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Understanding restraint in civil wars: What explains variation in landmine use by non-state armed groups?

Why are some non-state armed groups more violent than others? Why do some groups employ specific means and methods of war while others do not? In this dissertation project these questions are turned around to ask, conversely, why some groups are more restrained than others and why some groups avoid employing specific means and methods of war. In particular, the project focuses on the use and non-use of landmines and similar explosive devices by non-state armed groups (NSAGs).

Landmines threaten civilians both during and after conflicts, either as direct targets or as unintended casualties. According to conservative estimates, more than 130,000 people have fallen victim to landmines in the last 20 years alone, and disturbingly, casualties have increased in the previous years.

Why some groups don't use landmines

It is unsurprising that NSAGs would resort to landmines, often described as “the poor man’s weapon”. These groups, the logic goes, face a stronger military opponent and resort to unconventional means and methods of war to overcome this asymmetry. In this context, the use of landmines, at times described as the “perfect soldier,” is symbolic. Paraphrasing Khmer Rouge’s leader Pol Pot, landmines are always ready to attack, and they never sleep, complain, and don’t need to eat. Indeed, an initial assessment suggests that about three in every four NSAGs active in 2005 employed landmines. The puzzle is thus not why such groups use landmines but why some do not. Whereas some rebels lay thousands of mines irrespective of collateral damage, other groups directly target civilians, and others still attempt to limit civilian victimisation. Some rebels have even unilaterally renounced antipersonnel landmines and actively engaged in humanitarian demining.

Different perspectives on the use of landmines

The project explores this puzzle as a compilation of four articles employing combined methods across several cases.

  • Article I, “Rebels against mines? Legitimacy and restraint on landmine use in the Philippines” (forthcoming on Security Studies), explores, in a qualitative comparative case study of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the New People’s Army, and the Abu Sayyaf Group, how restraint is exercised depends on which audiences such groups were most reliant on.
  • Article II, “Balancing incentives: exploring patterns of landmine use in different types of warfare”, explores how the type of warfare influences incentives for both laying mines and exercising restraint. The article uses novel geospatial data of humanitarian demining programmes in Colombia, Lebanon, South Sudan, and Tajikistan.
  • Article III, “The utility and costs of violence: exploring the limited use of landmines by Colombian paramilitary groups”, builds on interviews of ex-combatants and archival research on the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia and explores how amoral reasons, such as the lack of tactical utility and high cost, may encourage restraint on landmine use.
  • Article IV will tentatively look beyond civil wars and explore how the militarisation of the police and the “war against drugs” may push criminal groups to employ explosive devices, including landmines. Tentative cases include organised criminal groups in Mexico and Brazil.

Responsible Department

Department of War Studies and Military History

Partners

Funding

The Swedish Defence University

Ongoing

2021-2025

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Published 2023-05-30 Updated 2023-05-30