Tag Archives: Civilian self-protection

Cultural Knowledge and a Little Luck: Surviving Boko Haram

9 Apr

A couple of weeks back, Al Jazeera published the testimony of Apagu, a Christian, 16-year-old Nigerian girl who was kidnapped by Boko Haram and subsequently escaped to Cameroon. I really encourage everyone to read it, if only to understand what she, and many other women, have gone through. Beyond the emotional weight of the interview, Apagu’s story provides a fascinating insight into the physical, cultural, and social terrain that people in warzones have to navigate to survive.

The first obstacle Apagu had to overcome was the physical environment around her. Both before and after her spell in captivity, she had to walk long distances, find food and water, and remain hidden from Boko Haram fighters. The physical inability to flee, either because of environmental factors or physical weaknesses, creates a whole new set of possible choices. For Apagu, had she been unable to escape her captors, her choice would have been between accepting marriage to a Boko Haram fighter and death.

The physical environment of a warzone dictates the possibilities available to civilians, but cultural and social relations are largely what determine who survives. Reading Apagu’s testimony for the first time, I was struck by the number of times she almost died. These near-death experiences weren’t from falling into a swollen river or being bitten by a snake. Rather it was that saying the wrong thing to the wrong person or wearing the wrong set of clothing in the wrong place would have meant almost certain death. Apagu had to perform some delicate cultural dances, and individuals without a deep knowledge of the social cartography would have had little chance.

Her survival, more than anything else, was dependent on the help of the people around her. Without the aid of friends and strangers, she never would have escaped the Boko Haram compund in the first place. Previous literature has emphasized that environments of mass violence feature three types of people: perpetrators, bystanders, and victims. Stopping mass violence can be achieved through activating bystanders to protect victims from perpetrators.

Apagu’s story shows that there’s more to the narrative; individuals float between the three categories and the victims have significant agency. On the one end, some of Boko Haram’s member were more cruel than others, and in some moments, they were as much bystanders as perpetrators. On the other, Apagu could not have survived without the help of others, who by becoming active bystanders risked victimhood. But there were also some, like those in the village Palam (who helped them find the way to Cameroon), who would have killed Apagu if they thought she was a Boko Haram member. These constantly-shifting roles doesn’t fit traditional conceptions of unarmed actors in warzones, but it is line with work like Kalyvas‘ and Kaplan‘s that sees civilians as crucial in both the persecution of others and their own protection. Protection and persecution operate through small-scale social networks, in which the two behaviors are mutual. Most people can choose to inform on each other, or to steer each other away from harm. No group has absolute power, and no group is powerless. Even when individuals choose to become perpetrators, civilians, like Apagu, still sometimes find the strength to run, hide, and survive.

Civilians who do live through mass violence, as I’ve written before, tend to do so without the help of anyone beyond their local communities. International politics might influence the environment, and aid might cushion the fall, but when it comes down to the experience of proximate physical violence, civilians are relying on their friends, family, and neighbors. And even when these social networks are strong, and civilians successfully navigate the physical and social landscapes, survival is rarely possible without luck. Communities play a role in shaping mass violence, but they often can do little more than respond and adapt. Subsequently, not everyone, even those who are well prepared, will survive. Apagu came closest to death when she was spotted after her escape by a Boko Haram fighter, but mercifully he didn’t have a gun, and she was able to escape. That civilians need such luck, and that so many do not have it, is tragic.

How Civilians Protect Themselves Nonviolently During Mass Killings

16 Jul

*This post summarizes my undergraduate thesis.

International interventions in mass killing episodes often fail to adequately protect civilians.

The UNMISS peacekeeping operation in South Sudan is a case in point. Bureaucratic, political, and financial constraints consistently inhibit the deployment of well-staffed interventions, and often prohibit them outright.

Therefore, many civilians must survive without external assistance, but we know surprisingly little about how this occurs.

No scholar has produced a work combining empirical examples of civilian self-protection with a theory of the mechanisms that allow it to function during mass killing or even conflict more broadly. The lack of focus on civilian self-protection is symptomatic of a larger issue of how scholars envision violent conflict.

Check out the rest of the article at the Monkey Cage. You can read the entire thesis here.

The Girls That Brought Themselves Back

9 Jul

The #BringBackOurGirls campaign began with a crescendo of indignation, only to fade as those paying attention quietly accepted that the girls were probably never coming back.  Since then, good news in northeastern Nigeria has been hard to come by.  Fortunately, that changed two days ago.  U.S. media outlets began reporting that approximately sixty-seven women kidnapped by Boko Haram in mid-June escaped their captors and fled to safety over the weekend.  It seems that these are not the individuals originally kidnapped in mid-April, but the news nonetheless is a bright spot in an exceedingly bleak saga.

