Who can be deterred?

New York Times East Africa bureau chief Jeffrey Gettleman has a harrowing piece up at Foreign Policy on Africa’s current conflicts. The bottom line: many of the continent’s conflicts have very little to do with policy, injustice, or even interest. Instead, he argues, “most of today’s African fighters are not rebels with a cause; they’re predators.”

Even if you could coax these men out of their jungle lairs and get them to the negotiating table, there is very little to offer them. They don’t want ministries or tracts of land to govern. Their armies are often traumatized children, with experience and skills (if you can call them that) totally unsuited for civilian life. All they want is cash, guns, and a license to rampage. And they’ve already got all three. How do you negotiate with that?

For the International Criminal Court, the nature of these combatants creates a slightly different dilemma: how do you deter them? The expectation that prosecutions will deter perpetrators–and thus prevent future crimes–is critical to optimistic visions of the court. But Gettleman’s account provides little grounds for hope; the rebels and militia leaders that he describes are not likely to be swayed by the threat of a trial in the Hague. That’s not an argument against doing justice, but it is a reason to temper our expectations.

Update:  Commenter S.K.  sees Gettleman’s take as little more than a warmed-over version of the greed vs. grievance debate–with Gettleman emphasizing greed–and argues that my conclusions on deterrence are wrong:  

[I]t seems easier to deter violence motivated by greed than by grievance, but possible to reach both — they are both acts of a ‘rational actor’, not in the sense that we would agree with them, but in the sense that they are calculating risk and reward.

I think Gettleman’s piece suggests something beyond, or at least distinct from greed. He’s arguing that there is a culture of violence in some areas that has created a generation of combatants who have no goal other than violence. It’s hard to see how the ICC could effectively deter these individuals.


About David Bosco

Assistant Professor at American University's School of International Service. Contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine. Author of Rough Justice: The International Criminal Court in a World of Power Politics and Five to Rule Them All: The UN Security Council and the Making of the Modern World
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2 Responses to Who can be deterred?

  1. kenopp says:

    Although state capacity plays a huge role in determining the probability of civil war onset (a la Fearon and Laitin, 2003) there is still much to be said about governance and how it affects chances of civil war onset. Rebel leaders are not mere predators. Their personal motivations aside, the fact that they persist for so long points to their ability to tap into people’s perceived grievances against governments.

  2. Steve says:

    Sounds like one side of the greed vs. grievance debate that has been ongoing since the mid-90s, if not earlier. The political economists at the World Bank (e.g., Paul Collier) have certainly added to our understanding of the causes of internal conflict in macro terms, but their dismissal of greivance as motivation is not convincing, and doesn’t fair well in close analysis of specific conflicts (e.g., David Keen, Sierra Leone).
    In any event – explain what you mean about the link to deterrence. To me, it seems easier to deter violence motivated by greed than by grievance, but possible to reach both — they are both acts of a ‘rational actor’, not in the sense that we would agree with them, but in the sense that they are calculating risk and reward. One possible wrinkle is that greed is captured by international criminal law (e.g., the crime of pillage), but grievance is not (except perhaps in mitigating sentence, but hard for me to see that evidence coming in). So, what you end up with are courts writing “histories” of conflicts that serve the dominant groups well (assuming the underclass got greedy as Collier argues) and fails to show the other causes of conflict such as the failure of the state to provide for its citizens. In this respect, TRCs can play a more even-handed role, and comparisons of the Sierra Leone TRC report with, for example, the SCSL RUF Trial Judgment make for strikingly different representations of the conflict.

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