The power of religion: religious leaders as a tool for, or against, IHL-compliance by non-state armed groups

About the author(s):

Laura Pizzoferrato obtained an LLM in Public International Law at Utrecht University where she specialized in conflict and security. She worked as a student assistant at Utrecht University where she conducted research in the field of international humanitarian law. Before that, she studied international relations at the University of Geneva. Laura has a strong interest in international humanitarian law, international security law and international politics, especially the interplay between international law and politics. Her blog post is provided in a personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the views of any present or previous employer.

The respect of international humanitarian law (IHL) by non-state armed groups (NSAGs) is a recurrent concern of the international community. In some cases, NSAGs may not deem themselves bound by IHL since they have not taken part in the creation of these same rules. This is why other means or strategies must be taken into account, in order to boost NSAG’s willingness to comply with IHL principles. In the ‘Roots of Restraint in War’ the ICRC made it its mission to identify what processes condition the behavior of armed groups and what methods and strategies influence or persuade armed groups to abide to IHL rules or to adopt a more IHL-friendly behavior. 

One possibility to address NSAGs lack of commitment is to bring religion into the equation. Only a fool would underestimate the power that religion has to direct or influence individual’s or group’s behavior. But where is the link between religion and IHL? Well, IHL draws great inspiration from religious principles especially in relation to the reduction of human suffering. IHL principles, such as distinction and proportionality, actually emerged from Christian just war tradition, but are also reflected in many other religious teachings (see here and here, p. 1730). Building on this theme, the Generating Respect Project recently issued a report (GRP Report) where the role of religion in norms-compliance was once more emphasized. More specifically, the report examined how interactions with religious leaders can promote the compliance with IHL by state armed forces and NSAGs. 

The GRP report predominantly focused on the ability of religious leaders to influence those armed groups in a positive manner, and provided guidance and tools on how humanitarian actors can engage with such individuals in order to promote conformity with IHL rules and principles by armed groups. This blog post focuses on religious leaders’ influence on armed groups by presenting first the sources of influence of those leaders, as explained in the GRP report, and second, by drawing upon additional scholarly literature to discuss the positive and negative effects of religious leaders on armed groups’ IHL compliance. While the positive impact of religious leaders is an interesting angle to look into, this blog post does not ignore the detrimental effects of those same actors. 

1. Religious leaders’ sources of influence

In order to understand the power that religious leaders exert on armed groups, one must understand where this source of power comes from. The GRP report identified three main sources of influence (pp. 18–20) over armed groups: 

First, through the power of persuasion, religious leaders may influence armed actors to adopt a code of conduct which is in line with their interpretation. In these situations, armed groups are convinced that the interpretation given by the religious leader is the morally right one. The persuaded armed group acts as a matter of its own motivation and willingness. This method is quite powerful since it might promote the ‘internalization of norms’, that means the armed group might change its behavior in a durable manner. It is also considered as the deepest form of socialization (the process by which people adopt the norms and rules of a given community; see here, p. 25). 

Secondly, where religious leaders exert authoritative power and legitimate control a greater impact on armed actors can be observed. In such situations, the commands and the control they exercise are seen as ‘legitimate or rightful’. On top of that, religious leaders draw legitimation and control from special sources, such as tradition and charisma which are quite dominant (Cismas and Heffes, p. 16) sources of influence. NSAGs members recognize the leader’s authority as legitimate which drives them to act by a sense of duty. A religious leader that wields such power can stimulate behavioral change. This in turn may lead to identification with reference groups or internalization of norms.

The last source of influence is by coercive power. This exercise of power upon NSAG’s members is observed where the leadership of the armed forces overlaps with the religious authority. In such instances the source of influence is domination and not social influence as it is in the previous two sources. 

The GRP report emphasizes that it is important to bear in mind, that the religious leader’s nature of influence (p. 27) can be external or internal to the armed forces. Religious leaders with no institutional affiliation are considered to have an external relationship, while internal includes various types of relationships where the religious leader is

  • part, or leads, the political department of the NSAG;
  • considered as religious personnel under IHL, hence belonging to the armed forces;
  • itself the commander of the armed wing of the NSAG.

