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Transformation of coercive actors

Veronique Dudouet argues that engaging different types of armed actor is an essential part of a peace process. Negotiations to end fighting also require that armed actors reconsider their reliance on coercion to achieve their objectives. These include authoritarian (military) regimes, armed opposition groups that challenge state authority, and urban gangs that use violence for internal discipline and control over economic transactions – often resulting in very high levels of social fragmentation.

The transformation of armed coercive actors

Peace processes need to include armed actors – state and non-state, political and (increasingly) criminal – as the chief agents of violence. Correspondingly, armed actors engaging in negotiations to end fighting and instigate transition are required to reconsider their reliance on coercion to achieve their objectives. This section of Accord 25 looks at three case study examples of transformation of armed coercive actors as part of a peace or peacebuilding process: regime change in Indonesia since 1998; Hezbollah’s political-military organisation; and urban gangs in El Salvador.

All three case studies explore the experiences of apparently illegitimate coercive actors engaging in processes of transition out of violence. It is the trajectories of coercive actors’ experiences of transformation, and especially what factors have influenced their progress, that connect the three apparently disparate case studies and provide a basis to draw some practical lessons for peace processes.

Power, authority and legitimacy

The concept of coercive actors covers a range of conflict stakeholders who use force instrumentally for material gain or for political authority – over their own members, their neighbourhood or the wider public. This broad definition includes authoritarian regimes that rule by coercion rather than consent; armed opposition groups who challenge the state’s authority and monopoly on the use of force; and other types of armed actor often operating in areas of weak state governance – such as criminal gangs whose use of violence has reached levels of incidence and organisation that threaten peace.

The terminology is complex. Coercion and legitimacy are not categorically incompatible. States are often characterised (according to Max Weber’s classic definition) by their authority to use force legitimately. The United Nations is also entitled to use – or authorise the use of – force according to international law, subject to approval by designated member states. By contrast, reference to
(il)legality often defines coercive actors in terms of violating international human rights norms and humanitarian principles. But there is tension and ambiguity between legitimacy and legality in relation to force. Political commentator Noam Chomsky has argued that questions over the legitimacy of violent actions cannot be separated from context, circumstances or consequences.

As a diagnostic term, “coercive actor” is crude and needs to recognise the dynamic nature of conflict parties, to include the complexity of their identities, strategies and sources of power. Boundaries between coercive and consensual authority are not clear-cut in practice, but often overlap or coexist. The Hezbollah case study in this section demonstrates how an armed actor can pursue democratic politics while simultaneously refusing to relinquish its autonomous military capacity. And autocratic states like Indonesia in the New Order era up to the late 1990s can also use an array of instruments to establish their authority over society, from inducement and co-option to pressure and outright repression. Moreover, social or political organisations are far from homogeneous, but comprise various agents or sub-units employing distinct forms of power.

Actor legitimacy

Coercive states, armed groups and gangs possess or claim various forms of “actor legitimacy”. Coercive actors can represent (or claim to represent) constituencies and interests. Internally, they possess some degree of voluntary authority among their members and supporters. The power of authoritarian regimes is not just coercive but is highly dependent on the loyalty of certain pillars of support within the state apparatus (eg administrative or security sectors). Leaders of non-state armed actors also derive authority from their members’ belief in the validity of their authority.

In El Salvador, belonging to a criminal gang provides members with a sense of identity and belonging denied them in society. The jailed leaders of the two main gangs in San Salvador – Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 – demonstrated through a March 2012 truce that they carried enough authority to ensure high levels of compliance among their members to significantly reduce violent activities. The resilience of the authoritarian regime that ruled Indonesia from 1965–98 can be partly explained by the support it had galvanised among socio-economic sectors that benefited from the status quo.

Many armed groups proclaim themselves the rightful representatives of an oppressed constituency, and often develop a vocabulary to legitimise their use of force as “defensive”, “protective”, or supporting “resistance” or “liberation”. Hezbollah portrays itself as the champion of marginalised Shia communities, and even appealed in its genesis in 1985 to the “downtrodden in Lebanon and the world”. The political scientist Zachariah Cherian Mampilly has argued that the social legitimacy of non-state armed actors is proportional to the loss of authority of the state; their de facto governance in areas under their control (from the provision of basic social welfare services to the establishment of sophisticated parallel administrative systems) helps to generate civilian compliance and cultivate popular support.

Coercive regimes can present themselves as legitimate by orchestrating elections in search of international recognition. In fact, many autocratic regimes are recognised formally by other states as long as they maintain a facade of democracy: Suharto’s New Order regime in the 1980s and 1990s enjoyed much better relations with the West than Burma, partly because it offered an attractive target for foreign investment.

In specific circumstances, gross and systematic violation of human rights by a state may convince the international community to confer legitimacy on non-state challengers – like the Kosovo Liberation Army, selected Syrian and Libyan opposition groups, and to some extent the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. But in general armed opposition movements are rarely recognised as valid interlocutors on the international stage, even when they have demonstrated the extent of their political support through democratic elections: the isolation of Hamas after its 2006 electoral victory in Palestine is a case in point.

Transformation trajectories of coercive actors

Engaging an armed actor in dialogue can help support the transformation of its power base from coercion to consensual authority. However, such shifts are neither uniform nor linear, not least in relation to the respective experiences of state and non-state actors.

Regime change in Indonesia began with a state that had comparatively strong international legitimacy but weak local legitimacy – a recognised sovereign entity whose domestic political authority was hotly disputed. Suharto’s demise, provoked by massive popular pressure for change, led to the opening up of the political system. By contrast, armed opposition groups’ struggle for recognition often refers to internal and social legitimacy for their justification, and many armed groups actively seek international recognition as a strategic objective.

