Written evidence from Protection Approaches to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (WGN0024)


This submission reflects the views of the contributor, who is responsible for the accuracy of all claims made in the submission. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Foreign Affairs Committee. As a written submission accepted by a parliamentary committee, it is protected in the usual way by parliamentary privilege. No legal or other action may be taken against any person on any grounds arising from the fact that they have provided such material.




1.1   This submission comes from Protection Approaches. Protection Approaches works to confront and prevent identity-based violence by developing and implementing innovative programmes that address all forms of hate. From Newham in East London to Bangui in the Central African Republic, we work with local communities, civil society organisations, policymakers, governments, academics and multilateral institutions to develop strategies that predict, prevent and protect people from identity-based violence. Protection Approaches convenes the UK Atrocity Prevention Working Group: a group of 20 NGOs based in the UK who collaborate on atrocity prevention policy and advocacy. Protection Approaches works with the UK’s and other governments towards strengthening the UK’s approach to preventing mass atrocity crimes. This involves delivering bespoke trainings, briefings, and capacity building activities.


1.2   This evidence was prepared by Dr Kate Ferguson, Co-Executive Director of Protection Approaches and experienced analyst of modern armed violence, particularly mass atrocity crimes.This evidence submission draws on over ten years of research on paramilitary, non-state, and other irregular armed actors in modern atrocities and conflict. Publications include a recent policy brief for Stimson Center (Washington D.C, Sept 2022) and Architectures of Violence: The command structures of modern mass atrocity (Hurst, UK and Oxford University Press, USA, 2021). [1]


1.3   Contact information: kate.ferguson@protectionapproaches.org


Executive summary


2.1   Most modern architectures of mass atrocity violence[2] are transnational, enabled by global and regional illicit financial flows, underpinned by organised crime and kleptocratic networks, supported by a spectrum of non-state and pseudo-non-state armed actors, and promoted by coordinated disinformation structures. This includes networks of private or proxy military actors, such as the Wagner Group which has have been heavily implicated in committing and otherwise enabling mass atrocity crimes in Syria, Mali, Ukraine and elsewhere.[3] Proper analysis of any of these networks holds considerable opportunity for improved sanction, leverage, and influence.


2.2   However, despite growing interest UK approaches to the prevention of mass atrocities, armed conflict, and violence more broadly does not yet properly integrate the systems, knowledge, or policy capable of mapping, tracking and responding to these networks. As a result, the UK – and others – are not yet properly mapping, tracking, and responding to the threats posed by non-state, pseudo-non-state, state-adjacent and other paramilitary forces. Even with respect to Russian and pro-Russian violence being committed in Ukraine, the networks that underpin President Putin’s strategy – including the Wagner Group – are not yet being systematically targeted for sanction, leverage or influence.


2.3   This submission makes the central recommendation that His Majesty’s Government centre the tools and expertise of network analysis at the heart of its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in meeting the threat of non-state armed groups, and in its approach to mass atrocity crimes.


Understanding the roles of armed irregulars in modern atrocity violence


2.4   Direct responsibility for committing deliberate acts of atrocity is now, and perhaps always has been, frequently devolved, away from the central bodies of the state, to different forms of armed groups not always officially under state command; formations are often intentionality created, funded, trained and directed by state bodies, while others emerge spontaneously. These various nonlinear command structures are commonly replicated on the local level, where local enterprises of violence and corruption are formed between local state elites and paramilitaries. Formal and informal networks connect local bureaucracy with local and more national and international irregular armed groups. Irregular combatants, particularly those that operate on a more local level or close to home, are often supported by familial and community networks that emerge as social norms became increasingly radical and exclusionary, creating distorted societal environments in which marginalisation and violence of identity groups can be tolerated, even celebrated. Private or proxy armed actors that operate in different regions and contexts, with headquarters in different parts of the world are perhaps a newer manifestation of this older trend.


2.5   Non-state, pseudo-non state and state aligned armed actors should therefore not be taken at face value. Governments benefit from using unconventional forces to fulfil violent sociopolitical ambitions. Deniability and devolved responsibility make paramilitary groups the perfect tools with which to carry out atrocity crimes, while the obscurity of military and political commands conceal the intentions behind the participation and actions of those groups.[4] This clouds responsibility, which in a rules-based system hinders external response and can prevent those who are most accountable for the crimes from facing justice. Furthermore, irregular structures of violence or war-making are more difficult to combat on the international stage, when applying political pressure, economic sanctions, or military action.[5] In the west, irregular military structures operating abroad are simultaneously seen as increasing threats to global security[6] and, often, as being an inhibitor to international action to prevent mass violence and atrocity crimes. In other words, armed actors that can be distanced from the political architects of the violence are effective because international policy makers have not yet found a way of responding.


2.6   Unclear chains of military command or what were claimed to be non-state armed groups were cited by policy makers and member states at the UN as reasons not to pursue protective armed action in Bosnia, Rwanda, initially in Darfur, Sri Lanka, and more recently in Syria, Myanmar, and Burundi. The presence of irregular actors in identity-based mass violence is not a modern phenomenon; paramilitary groups have, in various forms, been involved in ‘virtually every case of genocide in the twentieth century.’[7] Irregular combatants are more likely to present in atrocity situations than not; perpetrating elites rely upon extraordinary forces to carry out intentional violence against groups and victim groups will sometimes (although far less consistently) establish defence formations, or already be engaged in armed conflict. Violence prevention strategies need to take account for these dynamics, including the presence and implications of non-state and mercenary actors.


