Experts Discuss the Relevance and Dynamics of Armed Group Coalitions in Contemporary Armed Conflicts and Counterterrorism

18 December 2023

The growing number of organized armed groups (OAGs), in particular groups labelled as terrorist, fighting together in coalitions in non-international armed conflicts (NIAC) – like in Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali or Syria – raises several humanitarian, legal and policy issues.

Within the framework of international humanitarian law (IHL), they raise numerous issues, particularly concerning the classification of armed conflicts.

‘In these situations, a legal discussion arises regarding whether the intensity criterion required by IHL for establishing the existence of a NIAC can be evaluated by considering the cumulative military actions conducted by all OAGs fighting collectively within the coalition’ explains our Director Professor Gloria Gaggioli.

‘This key question bears implication on the applicable legal framework and we need to take a step back to properly address it. This is precisely the approach we took during our two-day expert meeting by bringing in the discussion social scientists working in this domain. We examined this issue through an interdisciplinary lens to gain a comprehensive understanding of coalitions, considering their legal, scientific, and practical implications’ she adds.

Integrating Social Science to Evaluate the Presence and Significance of Organized Armed Group (OAGs) Coalitions

Twenty participants coming from various disciplines – international lawyers, social scientists, security experts, and humanitarian practitioners – discussed how research in social sciences could inform IHL experts and humanitarian practitioners to assess whether a certain degree of cooperation between OAGs – referred to as a ‘coalition’ – had relevance for armed conflict classification.

‘This meeting represents the first interdisciplinary exchange on the topic of OAGs’ coalitions and an important step to ascertain the relevance of coalitions for IHL’ explains Professor Gaggioli.

‘In order to enhance our comprehension of the formation, evolution, and dynamics of coalitions, it is essential to incorporate perspectives from other disciplines, such as social science, into our discussions. This interdisciplinary approach can contribute to resolving the legal questions at hand’ she adds.

A participant in the expert meeting

Experts agreed on the utility of fostering collaborations between law and science to gain a deeper understanding of the nature, causes, and dynamics of armed group coalitions, how groups coalesce and splinter, and how coalitions or alliances fragment, amongst many other relevant matters. Such an interdisciplinary exchange could lead to greater clarity of processes relevant to IHL and the necessary differentiation between the legal notion of an OAG versus coalitions, as well as other terms such as alliances, co-belligerents, umbrella organizations, networks etc.

Yet, they recognized the need for further reflections on the integration of considerations related to coalitions in IHL, particularly within the realm of conflict classification. Divergent perspectives on this matter were evident, prompting the acknowledgement that additional reflections are necessary to determine if and how such considerations should be integrated.

Part of a Research on Armed Groups Coalitions in the Sphere of Jihadist Terrorism and Extremist Violence

This expert meeting forms part of the project Preventing and Combating Terrorism and Violent Extremism: The Need for a Legal-Empirical Approach led at the University of Geneva by Professor Gaggioli.

One of the main tracks of this interdisciplinary project is dedicated to gaining a better understanding of coalitions, with a specific emphasis on the landscape of jihadist terrorism and extremist violence.

‘This meeting marks an important milestone in assessing the current state of science and international law on armed group and jihadist coalitions and will contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of this phenomenon’ says Professor Gaggioli.

The key messages and conclusions drawn from the two-day discussions, conducted under Chatham House rules, will be compiled and disseminated in an outcome document. This document should act as an up-to-date and useful resource for researchers and practitioners and advance the discussion of the phenomenon of armed group coalitions in IHL and beyond.

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