But the trajectories of both state and non-state actors involved in transitions out of violence commonly imply engagement in some form of structural or political reform. For states, this often involves constitutional or military reform, the introduction of power-sharing mechanisms or human rights guarantees, as well as elections. Non-state groups are often required to dismantle their arsenals (unless struggle leads to independence, such as in South Sudan or East Timor) and participate in formal governance through democratic politics and reintegration into the security sector – hence some of the problems with peace in Lebanon due to Hezbollah’s continued existence as an autonomous militia within the state apparatus.

The transformation of non-state armed actors is challenging as it implies a significant change in mindset to join a political order or security system (albeit reformed) that they had previously fought as illegitimate – and to gamble on being able to mobilise future support for their political project as a guarantee for retaining some level of power or political authority. Hezbollah seems stuck somewhere in the middle of a transition process as the prospect of decommissioning equates to a loss of relevance in terms of defending Lebanese sovereignty against Israel and, more recently, Salafist jihadist groups in Syria.

The trajectory out of violence takes a different path for urban gangs. The El Salvador case study describes how gang members, while pursuing a path to social reintegration as a core condition of the truce, have also sought to maintain their distinct identity. The social legitimisation of the truce is understood as a necessary condition for breaking the cycle of criminal violence, including by the gangs themselves, and the implementation of the truce has paid increasing attention to efforts to enhance its local legitimacy.

Coercive actors and peacebuilding

How does the transformation of coercive actors influence the course of a peace process – and vice versa? The Indonesian example suggests that, by strengthening its social and political legitimacy, democratic transition can provide a coercive state with a stronger mandate to engage in peace processes. The greater press freedom and more intrusive human rights monitoring that accompanied the transition in Indonesia exposed abusive state power in Aceh and East Timor, and undermined public support for military responses to conflict in Indonesia’s periphery in favour of dialogue. The peace processes that emerged in East Timor and Aceh soon after Suharto’s demise in turn encouraged national reform processes, including the professionalisation of the military and the decentralisation of political power – including the direct election of governors and the right to form provincial political parties (Jakarta, though, has so far failed to find a formula for self-determination to end conflict in West Papua.)

Engaging non-state armed actors can help to increase both the “input” and “output” legitimacy of peace processes by widening participation and contributing to the restoration of stability and the rule of law. But the equation does not always balance neatly. In El Salvador, 20 years before the gang truce, the 1992 peace accord between the government and Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front guerrillas increased state legitimacy in terms of participation by integrating the former armed opposition into political and security systems. But it was less successful in either enhancing representation or improving performance: society is still highly unequal with a number of marginalised social groups, and many government institutions are still very inefficient.

Negotiating with actors branded as criminals or terrorists can contravene domestic and extra-territorial legislation, as with the gangs in San Salvador, or with Hezbollah, currently blacklisted by both the United States and the European Union. In both cases, prohibition applies not only to membership of the group (as opposed to involvement in a specific activity), but also to third parties’ engagement with it through support activities.

Many non-state armed actors resort to violent acts precisely because they believe that they cannot pursue their objectives through legal avenues. The legitimacy of the use of force by any state against their challengers is subjective and divisive. And hard-line responses to the gang problem in El Salvador were counterproductive in terms of reducing violence and improving state governance and legitimacy in deprived social areas. By contrast, engagement through dialogue aims to enable actors to find ways to transform their structures so that they conduct their activities peacefully – be it through social reintegration or political transformation.

Lessons for policy and practice

The three cases presented in this section offer important insights for international policymakers. They show that international actors should use their influence and attractive power to incentivise change. Engagement with governments and armed actors labelled as illegal or illegitimate can facilitate their transformation away from reliance on coercion. Transformation is difficult and does not follow a smooth trajectory. In dialogue terms, no actors are off limits: it is important to maintain communication channels with the perpetrators of all types of violence, and unconditional dialogue is imperative. It is also vital to remove obstacles to engagement, including poorly conceived coercive measures such as blunt and clumsy sanction regimes, or indiscriminate legislation that punishes whole communities and further isolates and radicalises targeted groups.

Community-based or civil society mediators engaging armed groups or criminal actors offer valuable entry points for peacebuilding. But they often intervene without any official recognition, security guarantees or protection. And in some cases they can face charges of associating with criminal or terrorist actors. This is especially difficult in the early stages of a dialogue process. Appropriate international support, such as funding and discreet lobbying, public awards and recognition, might help to legitimise and protect their engagement.

Mediators and peacebuilding agencies need differentiated strategies for engaging non-state armed actors. This requires accurate analysis of their sources of authority and legitimacy, their representation (who do they speak for?), their performance capacity (can they enforce agreements or “spoil” peace?), the nature of their governance claims and expectations, and the most appropriate avenues for influencing or incentivising their behaviour. There are various support tools to facilitate transition and reintegration paths. These include, for instance, local social integration through civilian rehabilitation programmes benefiting not only individuals but also the wider community, leadership training for actors with political ambitions, or security sector integration for ex-combatants wishing to capitalise on their combat experience.

Of course, the transformation of coercive actors does not happen in isolation but must account for wider political dynamics – including regional or geopolitical. The Israel–Palestine conflict or relations with Iran remain key justifications for Hezbollah’s armed wing. How international partners are seen to deal with relevant external issues has a bearing on the legitimacy of their support internally. The international community cannot enforce the social and political legitimation of national or sub-state institutions – this can only be a home-grown process. However, peacebuilding and development assistance can help broader structural reform, which plays a vital role in laying the foundations for the transformation of coercive states and armed actors.