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New pandemic, same old problems: introducing the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups

Written by Ashley Jackson, Florian Weigand

Media coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic has raised the profile of armed groups in curious and often contradictory ways. The Islamic State issued directions on handwashing, and videos emerged of the Taliban enforcing temperature checks. The National Liberation Army (ELN) in Colombia announced lockdown measures. Hezbollah mobilised thousands of medical personnel. Organised criminal groups in Mexico, Brazil and El Salvador delivered aid packages and enforced curfews to curtail the virus's spread. Reports also emerged that armed groups in Libya, Syria and Yemen were finding ways to use the pandemic to their advantage, either to escalate violence or tighten control.

While some worried that armed groups might be capitalising on the crisis, others saw the pandemic as an opportunity to engage with them. The UN Secretary-General’s call for a global humanitarian ceasefire stoked optimism that the emergency could help resolve long-running conflicts.

Armed groups in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Colombia, Libya, Myanmar, the Philippines, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen declared that they would temporarily stop fighting to facilitate a response to the pandemic. Yet most declarations were unilateral and short-lived, while multilateral ceasefires in Libya and Yemen were quickly breached. A Security Council resolution that would have bolstered these efforts quickly fell victim to US-China tensions.

Many months into the pandemic, we are seeing on the ground that it has heightened existing tensions, perpetuated misconceptions, and introduced new constraints. Negotiators in ongoing political talks in Yemen and Afghanistan saw their ability to forge dialogue and mediate sharply constrained by their inability to travel, meet in person and monitor commitments. Aid workers trying to work in areas under armed group control have faced the added difficulties of incorporating adequate public health measures and navigating lockdowns. In some cases, they have had to deal with intensified attempts by armed groups to co-opt or seize aid while in others, they have had to contend with armed groups resistant to public health measures. On top of this, they have had to worry about looming funding cuts amid a global economic depression.

Introducing the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups

If the pandemic has shown us anything, it is that to address these challenges, we have to fundamentally rethink how we understand, study and engage with armed groups.

As legal expert Annyssa Bellal argued recently, we need to shift our thinking from seeing the existence of armed groups as a challenge to be overcome or an obstacle to effective assistance and conflict resolution. Instead, we need to see engagement with them as an opportunity to improve the protection, rights and dignity of the persons living under their control. At the same time, such an approach must also take into account local power dynamics and the often evasive political economy of conflicts.

This is the core mission of ODI's new Centre for the Study of Armed Groups, launching through a webinar discussion this week.

We have seen again and again in our own work on armed groups, from Afghanistan to Myanmar, that their aims and interests are often profoundly misunderstood. This, in turn, leads to flawed approaches to tackling humanitarian and development issues, resolving conflicts, and safeguarding global security.

Perhaps we – as a community of scholars, practitioners, diplomats, humanitarians, and peacemakers – would do better to interrogate our own constructs and ways of interacting with them.

With the end of the Cold War, the number of non-international armed conflicts and non-state armed groups grew exponentially. Paradoxically, however, research and engagement with these groups have always been highly politicised and secretive. This markedly worsened after 9/11 and the advent of the so-called ‘War on Terror’. It has profoundly distorted research into groups labelled by national governments as terrorists or extremists.

In particular, Islamist or Muslim armed groups have been othered in ways that have obstructed dialogue and understanding. The trouble is that terror is neither an ideology nor a unifying feature, but a tactic. Beyond demonising these groups, labelling them as terrorists or extremists tells us very little about what they actually want and how they work. If we truly want to prevent horrific violence, we must first understand what drives it.

For scholars, aid providers, human rights advocates and peacebuilders, counter-terror legislation and donor funding restrictions have had a 'chilling effect’ on engagement with these groups. The laws are unclear, and governments rarely enforce them, but penalties can include several years in prison and tens of thousands of dollars in fines. Security concerns, lack of legal protections and even liability issues have presented added obstacles to those doing direct research with armed groups in conflict contexts, negotiating aid access, or seeking to mediate an end to the conflict.

There has been important recent work that has advanced understanding of armed groups, particularly as part of the rebel governance and civil wars research agendas. We know more than ever before about critical issues such as why insurgencies govern and what shapes their use of violence against civilians. Yet academic insights have generally not translated into the kinds of paradigmatic shifts and policy changes needed to foster more effective engagement on the ground. More must be done to bridge the gap between research and policy.

A new approach to understanding armed groups

ODI’s Centre for the Study of Armed Groups will seek to address these challenges in several ways.

Policy-relevant and rigorous research

The Centre will conduct original fieldwork and direct engagement with armed groups and civilians living amongst them. ODI's work on armed groups in Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and Niger has shown that direct insights from the ground can shift the debate around policy. Perhaps even more importantly, it can amplify the voices, needs and desires of people living under the control of armed groups.

Facilitating collaboration and learning

Work on armed groups is often siloed and deeply politicised in ways that obstruct broader learning and policy change. Another vital part of the Centre's work will be bringing together experts and academics to facilitate methodological learning, cross-contextual comparison, and new insights into the broader study of armed conflict. Part of this will focus on bridging the policy-academia gap, finding new ways to ensure that rigorous evidence and analysis reaches decision-makers.

Responsive convening and dialogue

The Centre aims to create safe spaces in which practitioners can interact with one another, and with researchers and experts on understanding and engaging with armed groups. The Centre will respond to urgent issues and emerging dynamics with convening on topical issues and on-demand briefings. Part of this will focus on bridging the policy-academia gap, finding new ways to ensure that rigorous evidence and analysis reaches decision-makers.

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