The recent history of online humanitarianism seems defined by a number of sponsored campaigns that find traction very briefly, punctuated by the occasional cause célèbre–sometimes sponsored, sometimes not–that lingers in the public imagination.  #BringBackOurGirls was the first landmark campaign since Kony 2012 able to permeate into political, humanitarian, celebrity, and public circles.  The campaign, though less centralized than Kony 2012, was likewise able to achieve concrete policy changes.  The US sent a team of consultants to aid the Nigerian government, while the public pressure forced the Jonathan administration to acknowledge the kidnapping had taken place and launch a search effort.  Even though, unlike most humanitarian campaigns, #BringBackOurGirls successfully altered policy, the policies themselves have had no discernible effect on status of the kidnapped women.  Additionally, the campaign risked increasing the domestic and international support for a brutal counterinsurgency strategy that has killed thousands of civilians.  #BringBackOurGirls has succeeded in providing some degree of democratic accountability where it is sorely lacking in Nigeria, but it has failed to achieve its primary objective.

Despite the international cooperation, the extensive search effort, and a willing public, the kidnapped women themselves proved the most able to ensure their own survival.  Those cast as the least powerful did the most good.  The concept is simple, really.  Those at risk of violence have both the most motivation to protect themselves and the information to make it happen.  Outside forces face political, logistical, and financial barriers to civilian protection, which even solid intelligence often cannot surmount.  This incident should give us pause about the wisdom and effectiveness of top-down humanitarian interventions, especially in politically and geographically remote areas.  It is not that outside solutions have no place in global humanitarianism; such an attitude would amount to throwing out hands up in the air.  However, we must remember that the most effective actors at pursuing civilian protection are also the likely victims of violence.  Aiding them to do what they are able to do most effectively, rather than working to save their lives from the outside and without their assistance, is usually the best we can do.

The Problem with R2P

28 Jun

The Responsibility to Protect Doctrine (R2P) is arguably the watershed moment in the recent history of humanitarianism.  R2P cleared up the humanitarian intervention debate by providing the international community with a moral imperative to act, clear avenues for mitigation, and the weight of culpability when atrocities do occur.  R2P’s internationalization and institutionalization of civilian protection is, as Anne-Marie Slaughter writes, “…the most important shift in our conception of sovereignty since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.”

R2P though, as one might expect, is not without its troubles.  (The imperialism charge for me is not one of them, because R2P does not encourage the domination of small countries by large ones; it merely provides transparent rhetorical dressing for actions states would’ve undertaken anyways.)  R2P’s language frames civilian protection as occurring entirely between states and international institutions.  States themselves, of course, have the primary responsibility, but then the international community has the responsibility to aid states in protecting their civilians.

Therefore, R2P rests on two foundational assumptions.  The first is that states, with the occasional helping hand of the international community, have the capacity to adequately protect civilians.  This simply isn’t the case.  The UN suffers from severe bureaucratic, financial, and political difficulties in even predicting mass violence, let alone intervening to stop it.  While regional organizations are generally improving their ability to predict, mitigate, and respond to mass violence, their capability to push the same bureaucratic, financial, and political constraints is still hampered.  Most civilians will remain beyond the reach of international organizations and even well-meaning states when violence breaks out.

R2P’s second assumption is that even if there are barriers to current prediction, mitigation, and intervention by the international community, international institutions and states are theoretically best-placed to support civilian self protection.  However, this overlooks that the above problems are inherent in the international political system.  A few months ago, I wrote, “Despite early warning’s long history within the UN, it is still barely an institutionalized concept…As it stands, the existence of any system that combines an intelligence gathering mechanism, an early warning component, and results in capable prevention or mitigation strategies is a fiction and will be continue to be so for the foreseeable future.  The same institutional and psychological barriers that prevent successful atrocity early warning, prevention, and response will persevere.”

Unfortunately, R2P’s framing leaves no room for sub-state methods of civilian protection, and more specifically, the possibility of civilian self-protection.  Frédéric Mégret writes, “…formulations of R2P all stopped short of reorganizing that ‘victims’ (or intended victims) of atrocities might have a role in averting atrocities at the point when they are being committed.”  Mégret labels R2P as a component of a “salvation paradigm”, in which outsiders view themselves as the only ones capable of saving those at risk of mass violence.  The problem here is that most civilians who survive R2P crimes (genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing) do so without the help of outside actors.  The survival of this silent majority is mostly a result of small-scale social networks that take on protective roles in conflict.  Hillhorst estimates that less than 10% of civilians survive natural disasters because of outside aid, and due to the more advanced nature of disaster early warning systems and the relative lack of political complications caused by disaster aid, it’s a safe bet that this number is even lower for violent conflict.  R2P is the cornerstone of how to protect civilians, but yet it fails to engage with the avenue through which an enormous majority survive.

