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Religious leaders as brokers of humanitarian norm-compliance: Insights from the cases of Colombia, Libya, Mali and Myanmar

October 21, 2020

*The authors of this article are researchers on the project Generating Respect for Humanitarian Norms: The Influence of Religious Leaders on Parties to Armed Conflict. We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Economic and Social Research Council (UK).

The humanitarian sector engages State and non-State parties to armed conflicts in an effort to positively influence their behavior and to generate greater compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL). As noted in the introduction to this Symposium, whilst this direct humanitarian engagement remains an important compliance-generation strategy, novel approaches to strengthen respect for humanitarian norms are needed. 

Religious leaders’ potential to influence parties to armed conflict

Recent research suggests that parties to conflict may better internalise humanitarian norms when they are underpinned by local norms and propounded by local influencers, such as religious leaders. Religious leaders can be considered ‘brokers’ that negotiate and adapt humanitarian norms to specific cultural settings and therefore act towards the symbolic validation (or, indeed, invalidation) of the rules. Although such findings disclose the potential of humanitarian engagement with religious leaders to influence parties’ behaviour in conflict, little systematic research has been carried out towards getting answers to key questions such as: What makes religious leaders influential? And, what precise factors maximize their influence on parties to armed conflicts?

The Generating Respect Project investigates these and other questions, seeking to portray the role of religious leaders in influencing (positively and negatively) parties to armed conflict in respect of their compliance with core humanitarian norms. After undertaking a mapping of armed conflicts and the activities and messages of religious leaders in four case studies countries (Colombia, Libya, Mali and Myanmar), additional data is being obtained through in-depth interviews with key informants and stakeholders. Although still at an early stage, this project is already starting to identify both similarities and differences in the way religious leaders generate and wield their influence over armed State and non-State actors within and between case study countries. It is confirming and refining some of the factors of religious influences on parties to conflict described by Cismas and Heffes here, and identifying new aspects of note.  

Charisma and special legitimacy 

A common finding in all four case study countries is that the charisma of religious leaders plays an important role in their influence over armed actors . As already noted by Cismas (2014: 55-8) armed actors may “follow a specific religious command or rule not primarily because it has been derived in a legal-rational way and is fair, but because religious leaders are perceived to have legitimate authority by virtue of tradition or charisma to issue the command”. In this sense, most of the interviewees in the four case study countries agreed that those religious leaders who had influenced armed actors to respect IHL were charismatic, or put another way, enjoyed a “special legitimacy”. This they have obtained by consistently demonstrating their “moral authority” (according to Dr. Bréma Ely Dicko, referring to the Imam Mahmoud Dicko in Mali) or through “their readiness to sacrifice their lives in the cause of peace and to protect their communities” (in the case of Mali and in Colombia, according to data from an interview with Carlos Velandia). In sum, often the  “eloquence” in the writing and speech of religious leaders, “their personality, spiritual maturity and religiosity” (according to academic Ashley South referring to some religious leaders in Myanmar), and “their  commitment and solidarity to the communities affected” (according to the Colombian expert on armed conflicts Álvaro Villarraga and an anonymous interviewee from Mali) allows religious leaders to influence armed actors to comply with IHL norms. 

Access, Proximity, Closeness 

Another important factor complementing religious leaders’ charisma refers to their access, proximity and closeness to affected communities and to armed actors themselves. Local religious leaders have access to members of armed actors, meeting them in mosques, churches or temples. For example, members of armed groups meet the local imam when they come to the closest mosque to pray (in the case of Mali and Libya). Moreover, in some regions of Mali, some local religious leaders and members of the armed groups have studied together or “were raised together and used to be friends” (anonymous interviewee). Their proximity to affected communities, means that “religious leaders suffer the same consequences of violence as the communities where they live” which makes them more aware, involved and committed to protect these communities (according to an interview with a Colombian humanitarian practitioner). In Myanmar, priests who have stayed with communities may be driven by a Catholic tradition of the witnessing of, and suffering with, those in peril (Ashley South). 

