Civil Society in Conflicts

12 april 2016

From Escalation to Militarization

Raffaele Marchetti - Professor of International Relations, LUISS Guido Carli University of Rome, Italy

Resume: Civil society actors have become key players in conflicts, especially in intra-state ones. This has been facilitated by the transformation of conflicts, increasingly characterized by high-intensity intra-border ethno-religious tensions and strong international influence by proxy.

This article is a shortened version of the paper written for the Valdai International Discussion Club. The original copy is available at: http://valdaiclub.com

Civil society actors have become key players in conflicts, especially in intra-state ones. This has been facilitated by the transformation of conflicts, increasingly characterized by high-intensity intra-border ethno-religious tensions and strong international influence by proxy. The usual take on conflicts focuses on the role of governmental actors, both national and international. Accordingly, violence and peace are usually considered to be determined above all by the political decisions of official institutions alone. While this remains partly true, in this paper I examine the other side of the coin: the non-governmental component in conflicts. Civil society actors, or as I define them, conflict society organizations, are increasingly central in view of the high degree of complexity of contemporary conflicts. These are conflicts that can only be understood by combining macro with micro approaches that focus on society. It is thanks to the latter approach that it is possible to unpack the political inputs, be they good or bad, which emerge from below, from the civil society domain, and scale up to the top political echelons. This is even more so in societies that are highly fragmented and deprived of stable governing institutions. It is in failing states such as those undergoing an ethno-political conflict that much of politics unfolds “on the ground.” Hence it is there, at the micro level, that we need to explore the political dynamics in order to capture fully the profound motives that trigger violence.

It is widely recognized that civil society plays a key role in fostering democratic governance in peaceful societies. Yet the political significance of civil society may be far more prominent in contexts marked by conflict. Being characterized by a higher degree of politicization and a less structured institutional setting, conflict situations may generate a more intense mobilization of civil society. While in stable political systems civil society may tend at times towards apathy, in conflict situations its conflict mobilization may suddenly grow. Here politicization is of a qualitatively different nature, as it occurs in view of the life-or-death nature of politics. Contrary to peaceful contexts, in conflict situations the existential nature of politics and the securitizations that follow generate different societal incentives to mobilize. The cross-sectional nature of existential or securitized politics thus yields a quantitatively higher degree of public action spanning different sectors in society. The different understandings of the causes of a conflict and the adequate responses to them may in turn lead to the formation of civil society actors and ensuing actions that can either fuel the conflict, sustain the status quo, or promote peace.

Current conflicts such as those in Syria, Libya, and Ukraine, or past conflicts as those in Rwanda, Cyprus, Mozambique, East Timor, former Yugoslavia, or indeed Israel/Palestine may provide clear examples of the significant role played by societal actors in conflicts.

CONFLICT SOCIETY

In the studies on civil society and conflicts, considerable attention has been devoted to global civil society and transnational social movements, and more specifically to their role in preventing and resolving war; yet insufficient attention has been devoted to the role of local civil society in conflict creation as well as in prevention or resolution. When local civil society is taken into account in the literature on nationalism, civil actors are often characterized as negative agents in fundamentalist or nationalistic struggles, rather than as potential agents for peaceful transformation. In transition studies, local civil society is often seen as a player in democratization, diplomacy and economic modernization—that is, in a liberal “peacebuilding” and “peace-consolidating” mode. Yet the role of local civil society during conflict periods is often overlooked. In development studies recently coupled with security studies, civil society in conflict is normally taken to mean Western-style international NGOs and local Western-funded liberal NGOs, thus ignoring the wider civil society space beyond NGOs. In what follows, I examine the specificity of local and international civil society in conflicts.

The term ‘civil society’ encompasses a wide variety of actors, ranging from local to international, independent and quasi-governmental players. As conflicts tend to shape the identity and actions of civil society organizations, I focus on these groups in particular, and define them as ‘conflict society organizations’ (CoSOs). Conflict society comprises all local civic organizations within conflict contexts and third countries, as well as international and transnational civic organizations involved in the conflict in question. By using the term ‘conflict society’ rather than relying on the looser definition of ‘civil society in conflict’ I wish to convey the understanding that in conflicts, more so than in other contexts, civil society encompasses both “civil” and “uncivil” elements. Conflict society actors are not uniform; they include a diversity of different organizations. CoSOs are both local and international groups that take an active part in a conflict. They include conflict specialists, business, private citizens, researchers and educators, activists, religion-based groups, foundations and the media.

