Why Rebels (Sometimes) Commit Atrocities

In the past two decades, rebel groups have perpetrated a sizable portion of the world’s atrocities. Ongoing French military operations in Mali have been justified, in part, by moral concerns stemming from perpetration of atrocities by the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist Ansar Dine groups. These have included rape, summary executions, and the use of child soldiers. At the same time, the situation in Syria has been complicated by reported atrocities perpetrated by rebels, especially the alleged massacre of Alawites in Aqrab in late 2012. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, M23 is just the latest in a long line of rebel groups to have made summary killings, mass rape, mutilation, and the recruitment of child soldiers their calling cards.

Yet, in other situations, rebels have not committed systematic atrocities. The armed wing of the African National Congress expressly committed itself to the Geneva Conventions, and while there were individual violations, there was no general pattern of violence against civilians. Likewise, Jeremy Weinstein shows that during a decade of armed conflict, Maoist rebels in Nepal killed fewer than 1,000 people.

Understanding why some rebel groups commit atrocities while others do not is not just a matter of academic curiosity. There is a premium on rationing and targeting the limited international resources available for preventing atrocities. As Benjamin Valentino has pointed out, prevention cannot be cheaper than the cure if it requires the persistent use of the whole preventive toolbox everywhere where a problem exists. Some insights on the factors that make rebel atrocities more or less likely might help this process.

Two factors that seem particularly salient are context and ideology.

In relation to context, Weinstein argues that much hinges on the relationship between the rebel group and the civilian population. Where rebel groups require high levels of civilian consent to survive—because they do not have ready access to resources or weapons, or because government forces could easily defeat them if they are not hidden from view by the civilian population, etc.—they tend to avoid terrorizing that population. What is more, where the relationship between the rebel group and the civilian population is close, the group tends to recruit fighters from within that population who are committed to the group’s political cause and prepared to follow the rules.

But in situations where rebel groups have less need for civilian support–perhaps because they have ready access to weapons and money, or are a sectarian group that seeks support only from a particular section of society–they are more likely to recruit fighters primarily interested in direct personal gain and thus more likely to commit atrocities. The sectarian element is, of course, a factor in its own right.

Other significant contextual factors include cycles of impunity and revenge. If one side commits mass atrocities, this fractures basic reciprocal relations between the parties, encouraging the other side to respond in kind. In very raw terms, this may also increase the number of fighters who have themselves experienced atrocities against their kin, reducing the psychological barriers to atrocity crimes.

Humans have a basic psychological need to justify their actions, both to themselves and to others. In general, people will be inhibited from doing things that they can’t justify. This, Daniel Chirot and Clark McCauley have argued, explains why armed groups usually choose not to “kill them all,” despite having the raw capacity to do so. This is where ideology comes in. Some ideologies expressly enable the self-justification of atrocities. Principal aspects of these ideologies include: dehumanization (representations of the enemy as subhuman or inferior); scapegoating (the attachment of collective blame for some social ills to a definable group, usually ethnic or religious); threat designation (claims that the targeted group threatens the existence of the “in-group” and/or engages in especially lurid activities such as rape, bestiality, cannibalism, etc.); and valorization (when it is not enough to simply paint the enemy in these dehumanized terms, anticivilian ideologies also make a virtue of violence against them and make no distinction between the enemy’s soldiers and its noncombatants).

Understanding why some rebel groups commit atrocities allows us to predict these crimes in advance and target scarce resources toward their prevention. It also gives clues as to what those preventive strategies should look like.

Alex Bellamy is Professor of International Security at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, Australia; Honorary Professor of International Relations at The University of Queensland, Australia; and Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. He is a non-resident Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute. 

About the photo: A member of the Sudan Liberation Army in Um Rai, Sudan, February 2007. UN Photo/Tim McKulka