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Where are the carrots? Positive discipline for armed groups
We read about violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law on a near daily basis, making it seem as though our efforts to influence these actors and reduce abuses are yielding limited results. When addressing armed groups, as compared to States, we have more restricted access and a more limited toolbox to help them rethink their behaviour. Still, tapping into the spheres of neuroscience, communication, negotiation theory, prevention of violent extremism, and even child education can give us a lead on what could work in advocating for protection with armed groups.


Imagine you are standing in front of the leader of an armed group who is reportedly responsible for committing horrible abuses against a vulnerable population group. You have waited for this meeting for a long time and have come well prepared. Nevertheless, the discussion doesn’t turn out the way you had planned. You do most of the talking, getting a bit heated describing the atrocities and the suffering of the victims in the presumed hands of their fighters. You explain that these acts could constitute war crimes and that the international community may take action against the group.

The commander doesn’t say much, listening casually, simply insisting that they have done nothing wrong. You leave feeling proud of yourself because you certainly ‘made your point’ that such abuses are unacceptable. The next time you try to contact the commander, there is no response. The dialogue is broken, and the abuses continue.

The myths of the logical mind

As humanitarian or human rights professionals, we often think that we need to and can ‘win’ a discussion with the best arguments and our brilliant logic, by quoting the right legal articles and referring to what is ‘universally right and good’. However, science shows us that at least half of what we do is unconscious, with estimations ranging between 40 and 90 per cent. Such behaviour is based on predefined identities and frames – understood by George Lakoff as ‘unconscious neural circuits that define how we think and talk … conceptual structures made up of metaphors, narratives and emotions, they are physically part of the brain’. In this context a good argument, no matter how solid it is, is not enough if the interlocutor is not receptive.

Moreover, in situations of conflict, identities – and with them a set of frames for how to understand the world – tend to be reinforced. This links back to the basic human ‘fight-or-flight’ response: according to research, human beings react to attacks on their own or their group identity in the very same way as to a physical attack.

Breaking it down: problems and promising practices

With these elements in mind, let’s break down the above hypothetical scenario with the rebel commander, to see what went wrong and if we can transform our mistakes into ideas for promising practices in how to talk about abuses with armed groups in a way that favors change.

Problem 1: One-way communication

In the above scenario, we came into the meeting and started preaching ‘the truth’ – in fact, we were not even listening to the reality this armed group was facing. We should not then be surprised that this leader did not really listen to us. We have all done it – waited so long for a meeting, prepared so thoroughly, that when we finally get there, we can’t seem to stop ourselves from speaking, virtually forgetting to try to understand the perspective of our interlocutor.

Promising practice: Active listening

As stressed in negotiating theory, by developing our empathy and active listening skills we can understand the realities and concerns of the counterparty. If we ask for their perspective first – on the armed conflict, on life, on the specific issue we want to discuss – we don’t have to guess. Key aspects in any relationship in which we want to influence another person is acceptability, credibility, and confidence. To be perceived as someone acceptable, credible, and someone to be listened to and take advice from, we first need to listen ourselves.

Problem 2: Reinforcement of existing opposing frames

In our conversation with the leader, we focused on the violations and the victimization of the persons affected, a common and understandable tactic. Nevertheless, research in neuroscience in relation to human rights shows that focusing on showcasing violations may actually have a counterproductive effect – contributing to more violations, not fewer – by creating a link in the minds of people between certain groups of people and certain categories. For example, victims become people to be ‘victimized’.

Repeated exposure to images and accounts of violent acts can also normalize such acts to our brains and simultaneously strengthen the perpetrator group’s identity. Hence, repeated violent acts by some people in a particular group end up being seen as normal behaviour for the group as a whole, with other members finding ways of justifying it.

The ‘shaming’ of an armed group could also contribute to strengthening its self-image as an excluded and unfairly treated group of people (based on ethnicity, class, religion or other reasons), hence further reinforcing group solidarity and existing world view or frames. In fact, as research on preventing violent extremism has shown, the more confrontational we are – whether we base ourselves on facts or emotions – the less effective we tend to be in changing people’s minds.

Promising practice: Reinforcing positive peer influence

As the flipside to this, peer influence within the ‘in-group’ with whom one identifies can successfully model – and modify – the behaviour of a group. By identifying people who show restraint and favour alternative narratives that are influential within the group, or people who can have influence without fully being part of it, we can try to influence the group from within.

Positive role-modelling, the research argues, capitalizes on ‘the brain’s capacity to simulate events, messages of positive behaviour – instead of repeated exposure to accounts of abuse’. In a sense, it plays an alternative movie, with an alternative ending in our minds. The more realistic and vivid the simulation of respectful, protective behaviour, the more willing people may be to replicate it.

In a similar way, and specifically linked to armed actors, the ICRC’s Roots of Restraint in War study also found that the in-group has a major influence on the behaviour of fighters, arguing that peer group opinions and informal socialization processes matter often more than the formal rules and processes. For this reason, it was found that it is necessary to emphasize values as well as the law, and that ‘restraint is more durable if it is internalised as part of a soldier’s or fighter’s identity rather than obliged by the law: “it is not who we are” rather than “it is against the law”’. In this sense, the law is a framework within which our strategies to influence have to fit, but not necessarily the main tool in a dialogue with an armed group.

