More than three hundred defense groups provide security to local communities in states around the world. While it is true that such groups can be a resource-efficient means for states to provide law and order to their communities, it is also true that they can worsen security.

In light of these realities and to develop more effective security-sector reform programs in conflict and postconflict situations, this report argues that the international community should create a nonbinding legal instrument to establish a framework that formalizes the normative values that should apply to the relationship between states and civil defense groups; a due diligence policy that requires states to take appropriate steps to deter and prevent civil defense groups from committing crimes; and a generic code of conduct applicable to civil defense groups that not only restates the relevant legal rules that such groups must adhere to but also reinforces good practice standards concerning matters like the command-and-control arrangements for the group.

Summary

  • Between 1981 and 2007, governments in eighty-eight countries established or supported more than three hundred armed militias to provide security to local communities. Such militias often directly engage in armed conflict and law-and-order activities.
  • A number of state-supported civil defense groups make local communities less secure by refusing to respond to state direction, setting up security apparatuses in competition with state authorities, committing human rights violations, and engaging in criminal behavior.
  • The doctrine of state responsibility and the application of international humanitarian law, international human rights law, and international criminal law obligate the state or states that establish or support civil defense groups to investigate, prosecute, punish, and provide reparations or compensate victims.
  • In many cases, the domestic laws of states are ineffective at holding members of governments or civil defense groups accountable. Local law enforcement authorities also often fail to investigate or prosecute members of civil defense groups.
  • At present there is no specific international legal instrument to guide the responsible management of relationships between states and civil defense groups. Thus, the international community should develop a legal instrument that specifies the rules and principles that apply to states and civil defense groups and that includes a due diligence framework that focuses on accountability and governance of both states and civil defense groups.
  • Such a framework would enhance the protection and security of communities by setting accountability and governance standards, assisting in security sector reform by establishing benchmarks and evaluation processes, and contributing to the reinforcement of legal rules and principles that apply in armed conflicts.
  • For fragile states or those in a postconflict phase of development, the better management of such forces is likely to build state legitimacy as a provider of security to vulnerable communities.

About The Report

This report addresses the increasingly common practice of state-sanctioned civil defense groups—groups that governments have established or supported to provide security to communities when state security forces are unwilling or unable to do so. Given the perverse results that many communities experience from armed militias breaching domestic and international law, this report recommends developing better accountability of such groups. More specifically, it argues for developing an international normative instrument that enhances accountability of both states and civil defense groups by restating the rules of international law, establishing a due diligence policy, and developing a code of conduct.

About The Author

Bruce “Ossie” Oswald is an associate professor at Melbourne Law School and the director of the Asia Pacific Centre of Military Law. This report is based on his research while at the United States Institute of Peace, where he was a Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow in 2012–13, and his military experience, serving on operations in Rwanda, East Timor, Iraq, and, most recently, Afghanistan.

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