Understanding strategic motives for violence against civilians during civil conflict

Reed Wood

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

6 Scopus citations


Civilians have paid a particularly heavy toll in Africa's post-Cold War civil conflicts. Millions of civilians have died as the result of starvation, disease and battle-related violence, often euphemistically called ‘collateral damage’. More disturbing still, both insurgents and government agents have intentionally killed tens of thousands of unarmed non-combatants in these conflicts. While accurate numbers of deaths are difficult to compile, available data suggest that since 1991, roughly half of all direct conflict-related deaths are non-combatants who were intentionally targeted by armed actors. Figure 2.1 shows a comparison of ‘one-sided’ (direct and intentional) killings and battle-related deaths for African conflicts between 1991 and 2008. Such direct, intentional violence is particularly disturbing because it reflects a concerted effort on the part of the perpetrator to victimize vulnerable, unarmed populations. While the most egregious abuses are attributable to African States and their allied militias (e.g., the 1994 Rwandan genocide) African rebels have demonstrated a similar willingness to brutalize civilians. As Figure 2.2 demonstrates, insurgent attacks on civilians often equal or outpace those by the government. Insurgent attacks against civilians are particularly perplexing. Conventional wisdom suggests that insurgents are at least partly reliant on the population for their survival. Civilians, after all, provide insurgents with intelligence, resources and camouflage and act as sources of recruitment. For exactly this reason, classical insurgency theorists such as Mao Zedong and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara asserted that rebels should respect civilians and avoid violence towards them as it risked undermining the revolution.Given such admonitions against attacks on peasants, why do many insurgent groups engage in high levels of civilian victimization? The question presents a theoretical puzzle for scholars of political violence and a substantive policy problem for practitioners interested in ameliorating the human cost of civil conflict. This chapter therefore addresses the motives for insurgent violence against the civilian population. Herein, I argue that compared to other explanations, strategic approaches are better able to explain temporal variations in insurgent violence. I argue that violence intentionally directed against civilians is a short-term strategy that helps insurgents to recoup lost human and material resources. Civilian victimization is therefore ‘rational’ to the extent that it helps insurgents stave off collapse and denies victory to the government. Consequently, victimization is anticipated during moments in which the viability of the groups is threatened or when it faces significant military setbacks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationInducing Compliance with International Humanitarian Law
Subtitle of host publicationLessons from the African Great Lakes Region
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages31
ISBN (Electronic)9781316182369
ISBN (Print)9781107102057
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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