Problem 3: Naming and shaming

We name and shame – but we don’t tell the armed group what to do instead. Generally, it’s always easier to list what not to do rather than coming up with solutions. The problem is that when we focus only on the problem, it often seems to ‘grow’ in the eyes of those responsible, to become seemingly insolvable. If we’re also only recognizing their action in a negative sense, asking them to ‘stop’ whatever they are doing, we won’t be able to encourage them to take proactive action for protection. This is especially true when other actors are committing the same or worse violations. Some members of armed groups have asked, ‘why do you ask us to change when the State is committing 90% of the violations?’

Promising practice: Naming and framing

Human rights practitioners working on advocacy and public communication have highlighted the need to ‘name and frame’ the solutions we want to see. This means that we need to be able to picture, in a very clear way, what we want and not just what we don’t want. If we can transform a situation from an opposing frame into an actionable alternative frame that fits within a shared sets of values, the chance of success is higher.

In order to know what we want to see instead, however, we need inspiration and concrete examples. While the saying goes ‘no news is good news’, good news is usually not news…at all. Therefore, we need to identify and promote learning from good practices and examples to follow. There is some promising work relating to international humanitarian law, such as the ICRC project IHL in Action and an ongoing project by the Geneva Academy and Geneva Call on armed group practices of IHL and selected human rights norms.

Still, sharing best practices is not enough. To have an impact, the examples – and proposed role-models – need to resonate with the armed group in question. Moreover, there must be a framework which is conducive to learning from others. Training is a good space for that, which allows for modelling the behaviour and repeating the messages describing the kind of behaviour we would like to see.

Problem 4: All stick and no carrots

In this scenario, we are threatening the armed group with sanctions, which may or may not become a reality. The lack of rewards or incentives, as well as the potential sanctions ‘bluff’, are a problem here. As one member of an armed group once told me, ‘Anki, the problem is that no one rewards you for interrupting an attack that would kill civilians. We are only rewarded for the number of enemies killed or injured, weapons collected, and so on’. My guess is that there’s a similar reality in many State military systems – what are the rewards for compliance? At the end of the day, if you’re called a terrorist regardless of what you do, you may just end up behaving like one.

Promising practice: Positive discipline for armed groups

In her book ‘Positive Discipline’, Jane Nelsen explains that the key to child education is not punishment, but mutual respect, leading to cooperation and self-discipline without a loss of dignity. I’m not implying here that armed groups are children that need to be disciplined and taught, nor does Jane Nelsen mean that this is the approach to be taken for children. On the contrary, the idea is that in order to respect and internalize rules, people need to be active participants in processes, not passive spectators.

This approach is valid in most human interactions, including between protection/human rights actors and armed groups. Positive discipline is a combination of both carrots and sticks, where there are logical consequences for not following the rules. It doesn’t mean there are only incentives, but that there are some incentives as well.

In the context of armed groups, this means that we need to understand what ‘makes them tick’ and identify incentives and action lines for their specific situations that do not go against their established world view or their situation. These incentives should not, of course, provide them with any military or material benefits. To be clear, what a carrot is to us may not be perceived as such by the armed group, and vice versa. Maybe they would be motivated to take strong measures against sexual violence if this would facilitate psychosocial and health support to community members that suffered sexual violence. Maybe demining an area where their families are could be of interest to them.

Naming, shaming, and re-framing: a division of labour

There is a flipside to the above approach, however: how do you employ a positive and ‘non-shaming’ methodology in light of repeated abuses without being seen as complicit and/or irrelevant? In my experience what has worked is a division of labour, wherein specialized organizations carry out the ‘shaming’ and their counterparts conduct the engagement and dialogue. Nevertheless, there are moments when total silence is not an option. Then the question becomes how to frame a statement in a moderate and productive way.

There is no magic formula for this, but one good ingredient is to remember that in any kind of report or information document on abuses we should make sure to mention positive actions taken, if there are any. Many armed actors are operating in difficult contexts where they may be coping with humanitarian crises at the same time as they are fighting a war, with various degrees of support – or none at all – coming from international actors. Failing to recognize the positive aspects and the potential gaps in capacities and resources doesn’t help build their willingness to take action, and because ‘good news is no news’, we may need to dig a bit deeper to find that information. It might take some extra work, but failure to do so may end the dialogue and the possibility to influence.

Empathy, or the need to move beyond the monster myth

Finally, our limitation in imagining what makes armed groups tick is, in my mind, linked to our own frames, our own black and white pictures of reality. Even as professionals of human rights and humanitarian action, we tend to automatically put members of armed groups in the ‘perpetrator’ box – the ‘monsters’ versus the ‘victims’. It’s true: many armed groups commit horrific acts in armed conflict. So do States. And to be fair, so do some civilians.

Many members of armed groups have themselves been victims of abuses – directly or indirectly – which more often than not influenced their decision to take up arms. Assuming that the people behind or within armed organizations are all ‘monsters’ is, at best, simply not useful and, at worst, counter-productive to what we want to achieve. Indeed, only by truly understanding that members of armed groups are human beings, just like us, can we develop an approach to them that helps promote better respect rather than more violations.

To be clear, empathizing with members of armed groups as human beings does not mean that we must approve of the violent acts they commit. On the contrary: the simple definition of empathy is ‘the capacity to understand or feel what another being is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position’. By tapping into research in neuroscience and other related areas, human rights and protection professionals could learn how to better use the force of empathy, with the ultimate aim of having more impact on the behaviour of armed actors.

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