This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.
The state, as we understand it has a monopoly on force, but that doesn’t prevent the government from licensing out that power. Paramilitaries and pro-government militias can be a tool of state violence with plausible deniability for the government, even if there are provable links showing funding and direction. That deniability is a huge reason a government might choose to outsource its violence, especially if the government’s formal agents, like soldiers and police, have already been condemned by the international community.
In “From Shame to New Name: How Naming and Shaming Creates Pro-Government Militias,” Lora DiBlasi examines the role of governments in creating pro-government militias, especially as a response to critique.
Paramilitaries and pro-government militias can be a tool of state violence with plausible deniability for the government, even if there are provable links showing funding and direction.
Di Blasi points to the experience of Nigeria, which was called out for human rights violations by Amnesty International a total of 35 times between 1996 and 1998, prompting resolutions from the UN Commission on Human Rights. In 1999, Bakassi Boys and Abia State Vigilante Group pro-government militations were stood up, which engaged in execution, mutilation, torture, unlawful detention, and election violence.
“The Bakassi Boys received orders directly from the government and had close and regular interaction and communication with government officials,” writes Di Blasi. “The government has also provided office space, paid their salaries, and equipped them for their missions. Moreover, the militia purportedly announced to their victims, ‘We are Bakassi Boys. It’s a government order … The government wants you to die.’”
Despite the clear ties, the use of militias to carry out the condemned violence of the state creates an air of deniability, however flimsy, between the people doing the violence and the people directing it. If it’s a militia doing the violence, it becomes beyond the state’s control, even if the militia serves the ends of the state.
This matters especially for countries and leaders who want to enlist repression as a tool to hold power but fear international condemnation and sanction for doing so.
“After being named and shamed, many states will be eager to avoid being chastised publicly again, as was the case in Kenya [in 1991],” writes Di Blasi. “However, not all leaders will want to end their spell of repression. An alternative solution is for states to create a separate apparatus to carry out acts of repression on its behalf, such as a PGM [pro-goverment militia]. Instead of making genuine efforts to reform their human rights practices in their country, states may instead opt to delegate violence to PGMs to escape the responsibility of subsequent human rights abuses.”
As leaders work out ways to repress while sidestepping shame, it behooves the international community to find new ways to condemn and constrain these end-runs around accountability. Using proxies for violence may make the chain of causality murkier, but the effects can be seen clearly, especially when the supposedly uncontrollable militias do violence in a way that just so happens to align with the leaders saying they are powerless to intervene.