, and
- Has some level of organization.
The data currently range from 1981 to 2007, so the most recent examples from Ukraine, Venezuela, Thailand and Syria are not yet included. That said, past patterns can help us understand the motivations behind these current instances of outsourcing violence:
- Given the prevalence of these groups, they are not just a phenomenon of failed states or civil wars. Between 1981 and 2007, 88 countries were recorded to have had at least one pro-government militia at some point and almost half of the observations with pro-government militias occurred outside of armed conflict.
- With the entire world watching events unfold, groups that are only loosely connected to the government become particularly attractive for political leaders, since these irregular armed groups offer governments the opportunity to deny responsibility for human rights violations they might commit. Informal pro-government militias have been linked to a heightened risk of torture, killings and disappearances, and to genocide.
- Pro-government militias are outside regular and generally hierarchical command structures and are often under direct and personal control of leaders – which enables them to react to changes on the ground quickly and effectively.
- In situations where military leaders and personnel are defecting to the opposition, personal links to violent groups can help state leaders maintain their position and fighting capabilities.
- Governments that want to appear democratic have a particular incentive to transfer the job of “clearing” protesters to groups that are not directly linked to their own leadership. Autocratic leaders who generally have a higher propensity for using violence against their population are likely to be less concerned with covering up repressive behavior.
- Governments that fear that their link to militias might be uncovered are less likely to outsource violence to these groups because they anticipate that they might not get away with avoiding accountability for the violence these irregular armed groups might commit.
Close proximity to the European Union, which has significant political and economic leverage over Ukraine and has a strong interest in keeping close tabs and ties on events in that country, might well have affected the recent turn of events in Kiev. In Venezuela, however, it has become even harder to expose potential links between Maduro’s government and militias, with journalists expelled and the internet being disrupted. If the world watches, the incentive to outsource repression and atrocities to informal armed groups increases. If the world watches closely, this strategy becomes increasingly unattractive for governments.