THE CONTEXT OF CONFLICT SOCIETY ACTIVISM

The first element that we need to take into account in order to capture the nature and role of conflict society is the context. Rarely are the implications of context in the development of civil society openly acknowledged and taken into account by literature. In this respect, several core questions need to be raised at the outset. Can and does civil society exist in contexts of failed states, authoritarian rule and ethnic nationalism, underdevelopment or over-bearing international presence?

The underlying premise of this paper is that civil society can and does exist in these situations, if we take a broad enough definition of civil society. Yet its nature as well as its role and functions are fundamentally shaped by the specific context in question. In so far as civil society is both an independent agent for change and a dependent product of existing structures, we are likely to encounter a wide range of civil society actors, including both “civil” and “uncivil,” carrying out a wide range of actions. Examples range from the role of the different religious movements in Lebanon during and after the war to the current significance of the “courts” in Somalia and the different tribal organizations in Libya.

The first and most important general contextual distinction is whether civil society operates in a state or non-state context, or more widely in a failing or failed state context. The early debates viewed civil society as either synonymous or inextricably intertwined with the state. In more recent studies, while occupying the space between the state, the family and the market, civil society is conceptualized as interacting with the state, both influencing it and being influenced by it. As such, the lines separating the state from civil society in practice remain extremely blurred, complex and continuously renegotiated. Furthermore, many studies on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) argue that these are often linked more to the state than to society. The state thus inevitably shapes the nature and role of civil society.

This is even truer of the post-Cold War era, where often the legally recognized state is failed or failing, while a functioning state structure remains in the legal limbo of international non-recognition. When the state does not exist or is weak, fragmented or failing, the already blurred lines separating the state from civil society become even fuzzier. Think about the cases of Iraq or Syria today. But also think about the role of civil society organizations (CSO) in regime change during the so-called Arab Spring in Tunisia or Egypt.

Think about the Ukrainian case of mobilization and polarization in the absence of the state. The post-Maidan organizations ended up performing functions, like security and defense, which the state had proved unable to fulfil. As Rosaria Puglisi, an associate fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali who studies post-Soviet countries, writes, “Civil society has become de facto a security actor, involved first in the provision of hard security, with the establishment of self-defense units during the Maidan demonstrations and of volunteer battalions following the beginning of hostilities in the east; second, in the procurement of military equipment for the troops and the provision of logistical services (like medical or clerical work), even at the frontlines; and third, in the monitoring and the oversight of defense-related issues and military operations in Donbass.” According to the Ministry of the Interior data, by January 1, 2014, 3,713 civic formations had been established in the country with the purpose of protecting public order. They comprised more than 76,000 members.

In situations such as these, civil society comes to occupy part of the space normally filled by the functioning state. Controversial as it is, ISIS is radically replacing the state: taking up functions previously performed by the governments of Iraq, Syria, and Libya such as the judiciary or education. Without the laws and rules governing society, civil society organizes alternative systems of self-help and tribal justice; informal forms of governance that civil and uncivil society actors alike establish and are shaped by. When states are weak or failing, patronage, tribal affiliation, and often corruption are likely to influence the nature and role of civil society. This is because civil society is induced to fill the void left by the state by providing services to the population, yet doing so by interacting with underground and illegal channels of the “shadow state.” Finally, where a recognized state exists but lacks sovereignty and independence, civil society is often disempowered and de-responsibilized by the absence of a sovereign interlocutor at the state level.

Even when the state exists, there is a second contextual condition that shapes civil society in conflict; and that is the actual nature of the state in question. In so far as civil society needs to be both permitted and protected by the state, its existence, nature and role are determined by the degree of democracy, delineating the extent of associative freedom, as well as by the existence of other basic rights and freedoms normally enshrined in democratic states. When these rights and freedoms are curtailed, civil society is likely to develop beyond legal boundaries, often aiming to subvert the state rather than interact with it, thereby making the distinction between civil and uncivil society actors still more obscure. Think about the revolutionary movements in the authoritarian regimes in Latin America of the 1970s and 1980s or the “dissidents” in the USSR. Even within the confines of formally democratic states, the shape of civil society is affected by the specific nature of the democracy in question. In nationalistic states, civil society is more likely to include some “uncivil” actors pursuing racial or xenophobic agendas. The surge of Nazi movements in current Germany is a clear example, as is the always significant presence of the Ku Klux Kan in the U.S.

