Governments Don’t Outsource Atrocities to Militias. Here’s What Really Happens

Syrian refugees at the Macedonian border in August 2015. Photo: EPA/Georgi Licovski/Freedom House

Refugees are fleeing Syria in such astonishing numbers because armed groups continue to target civilians with violence.

That’s what we heard in September when the U.N. Human Rights Council discussed the most recent report of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria. The commission’s chair, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, made a plea for international action to end the conflict, pointing to gross violations of the laws of war by all the warring parties: indiscriminate bombing of civilian homes, the deliberate torture and murder of civilians, and widespread rape and sexual violence as acts of war.

On Nov. 19, the U.N. General Assembly’s Third Committee approved a draft resolution based on the commission’s report, which strongly condemned these human rights violations and called for greater accountability.

The commission cites the Syrian Armed Forces for many of these atrocities, as well as the plethora of pro-government militias like the shabiha, the Popular Committees and the many loosely organized militias referred to collectively as the National Defense.

Despite human rights treaties that are supposed to protect civilians, governments often abuse civilians during wars. Civilian atrocities are more common, research shows, when a civil war involves pro-government militias. Many scholars argue that governments deliberately outsource brutal violence to militia groups, allowing the state plausible deniability for breaking the laws of war.

If that common wisdom were correct – if governments hand off the most egregious violence to militias – then we would expect to see a pattern of substitution. In other words, governments and militias would not both commit the worst atrocities. And if governments were delegating their atrocities to militias, we’d see government forces committing fewer human rights violations once militias come on the scene.

Is it true?

What’s the evidence on governments, militias and brutal violence in civil wars?

While the delegation logic makes sense on paper, it is not supported by the evidence. In fact, militia violence and government violence are closely correlated, as two recent studies show.

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