The distance between R2P’s vision of civilian protection and its reality is a problem that goes beyond the theoretical.  R2P’s wording ensures international strategies for civilian self-protection will continue to work through state and international institutional channels, where frankly there isn’t much improvement that can be made.  Even if  there is a shift toward collaborating with sub-state actors, R2P’s lack of recognition of these efforts means they will remain rare and continuously makeshift.  R2P is a potent mechanism for generating a global consensus that atrocities must not be ignored, but this does not translate into effective civilian protection.

Trying to understand why R2P does not recognize the most common forms of civilian self-protection during mass atrocities throws up two divergent currents that pulled the doctrine in opposing directions, and what can be generally described as the “top-down model” won out.    The first set of influences will likely be more familiar to the reader.  R2P emerged out of the “humanitarian intervention” debate of the 1990’s, itself spawned by the conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, and Rwanda.  Especially in the latter two, humanitarians were frustrated by the international community’s inability to act effectively to stop violence.  This frustration translated into a constructed chain of causality that drew a direct  and almost monocausal link between international inaction and the occurrence of atrocities.  This ignored both the complex drivers and inhibitors of mass violence and the international community’s frequent inability to sufficiently protect civilians through military interventions.

Academics also contributed heavily to R2P’s top-down approach to civilian protection.  Scholars of violent conflict have tended to imbue armed actors with near-total agency in determining the course of conflict.  Norms might matter, but only rarely do scholars demonstrate how civilians can participate in the shaping of these norms.  Only recently have scholars like Stathis Kalyvas and Oliver Kaplan examined civilian agency during violent conflict.  Therefore, without a theoretical base to examine how unarmed non-elites may play a role in shaping conflict and aiding their own survival, it becomes difficult to imagine an international doctrine for responding to atrocities that has a role for these marginalized actors.

However, the more intriguing current that helped to shape R2P is the one that ultimately lost out.  Mégret notes the R2P was in fact out of step with thinking in related fields at the time, “Whereas neighboring branches of the international discourse (e.g. conflict mediation, development) are increasingly explicit about the need to forge direct relations with civil society actors even at the height of conflict, R2P seems marked by a reversal to the ‘high politics’ of international intervention in times of unfolding crisis.”  This positive influence was almost borne out, as the original draft of R2P created by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty included a section highlighting the agency of victims and domestic civil societies in protecting themselves from conflict.  For reasons unbeknownst to me, this vein of thought pushing for a more grassroots approach to conflict prevention and mitigation lost the ideological struggle.  Perhaps a more in-depth study how this conflict manifested itself in R2P’s creation will reveal deeper truths about R2P’s creation and its subsequent effect on how we conceive civilian protection.

R2P may leave little room for pursuing sub-state-led civilian protection efforts during conflict, but its success as a norm means that civilian protection is largely defined through the doctrine.  Despite its restrictive wording, R2P’s elimination would do far more harm than good for international civilian protection.  The answer lies in reform, not revolution.  The language of the second pillar provides a possible entry point.  It reads, “The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility…”  If the doctrine were amended to simply read, “…encourage and assist States and civilians…” the international community would, in two words, be able to recognize the ability of civilians and civil societies to protect themselves without undercutting the international responsibility to respond to R2P crimes.  There may be a normative mountain to climb to spark that change, but I for one am hopeful.

Complexity and Proaction: A sincere hope for the (perhaps distant) future

27 Mar

What do civilians do to survive conflict?  This sounds like a fairly straightforward question, but it’s not.  Until very recently, scholars of violence and practitioners of  violence prevention saw civilians as entirely reactive parties that did little to shape the course of conflict.  While there have been some major steps in recent years in understanding what decisions civilians make to survive and their role in influencing the course of conflicts, the field is still taking its first steps (if you’re interested in further reading let me know).  The burgeoning consensus is that civilians are major players in shaping conflict, though academics and practitioners are only beginning to imagine the limits of civilian agency.  If there is indeed significant work to be done, what might the future of civilian self-protection look like?

