3
Protégés, Clients, Cannon
Fodder: Civil-Militia Relations
in Internal Conflicts
Marie-Joëlle Zahar

At least two dozen civil wars are currently raging around the world. These conflicts, like most other internal conflicts in the past decade, are characterized by extremely high numbers of civilian casualties. Whereas international law often plays at least some role in shielding civilian populations during interstate wars, one or more combatants in most internal conflicts are usually not party to the treaties that regulate the conduct of hostilities. At the same time, a striking feature of contemporary civil wars is the use of noncombatants as instruments and objectives of warfare.

The absence of clear guidelines on how and when to intervene in internal conflicts creates a particular set of challenges for international organizations concerned with humanitarian assistance and protection of civilian populations. First, most of the content of international humanitarian law (IHL) has been elaborated in the context of interstate conflicts. This means that international organizations have little or no leverage on combatants to compel respect for minimum standards. Second, internal conflicts typically pit a state against part or parts of its society. This limits the access of international organizations, either because state authorities resist what they see as external interference in an internal matter or because the nonstate actors block access to areas under their control. Third, if international organizations do manage to secure access, the absence of specific guidelines may hamper negotiations to obtain access to civilian populations and improvement in their living conditions.

The result is that international organizations often face a dilemma. In circumstances where they reach agreements with combatants on access to civilians, they may become or be seen as “complicit” in the cause of one or more armed factions. In such cases, humanitarian organizations have been accused of giving in to blackmail. Critics note that international humanitarian assis-

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