In democracies with a strong military presence and militarized culture, civil society is often associated with the push for democratization and the civilianization of politics. In democracies founded upon a strong ideological consensus (e.g. Zionism for Israel, Kemalism for Turkey), civil society acts in surveillance and critique of the state within clear, albeit un-spelt, ideological confines, after which the “socio-cultural reflex” contracts and civil society—in unison with the state—acts to counter real or perceived threats to the established ideological order.

A third contextual condition in conflict situations is socio-economic underdevelopment, which favors the presence of traditional over modern associational forms. Ernest Gellner, a British-Czech philosopher and social anthropologist, argues that whereas “modularity” characterizes civil society, “segmentalism” marks traditional society. The modular society essentially exists in the developed world. It is characterized by voluntarism and performs modern civic functions. By contrast, in a segmentalized society, often found within developing contexts, civil society is characterized by a far more prominent role of non-voluntary associations (family, tribe, ethnic or religious communities) over voluntary ones. Often the bonds, loyalties and solidarity that these associative forms engender are far stronger and more tenacious than those found in voluntary groupings. As such, while non-voluntary associations in these contexts may curtail gender and other rights in the private sphere, they also tend to be in a stronger position to carry out many of the “modern” functions normally performed by civil society in developed contexts (e.g. the health and education services provided by religious charities). Excluding these groups from the analysis would entail missing much of the civil society activity in developing contexts. The African context is a clear example of the relevance of the tribal affiliation in political and socio-economic terms.

The nature and role of the international community constitute a final contextual feature shaping civil society. An overall global trend is traceable of states playing a diminishing role as service providers both domestically and internationally, leading to the privatization of world politics. Within this trend, a new global political opportunity structure has materialized in which civil society actors have flourished both locally and transnationally. This means that many of the functions previously performed by governmental actors have been reallocated to civil society in the fields of development and security. Since the 1980s, development assistance has been increasingly channeled through NGOs.

Developed states and international organizations have outsourced the implementation of aid programs to local and international NGOs, while mediating and retaining political discretion regarding overall direction. The more recent policy orientation for democracy promotion from Western countries has also heavily relied on the partnership with civil society organizations for the promotion of democracy and human rights in third countries. In a wide variety of cases, scholars have demonstrated that by promoting particular types of civil society (e.g. NGOs, also dubbed “non-grassroots organizations”), the donor community weakens civil society organizations that have veritable ties to society and respond to local societal needs. The cases of Palestine or Bosnia-Herzegovina are illustrative of this point. As Benoît Challand, a researcher in history and sociology, notes, donors also create a dislocated new civil society, which is technical and specialized in mandate, neo-liberal in outlook, urbanized and middle-class in composition, and responds to the goals of the international community rather than of the society in question.

Equally, the changing international security agenda has shaped the nature and role of civil society. Since the 1990s, in view of the wave of humanitarian interventions, many peacebuilding functions have been transferred to the private sector and civil society liberal humanitarian and relief organizations, politically or financially coopted organizations and militarily embedded organizations have mushroomed. Since the new millennium, the turn in global politics with the “global war on terror” provided a further change in the role of (some) CSOs, through their “embeddedness” and connivance with state-waged wars. Hence, while at times representing a rooted and counter-hegemonic force of resistance, CSOs have also acted as a dependent functional substitute within the neo-liberal paradigm. In more violent situations, external support in terms of money or arms may prove essential. Consider the case of the financial support received by the Maidan/post-Maidan movement in Ukraine.