To be blunt, we’re pretty clueless about civilian self-protection.  Few empirical accounts exist, and no work that I’ve come across directly ties empirical findings to broader theories of how civilians survive multiple types of conflict.  Because of this major theoretical gap, Casey Barrs, the most prolific author on the idea of civilian self-protection, argues for a limited survival-approach that ignores the rights-based programs that characterize many NGOs’ work.  For Barrs, whatever works, be it bribing combatants or fleeing at the first hint of conflict, should be encouraged and aided.  Civilians are more likely to understand this and therefore react to conflict better.  NGO’s should allow them to become ‘owners’ of their own survival.  In sum, we don’t know enough to prescribe strategies to civilians facing the prospect of mass atrocities.  Trying for anything more than bare survival is not only presumptuous on our part, but also dangerous.

Lamentably, Barrs is right for the moment.  If analysts do not really understand how civilians influence conflict, let alone how their actions during conflict determines both their lives and the condition of society post-conflict,  average civilians are unlikely to think about these issues.  Civilians are not expected to act with the broader conflict in mind, but there’s some potential that scholarship could permeate aid practices, which could perhaps diffuse a norm that sees civilian agency in conflict as extending beyond individual survival.

Could this imagined future become a reality?  It is possible that we’ll reach a point where we have a strong understanding of conflict dynamics, have strong norms of civilian protection, and have institutions in place able to react quickly and decisively to conflict that it will be possible to imagine a wider conception of civilian self-protection?  Could future civilian self-protection strategies be not only proactive but even emancipatory? And for me, perhaps the most exciting question is could civilian protection strategies be designed not only to save the civilians enacting them but to positively mitigate violence in the broader conflict system?

For now, these questions sound like overly ambitious and hard to even conceptualize.  For example, will civilians ever really feel secure enough to think beyond their immediate survival to their role in the broader conflict?  There are some reasons to be hopeful.  Complexity theory for one offers a medium through which we may be able to understand how conflict functions, and more specifically, civilians’ roles in it.  Complexity theory imagines conflict as a complex system in which agents interact with many other agents in multiple ways, which are ultimately too complex for humans to understand.  Randomness is inherent in the system.  So complexity theory helps explain why conflicts develop in surprising ways, often beyond the comprehension of analysts.  To read complexity theory as a accepting defeat in our attempt to understand conflict would be a mistake, however.  Rather, while creating a framework for dealing with complexity, it also accepts that some developments in conflict are indeed beyond our ability to predict or explain.  Some analysts are beginning to see conflict through a complexity-inspired lens.

Early warning technology is another reason to be optimistic.  While the idea of early warning has existed for a long time, practitioners and scholars are starting to imagine how these systems can serve local communities rather than analysts far removed from the conflict.  At the same time, many regional governmental organizations are in the process of implementing conflict early warning systems.  This marriage of theory and institutionalization could one day provide many civilians with the ability to learn of conflict before it physically confronts them, and develop more proactive strategies.

I would like to be hopeful that this is all possible, but there are also some harsh realities that can’t be ignored.  While I am very hopeful that complexity theory will offer a new and improved method for imagining the complexity of conflict, we can’t forget that complexity theory was designed to help us understand why we can’t understand certain systems.  Yes, complexity theory is probably a step up, but there’s a limit to our analytic ability.

Another problem is how civilians will actually understand their role in determining conflict, and in turn, be able to make constructive changes to their behavior.  It’s possible, but by no means for sure, that academic knowledge on how civilians act during conflict will imbue at-risk communities.  However, civilians would then have to not only accept that validity of this theory, but also be in a place in which they could enact it.  While it is simply difficult to imagine the confluence of developments in early warning technology, norms of civilian agency, and the dynamics of mass atrocities in the future, but it is also difficult to imagine with all these mitigating factors, civilians will act considerably differently in the future than they do now.  This speaks to broader questions to how civilians have reacted to conflict over the course of history, but to my knowledge, civilians dealt with the Peloponnesian War in a similar way as Syrians do today.  My vision puts significant stock in the power of globalized humanitarian discourse.

The last problem is that by the time techniques that expand upon current civilian protection practices are developed and implemented, it may be too late.  As Jay Ulfelder writes, it looks as if global patterns of unrest will cause a short-term spike in mass atrocities, even if broader trends point to a slow reduction in the amount of worldwide conflict.  If he’s right, then civilian protection infrastructure will likely appear only after the period in which it is most needed.