According to interviews with the Malian researcher Mohamed Ahmad El Ansari and the Colombian social worker Dorís Marcela Hernández, proximity allows religious leaders to have continuous access to, contact and interaction with the armed actors present in the area, which in turn presents more opportunities to influence their members. In Myanmar, Catholic priests living in villages affected by conflict were on occasion able to negotiate the evacuation of civilians with parties. However, geographical proximity is not always a necessary factor for influence, as the case of Libya suggests, where religious leaders have succeeded in influencing armed actors, despite being based abroad. 

Shared values and religious affinity 

A third multidimensional factor in assessing influence refers to the existence of certain shared values and ideology, and religious affinity or alignment between the armed actors and religious leaders. For example, in Colombia, the shared values and similar ideology between the ELN and certain religious leaders (on issues such as poverty and social justice) often create a certain affinity and relation of respect between the armed group and Catholic religious leaders acting as mediators or facilitators in negotiations to release hostages (for example, see the work of the Archbishop Darío Monsalve). In Myanmar, the influential Kachin Baptist Church and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have in common that they have both been at the forefront of the promotion of Kachin identity. In the case of Mali, religious alignment could be considered a necessary condition of influence, since an armed actor, whose members belong predominantly to one particular Muslim school, would likely not accept or respect a religious leader from a diffrent religious school. Similarly in Libya, one armed actor that is seemingly influenced by conservative imams, carries out work which reflects Islamic values and principles, including the ‘promotion of virtue and prevention of vice’, through, for example, cracking down on what it deems to be ‘un-Islamic’ activities, such as drug trafficking and the alcohol trade. 

Partiality v impartiality 

Through the mappings and interviews carried out so far, we have also evidenced that some factors of influence may differ from one country context to another, between the armed conflicts within the same country, or between the various armed actors. 

Our findings suggest that neutrality and impartiality are not always a necessary requirement for successful interventions by religious leaders in influencing parties’ compliance with humanitarian norms – quite the opposite may be true in some contexts. Whilst the neutrality of religious leaders is a necessary condition in Colombia (as stressed by Prof. Luis Andrés Fajardo, Constitutional Court Auxiliary Judge in Colombia), in Mali partiality is required to influence parties in intra-communitarian armed conflicts (as affirmed by University Professor Mohamed Ag Chérif). Meanwhile, the Catholic and Baptist Churches in Myanmar have taken different approaches to neutrality/impartiality even in relation to the same (Kachin) conflict. In the Libyan conflict, two prominent religious figures have evolved from  generally being politically neutral, to openly supporting the particular parties they are seeking to influence. 

Channels of influence 

Context seems to also be determinative of the most effective means of accessing parties and the preferred channels of seeking to influence them. While some religious leaders in Colombia and Mali cannot meet in person with armed groups due to security reasons, and therefore they contact them using telephones (according to an expert working for the humanitarian NGO Amapros in Mali), in Myanmar the leaders of the Kachin Baptist Church travel from Government-controlled areas to a KIA-controlled area for meetings on humanitarian issues. Interviewees in Colombia and Mali also referred to in-person meetings, where local religious leaders travelled by motorbike to proactively engage with the armed groups (Interviews with Álvaro Villarraga, Mohamed Ag Chérif, and other anonymous interviewees).

Other methods that religious leaders use to access and influence parties include, fatwas issued in a personal capacity or through religious institutions or bodies in Libya; audio and video messages which aim to influence their followers in the cases of Libya and Colombia; messages on social media, such as the letters exchanged as tweets between Archbishop Darío Monsalve and ELN leaders in Colombia; and, through local preachers in mosques, as mentioned previously, in Mali and Libya.

In sum, the Generating Respect Project has so far been able to demonstrate two interesting aspects. First, religious leaders do have influence on armed actors’ general behaviours and they are and can be influencers of conflict parties’ compliance as well as non-compliance with humanitarian norms. Second, although there are differences between contexts, armed conflicts, and armed actors, the project is already elucidating common factors in how religious leaders (can) generate greater respect for humanitarian norms. Both aspects confirm the potential of religious actors to be allies in the quest for compliance-generation in times of armed conflict and the need to promote effective engagement with them by the humanitarian sector towards this end.   

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