There are hence various forms and entry points for religious leaders to interact with, and consequently influence, armed group’s behavior. Yet, the GRP report shows that religious leaders’  degree of influence also depends on other factors, such as common values, ethnic, cultural, or social background, conflict dynamics and so on (see here, chapter 2.3).

2. The importance of religious leaders in IHL-compliance

Put simply, the GRP report provides an extensive overview on how religious leaders influence armed actors, why humanitarian engagement with them is important, and how this can be done. Perhaps most importantly, the GRP report highlights the importance of religious leaders on IHL-compliance. Its findings on this issue are well complemented by scholarship discussing that phenomenon as well. This section aims to point out the most important aspects of the role of religious leaders in IHL compliance, provided by the GRP report as well as by other scholarly literature.

While religious leaders may benefit from a certain degree of influence, Evans has stressed that the respect for IHL still meets many difficulties and is highly dependent on NSAGs’  willingness and capacity (p. 2) to implement IHL. Some NSAGs do not even know or understand what this body of law actually entails. While direct engagement with NSAGs remains the dominant strategy adopted by humanitarian actors, Cismas and Heffes (leaders of the GRP project) have observed an increase in the engagement of religious leaders as other or additional source of influence (see here, pp. 5–6). 

In fact, Bartles-Smith explains that religious leaders have strong connections to all parties involved in a particular conflict, which allows them to encourage compliance with IHL and corresponding religious norms (see here, p. 1757). It is hence essential to engage in various methods to generate respect for IHL. Indeed, the GRP report also expressed the importance of such a partnership or dialogue – between humanitarian actors and religious leaders – especially with internally affiliated religious leaders to an armed group. This will help those providing humanitarian assistance to better understand local needs, solutions and religion (see report, p. 44), which might be even more important in contexts involving faith-based NSAGs. As a matter of fact, the ICRC has demonstrated that a great portion of current armed conflicts involve jihadist groups (see here, p. 4). To bring religion into the equation and consider the potential influence of religious leaders on armed forces as a valuable partner or promoter for IHL-compliance seems only reasonable.

Photo: Myitkyina News Journal/AFP/Getty Images 

In relation to IHL, religion is perceived as a historical source that led to the creation of this body of law. But there is much more potential to be drawn from religion in order to enhance norm-compliance by NSAGs. Indeed, Evans has shown that in most regions, where armed conflicts take place, religion is usually strongly intertwined with law and has the power to even better influence behavior than law does (see here). 

Can religious leaders serve as a powerful source to fill the gaps and promote IHL-friendly behavior by armed groups? Yes, they can indeed. The GRP report shows that religious leaders take positions on, and do interact with, humanitarian (and international human rights) norms through various methods and strategies (see report, pp. 30–43). Also, Bartles-Smith has emphasized that religious leaders are ideal dissemination, translation and contextualization ‘tools’ of IHL in adopting a language and using idioms understandable to everyone (see here, p. 1758). According to Cismas and Heffes this is not a new phenomenon (p. 9). For example, in the aftermath of 9/11, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops urged the adherence with international and moral law, emphasizing the value of every human life, regardless of their background (see here). They also point to Rabbi Shlomo Goren’s great influence on the Israel Defence Forces’ military conduct by issuing religious rulings (see here, p. 9). Likewise, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) included religious leaders in the creation of the code of engagement for its military wing. In doing so, religious leaders referred to Islamic law and religious texts that were in line with IHL principles. The inclusion of those texts in the code of engagement led to an increased willingness to comply with IHL principles (see report, p. 19). Islamic law does contain IHL principles, such as the protection of civilians and non-combatants, and referring to a text that individuals can relate to is quite a clever strategy – it is simple math.

Therefore, religious leaders utilize religious texts and teachings to deal with present conflicts and determine the fitting course of action (Evans, see here).

