Pro-government militias, human rights abuses and the ambiguous role of foreign aid

Carey, Sabine C. / Neil J. Mitchell
Briefing Paper (4/2016)

Bonn: German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)

Dt. Ausg. u.d.T.:
Regierungsnahe Milizen, Menschenrechtsverletzungen und die ambivalente Rolle der Entwicklungszusammenarbeit
(Analysen und Stellungnahmen 4/2016)

Many governments worldwide make use of unofficial armed groups. This practice substantially increases the risks for civilians, as the activities of such pro-government militias (PGMs) are usually accompanied by a higher level of human rights violations, including killings, torture and disappearances. Examples are the Shia militias in Iraq, the Shabiha militia in Syria and the Imbonerakure in Burundi.
Better knowledge about these groups is essential, given the extreme suffering, violence and instability they are linked to. This briefing paper shows that PGMs exist not only in failed states, poor countries or those engulfed in civil war and armed conflict. They can also be found in more or less democratic governments and are most common in semi-democracies.
Governments outsource security tasks to irregular forces because they provide efficiency gains when leaders perceive themselves to be under threat in an uncertain environment. PGMs are attractive to governments because they are cheaper, more flexible and often better informed than regular forces. They complicate lines of accountability for the violence committed, and therefore lower the political costs for governments when there is a controversial use of violence. These aspects make PGMs particularly attractive to governments that intend to use violence against a domestic opponent but fear national and international repercussions for excessive human rights violations. Although these groups make conflict more feasible financially and are perceived to lower political costs, they may bring – sometimes unintended – consequences, such as increased suffering and violence for civilians, as well as greater instability and crime in the medium- and long term.
The risks that PGMs bring for peace, security and stability can only be reduced if the international community knows how governments delegate security tasks and holds governments responsible for the violence that their various state and non-state agents commit.

  • The international community needs to pay attention to unintended consequences when promoting democracy. When incentivised to limit repression, governments in target countries might distance themselves from the violence rather than seek to reduce it.

  • Aid decisions should be informed by a thorough assessment of the security sector, which should include regular as well as irregular forces.

  • Governments are responsible for protecting the lives of their citizens. If civilians are targeted by militias, a government has failed in this task and should therefore be held accountable for such violence.

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