FROM CONFLICT ESCALATION TO MILITARIZATION

Another variable in our study of civil society’s role in conflicts is the framework of action within which organizations operate. Central to this is the framework of conflict escalation that may lead to the militarization of civil society. In conflicts, often a situation arises in which groups, mostly self-defined in ethnic or religious terms, articulate their subject positions in mutually incompatible ways. Once such incompatibility is publicly affirmed, these partisan affiliations begin permeating unrelated sectors, organizations and activities, thus raising starkly the stakes of divisive politics in society.

Donald L. Horowitz, U.S. professor of law and political science, wrote that in divided societies, an ethnic conflict is at the center of politics. Ethnic divisions pose challenges to the cohesion of states and sometimes to peaceful relations among states. An ethnic conflict strains the bonds that sustain civility and is often at the root of violence that results in looting, death, homelessness and the flight of large numbers of people. In divided societies, ethnic affiliations are powerful, permeative, passionate and pervasive.

This progressive spread of partisan subject positions can result in split societies which are conventionally divided in ranked and unranked systems. The distinction rests in the possible overlap between social class, ideological orientation, religious affiliation, and ethnic origin. In ranked systems ethnicity is strictly related to social class or caste structures. Linked to this, a hierarchical ordering (associated with ranked systems) as opposed to a parallel ordering (associated to unranked systems) of society also profoundly affects the development of conflict. For instance, in ethnically ranked systems, when a single ethnic group dominates a powerful public institution, the risk of that institution being used for ethnic purposes and discrimination is high. In these circumstances, the tension between greed and grievance increases on the inside and the scope for legal and institutionally negotiated accommodation shrinks, often leading to the counter-mobilization of the discriminated group beyond legal and institutional boundaries. In these cases, the discriminated group may engage in underground non-violent action or violent action, shifting the conflict from latent to active stage.

Within this stage of conflict escalation the external dimension is also significant. Local CoSOs may appeal to transnational norms in their quest to gain power and legitimacy, often in coordination with third-party international and transnational CoSOs . Think about the appeal to international norms used in East Timor or in South Sudan by political and civil society actors. In so far as the victims are often denied access to local normative and political resources, they are induced to appeal to external resources as the only means to influence the local balance of power. This means conflicts often manifest themselves locally through high-intensity intra-border tensions and violence and internationally by appealing to laws and rights, which may be strategically used and at times manipulated to escalate a conflict. Think also about the way the appeal to the international norm of self-determination is used by many Tibetan activists. Consider the strong appeal to human rights and anti-discriminatory principles that the ANC anti-apartheid movement in South Africa aptly used in its fight. But think also about the resistance movements in Italy during WWII and the end of the fascist regime: the “partigiani” appealed to anti-authoritarian values recognized by the international community and thanks to that they secured crucial support.

In these situations, local, international and transnational CoSOs can play a crucial role in the successive phases of conflict eruption and escalation. They can discursively contribute to the securitization of conflicts by raising awareness of conditions of latent conflict through mass demonstrations, media diffusion, public assemblies, monitoring and denouncing activities. They can also ignite a conflict in its violent stages by organizing and activating combatant groups and guerrillas (e.g. the fighters in the Donbass region or the guerrilla action by Sendero Luminoso in Peru). At the international level, they can call for indirect support through funds and arms, or lobby for the direct involvement of the international community in the conflict (e.g. through mediation or war) (e.g. the “rebels” in Syria and their continuous appeal for an international intervention).

MECHANISMS OF POLITICIZATION

Civil mobilization is often carried out through the radicalization of political identities. Conflicts have been defined as a struggle between peoples, often self-defined in ethnic terms, who articulate their respective needs and wants in mutually incompatible ways. As opposed to peace, a conflict (defined as an incompatibility of subject positions) can either not be manifested publicly at all, i.e. in conditions of latent structural violence, or it can be manifested through violence or non-violent means (e.g. political activism). The source of the incompatibility is inextricably tied to the very definition of the group: an ethnic definition which is politically constructed as primordial, non-voluntary and exclusive in nature and defines itself in contrast to the external “other.” Ethno-political conflicts are in fact characterized by a public discord either between the state and significant parts of society or between different parts of the population. The discord and division are claimed on the grounds of identity defined through ethnicity: a multiple concept that refers to a myth of collective ancestry. Central to this concept is the notion of ascription and affinity. Ethnic identification is thus often based on the prioritization of birth over territory (think about the ethnicization of the Kurdish issue in Turkey by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), or the conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Basque Country, or in Südtirol).