Predicting mass atrocities is hard enough, and so I realize that predicting civilian response in the distant future, which we in fact barely understand at the present, is pretty much impossible.  However, the prospect for an expanded view of civilian self-protection can at least function as something to strive for.  I do think there’s hope because just in the last few years we’ve seen changes in how NGO’s think about with self-protection.  Both Casey Barrs and L2GP have written about the need for NGO’s to help civilians protect livelihoods (thus shaping the post-conflict environment), and in the relatively small prevention practitioner community, their words will soon have an impact.  From where I stand, the future is exciting.

The Responsibility to Do What We Can: Understanding and strengthening local, nonviolent strategies for civilian self-protection in the context of mass atrocities

9 Dec

*The Sentinel Project has published my final report on strategies for civilian self-protection during mass atrocities.  This blog post summarizes my report and you can find the report itself here.

The Responsibility to Protect doctrine, instituted in 2005, exemplifies the dominant paradigm for action during mass atrocities: international intervention.  While R2P places the primarily responsibility on states, the international community is nonetheless positioned as the final authority on issues of civilian protection.  This approach has many benefits, but suffers from an inherent response gap.  The international community is simply unable to react effectively to every mass atrocity scenario because of structural constraints.  Therefore, most civilians that survive mass atrocities do so with little organized or institutionalized help from anyone beyond their immediate communities.  But exactly how civilians manage this is a severely understudied phenomenon even within the larger (already neglected) subfield of mass violence against civilians.  The lack of empirical work on civilian self-protection makes drawing concrete solutions on how to improve future civilian protection strategies difficult, and therefore a more apt approach combines theory on how mass atrocities function with non-comprehensive empirical work.

There are many schools of thought on why mass atrocities happen and how they work.  Despite the many legitimate points scholars have made over the years, one seems beyond challenge: mass killing is an instrumental process.  For political leaders, mass atrocities serve some other political goal and only occur after other attempts to accomplish the goal fail.  Another point of agreement among scholars is that mass atrocities are much more likely to occur during war; the upheaval caused by war gives extremist leaders a better chance of seizing power.  A point more contested among scholars, but no less convincing, is that beyond the leadership directing mass atrocities, ideology plays only a peripheral role.  Perpetrators of mass atrocities are not bloodthirsty killers, but rather more like, as Christopher Browning termed it, ordinary men.  For the most part, they are more convinced to kill by in-group coercion than ethnic hatred or sadism.

Broadly, there are two types of mass atrocities that commonly occur today: counterinsurgent (COIN) and communal mass atrocities.  Many mass atrocity scenarios, such as the violence we see today in Syria, has an element of both.  Strategies for civilian self-protection are significantly different between COIN and communal mass atrocities.  Therefore, for the purposes of understanding them, categorically separating the two types is necessary despite the potential analytic simplification.

During counterinsurgent mass atrocities, civilians have the best chance of escaping violence by attempting to remove themselves from the conflict.  If they can gain the trust of armed actors that they are not providing information or aid to either side, they may be able to avoid conflict altogether.  During communal mass atrocities, the task is similar, but the tactics are different.  Instead of simply removing themselves, civilians must change the logic that makes them targets in the first place.  Misinformation and social myths are rampant in every communal mass atrocity, and countering these rumors is crucial in preventing the outbreak of violence.  Secondly, leaders manipulate information to whip up ethnic hatred and instigate attacks.  Therefore, either discrediting these leaders or removing them from power can have positive effects.  Research on civilian self-protection during communal mass atrocities is still in its infancy, and scholars could do practitioners a huge hand by emphasizing the topic more in the future.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of instances in which nonviolent, local civilian self-protection strategies don’t work.  Violence during mass atrocities is an escalatory process, and the more entrenched cycles of violence become, the harder it is for civilians to bargain their way out of trouble.  This happens for multiple reasons: the collective action problem intensifies, psychological pressures harden combatants’ violent instincts, and lines of command falter.  Finally, armed groups with inflexible ideological commitments or significant economic incentives are much harder to work with for civilians in mass atrocity contexts.

NGO’s are in an ideal position to improve civilian self-protection strategies because of their ability innovate and their relative lack of institutional constraints.  NGO’s should always seek to work with existing community structures rather than inventing new ones, because in mass atrocity scenarios, nearly every social structure serves a protective purpose.  NGO’s should also be pragmatic, refrain from making moral judgments, and place civilian survival above every other consideration.  NGO’s have the ability to provide and disseminate crucial information communities often lack and should focus their efforts here.  Once civilians have this information, NGO’s should assist civilians in their efforts to protect themselves, but ultimately defer to civilian choices.  Civilian self-protection does not present a comprehensive strategy for ending mass atrocities, but understanding and aiding the process could go a long way in filling the atrocity response gap.