3. The detrimental effect of religion

Religion is clearly a powerful tool to promote humanitarian values. Evans however outlines that it is equally capable of undermining those exact same values. It is true that a religious leader that feels alienated from efforts promoting IHL may end up undermining those very efforts. The GRP report mentions some cases where this is indeed the case (see report, pp. 37–38). It furthermore points out the difficulties that humanitarian organizations may face when dealing with religious leaders that promote ‘abusive or exclusionary patterns’ of IHL and IHRL (see report, pp. 16–17; 47–48). 

The GRP report also recognizes that religious leaders can have a detrimental impact on armed groups in some cases, by providing justifications for specific acts that violate principles and rules of IHL. As an illustration, the religious leadership of the Islamic State (IS) is entangled in the group’s armed structures and provides religious justifications for practices such as enslavement, sexual slavery and rape of girls and women. The IS does depict such actions as ‘a positive good’ by relying on their own religious interpretations (see here, p. 12). While currently most attention is given to extremist jihadist groups, the tendency to use religious interpretations to justify horrific actions is not a phenomenon only seen amongst these armed groups and are not at all new. Let’s just consider the Crusade as an example how the Catholic Church justified its violent wars (see Evans, here). The Catholic Church was the very predecessor of the ‘in the name of God’-doctrine. More recent examples, other than those related to jihadist groups, are the Christian clerics (Evans, p. 12) before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda that were convicted for committing, or aiding and abetting, the crime of genocide and crimes against humanity. 

Indeed, this trend has been widely noted. Indeed, in the past few years – probably since 9/11 – religion has been associated with negative connotations, especially in connection with fundamentalist groups (see Bartles-Smith here, p. 1735 and Evans here). To harm and to kill in God’s name is the new norm amongst such groups and there was and is nothing against it, as long as it is the will of God. There have been more than enough examples where such fundamentalist groups have interpreted religious texts in such a way that fits an armed group’s purpose (see here for more information). That being said, Sisk observes that religious leaders may just as well be the source of conflict-escalation (p. 2) by promoting their own interpretation of religious teachings and advocating for specific violent action. In other cases, where religious leaders are institutionally associated with faith-based NSAGs, the whole body of international law is seen as a ‘Western’ or ‘foreign’ concept and therefore rejected in full (see report, p. 37 and Bartles-Smith here, p. 1760). 

Religion can be a powerful tool, underscoring once more the importance to engage with religious leaders, irrespective of their stance or position. However, as correctly pointed out by the GRP report, this engagement is not without its challenges.

4. Conclusion

Religion has historically played a significant role in shaping IHL and remains a potent instrument for influencing armed forces behavior. Discussions surrounding the role of religion and religious leaders are crucial, particularly in the context of NSAGs that use religious rhetoric to justify their actions. While religion can have negative effects, the GRP report demonstrates how engaging with religious leaders can promote compliance with IHL. Instead of only imposing a legal framework to which NSAGs have not consented to, engaging with familiar concepts and language, might be more effective. Religious leaders can play a significant role in promoting IHL-compliance by using religious teachings that resonate better with NSAGs.

The scholarship surveyed in this post shows that it is crucial to examine the situations in which religious leaders advocate for or against IHL-compliance. Many current armed conflicts involve faith-based armed groups, especially jihadist groups. Therefore, it is important to understand the principles of various religions, particularly of Islam, in order to engage in a dialogue with NSAGs. Engaging with religious leaders who promote violence is even more essential (see here, p. 1754) than with those who advocate for peace and respect for IHL principles. As has been shown, religions contain many IHL principles. An adapted and religion-inclusive approach, together with the involvement of religious leaders, may enhance IHL-compliance by faith-based and other groups. 

All that bearing in mind, the involvement of religious leaders and religion in matters concerning IHL might produce some conflicting sentiments. While international lawyers try to limit the influence of religion on legal matters, religious leaders may place religion above the law.

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