In this context, an important determinant in the identity of CoSOs is the degree of inclusiveness of membership and of the targeted public. Roughly speaking, the two extremes are an inclusive and universalistic approach and an exclusive and particularistic one. Either a group is open to accept as members or receiving agents all those involved in a conflict, or it focuses only on a limited section of the population demarcated by ethnic boundaries. An inclusive outlook entails either the promotion of a single cultural identity or the creation of a civic or multitiered hybrid identity. An exclusive outlook bases its approach on the existence of primordial and unchanging identities. Another fundamental variable characterizing CoSO identities is their egalitarian or non-egalitarian nature. An egalitarian CoSO accepts as equal all actors across the conflict divide, while a non-egalitarian approach attempts to assert the primacy of one group over another. If we combine these two variables, we can identify four main CoSO identities determining their overall normative outlook on the conflict. Needless to say, these identities are stylized, and in reality most CoSOs will display different combinations, changing over time. Yet marking such distinctions provides a necessary frame of reference for understanding the identities of the actors in question.

A civic or post-national identity emerges from CoSOs with an inclusive and egalitarian outlook. Contrary to other categories, this is the only identity that places primary emphasis on the individual. It thus promotes either a liberal civic (as opposed to ethnic) identity or it accepts and fosters multiple identities freely chosen by each individual. These groups may include international NGOs with a liberal civic outlook, such as Human Rights Watch, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) or Amnesty International, or local bi-communal groups such as Women in Black in Israel-Palestine or the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) Cyprus Center in Nicosia. While these groups are normally associated with peacemaking functions, they may also, at times necessarily, escalate conflicts through their securitizing moves, by voicing, monitoring and denouncing previously silenced and repressed facts.

A multiculturalist CoSO is one which, while accepting the right of all actors to an equal footing, recognizes and values their different cultural identities rather than attempting to transcend them. These may include inter-cultural movements or organizations (e.g. the Tres Culturas Foundation in Seville) or inter-religious gatherings (such as the Day of Prayer in Assisi, inter-faith dialogues for Middle East peace and the Dialogue of Civilizations promoted by former Iranian president Khatami). Especially when inter-religious groups at international levels highlight and denounce the non-egalitarian treatment of specific communities within conflict contexts, they may raise, at times necessarily, awareness and induce the counter-mobilization of discriminated communities. These movements can be either élitist or grassroots.

An assimilationist CoSO is one which accepts the ideal of promoting an undivided society, but does so in a non-egalitarian fashion by promoting a homogeneous society in which the dominant ethnic group asserts its own identity over the others. These may include militant groups such as the Gray Wolves in Turkey, which, while highlighting the importance of Turkishness over and above other identities, is prepared to accept and encourage the assimilation of other groups into the Turkish nation. If others comply, they are accorded equal treatment within the state. While different in terms of strategies and actions, other assimilationist groups and practices include born-again Christians in the United States, Islamist fundamentalists and the practice of ethnic rape in war.

Finally, the racist/ethnicist CoSO is exclusive and non-egalitarian in outlook, believing in the primacy of a single and primordially given and thus non-assimilable identity. It advocates either ethnic cleansing or an effective apartheid system with permanent second-class citizenship. Examples include far-right Israeli transfer movements (i.e. Amihai) calling for the expulsion of the Palestinians to neighboring Arab countries, the Ku Klux Klan in the United States, and the Australian Holocaust-denying Adelaide Institute.

Beyond the original context in which CoSOs operate, their identities and their frameworks of action, the final element needed to understand the mechanisms of mobilization is the political opportunity structure (POS) in which they operate. Rather than acting as a factor in itself, the POS is the filter during the successive phases of a conflict which shapes the impact of CoSO actions. While related to the conflict context categories analyzed above, the POS factors remain distinct from them in terms of their role rather than their nature. They deal with domestic institutions (linked to the existence and nature of a state, the degree and type of democracy), with domestic development (linked to the level of socio-economic development) and with external actors (linked to the international presence). Yet the key distinguishing feature of the POS, as opposed to the original contextual categories, is that of timing. This is because time, as opposed to the original conflict situation, impinges dynamically on the impact of CoSOs on conflicts.

A first structural feature determining the POS is timing. In phases of a violent and escalating conflict, in which subject positions are polarized, the conflict-fueling impact of assimilationist and racist/ethnicist CoSOs is likely to be more effective than any attempt by civic or multiculturalist CoSOs to rearticulate conflict identities and objectives. There is not necessarily a particular approach or action which by definition is more effective, but a fitting coincidence of the right action and the right timing. Effectiveness is thus conditioned by the precise moment in which the action is carried out.

Two further structural features are linked to the domestic context. One is the existence and nature of the domestic institutional system in the conflict context. This includes the design of both the constitutional and legal setting and the set of public institutions and the actors operating within them (e.g. political parties). For example, the presence of constitutionally entrenched and legally protected associational freedom or the supportive attitude of the authorities shapes the nature and actions of a CoSO and its ensuing impact upon an evolving conflict. The cases of Georgia and Russia illustrate two sides of the same coin. In Georgia, in the early post-Rose Revolution period in 2004, a set of reforms were passed to ease civil society activity (e.g. facilitating registration procedures and reducing tax burdens), although the tight relationship between the Saakashvili regime and civil society reduced the independence and thus the popular appeal of the latter. By contrast, in Russia the 2006 Law on NGOs setting bureaucratically tight and financially onerous requirements for the registration of NGOs have seriously curtailed the space for internationally funded civic and multicultural civil society actors.

Another domestic feature is the level of overall development, including in economic, political, social and cultural spheres. Hence, for example, the degree to which public opinion is open to non-governmental political action and protest can significantly influence the wider diffusion and consolidation effects of CoSOs. On the positive side, southern Cyprus in the post-1974 period experienced a sustained economic boom which led to the development and transformation of civil society. On the negative side, the progressive de-development of the Palestinian occupied territories during the Oslo period, particularly since the outbreak of the second Intifada, reduced the scope for a flourishing independent civil society. This was aggravated further by the inflow of Western funds, which weakened the indigenous civil society domain while cultivating a coopted yet ineffective NGO sector .

A final structural feature constituting the POS is the role of the international system and the actors operating within it. Hence in a situation in which the international community converges on war, pacifist CoSOs find themselves marginalized, while combatant groups gain the necessary political and material support for their actions to be effective. The conflict in Kosovo is an evident case in point, whereby nationalist Kosovo CoSOs were legitimized by the Western support for Kosovo against Serbia, culminating in the recognition of Kosovo’s independence in 2008. Alternatively, pacifist CoSOs may enhance their impact by allying with international forces opposing war, repression or discrimination. For example, several diaspora Tibetan groups effectively mobilized the international community in the wake of the summer 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing to support the Tibetan cause and exert pressure on Beijing. Yet often the interrelationship between international involvement and CoSOs works in the opposite direction, whereby rather than CoSOs being strengthened by an international alliance, their search for international support alters their very raison d’etre. Beyond the case of Palestinian civil society mentioned above, another notable example is Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the strong international and EU presence in post-Dayton Accords period profoundly affected the nature, actions and mode of operation of local civil society actors wishing to win the political and financial support of international actors. The international-local dynamics remain a key factor in understanding the political mobilization of CoSOs action.

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The cumulative interaction between context, identity, frameworks of action and political opportunity structures determines CoSOs’ impact on conflicts. An impact is taken to mean both the direct results of a particular action (e.g. providing refugee relief) and the influence on the wider context underlying a particular manifestation of a conflict (e.g. strengthening the international legal framework that ensures the protection of the rights of refugees and their right of return). CoSOs’ direct and contextual impact is determined by the wider conflict context; by the identities of CoSOs; by their actions within the four main frameworks of action; and by the political opportunity structure within which they operate. The identities and actions of CoSOs are influenced by, while at the same time influencing, the economic, political, social, cultural and legal context within which they operate. A spiral causal chain can thus be stylized as follows. Context shapes the identities of CoSOs. These identities determine their goals and frameworks of actions. In turn, the ability of CoSOs to navigate the political opportunity structure of conflicts—critically shaped by the original conflict context—determines their overall direct and contextual impact; the latter of which feeds back into the original conflict context.

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