2.7   Since the end of the Cold War, it has been suggested that irregular military combatants have increased in both number and significance in many conflicts around the world.[8] However, reluctance to desegregate different forms of conflict means that the consistent presence of such actors during the preparation of mass atrocities has not attracted much attention and instead been obscured by a more general assumption. The perceived rise of non-state combatants and military formations, including private and proxy armed groups, has too commonly been interpreted as being demonstrative of declining state strength and a pluralisation of violence.[9]  States or regions where non-state armed groups are present are therefore considered to be weak or failing.[10] These violent actors are frequently assumed to operate independently of state auspices.[11] Observations that non-state armed groups have become a significant feature in post-Cold War conflicts have led to simplistic divisions being drawn between violent situations where non-state forces are present and where they are not, irrespective of the nature of the violence being perpetrated.[12] The effect has been to similarly diminish the role of the state in the analysis of non-state, or irregular, armed groups and modern atrocity crimes.[13] Concurrently, efforts towards a rules-based international order have, since the end of the Second World War, constructed a state-focused approach to peacekeeping, conflict prevention, and more recently atrocity prevention. This has, particularly in efforts to find effective responses to atrocity crimes, accelerated since the late 1990s.


2.8   Thus, while the roles played by the paramilitary in atrocities may not be new, in a globalised and rules-based international system, combative or chauvinist states have increasingly more to gain by devolving direct responsibility for violence. Efforts to conceal state responsibility for atrocity crimes or identity-based mass violence committed by irregular forces can be clearly seen most blatantly today in Syria, Burundi, and Myanmar –but similar processes are employed by President Duterte against drug dealers in the Philippines, and by President Putin’s security services inside and outside of Russia.[14] The case of Darfur and atrocities committed elsewhere in Sudan under President Bashir, which will be discussed below, is perhaps one of the most explicit examples.[15] Paid mercenary or non-state actors have been identified in nearly all of these cases.


2.9   Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the atrocity violence being committed there by Russian and pro-Russian forces, including by the Wagner Group, have forced greater attention on these actors – and the relationship such armed groups can enjoy from States. That the Wagner Group have a proven track record of aiding, abetting, and committing atrocity crimes in Syria, Mali and elsewhere underscores the urgency of a challenge that is not new but perhaps now has the political attention to deliver changes in analysis, understanding and policy.


Analysing networks


2.10           Determining what groups are legitimately non-state and which are state-sponsored or operating covertly as part of state structures of command is key to comprehending the whole ‘violent architecture’ involved in enabling, aiding, commissioning and perpetrating atrocity crimes, driving armed conflict, or committing any kind of organised violence. If the objective is prevention, or civilian protection, uncovering these relationships is surely crucial.  We know that NSAGs encompass a wide spectrum of characters, from local volunteers who may be untrained and politically uneducated or uninterested, to private security firms, mercenaries, professional militia, or rebel armies.


2.11           I argue that ‘mapping and tracking networks help analysts to identify behavioural, cultural, and transactional relationships and would be beneficial to policymakers who cannot afford to misread perpetrating command structures when deploying international policy response.’[16] Even though open-source analysis it is possible to identify and track these relationships of individuals and groups – this, however, is not being done. As Alicia Kearns asked during an evidence session for this enquiry: ‘My instinct is that Governments are particularly bad at mapping the architecture of these sorts of organizations, and I would not be easily convinced that Governments would have specific strategies for dealing with such paramilitary groups and the work they do.’ My own research and the ongoing work of Protection Approaches finds it difficult to disagree with Ms Kearns’ instinct.


2.12           Network analysis should also contribute to advancing non-violent prevention policy as it identifies opportunities for intervention outside of the battlefield. This offers new opportunities for the UK and its allies to work with others who may well condemn the actions of the Wagner Group and Russia, for example, but be hesitant to support or adopt themselves military policy options.




4.1   HMG must urgently invest in network analysis tools and systems. Network mapping is an analytical tool that continues to be undervalued in the field of atrocity prevention. Disrupting and dismantling the architecture of atrocities as a means of prevention or mitigation remains more a tool likely to be employed by military actors engaged in armed conflict, security actors in response to violent extremism and terrorism, and in the increasingly sophisticated strategies against organised crime. Such analysis should be informing all UK policy towards Russia and Ukraine – and any response to atrocity risks. Network analysis brings to light the full spectrum of actors that enable the perpetration of violence, including supply chains, human trafficking networks, the arms trade, media outlets, armed groups, and communities themselves. Network analysis allows actors to target those weak spots – be they the financial flows of private companies such as the Wagner group, their communication systems, or other forms of enablement. Such analysis of private and proxy armed actors should inform the application of travel bans; sanctions; accountability the design of programming; and wider strategy.


4.2   The Government should immediately undertake comprehensive analysis of the Russian architecture of violence to properly identify the complex networks that perpetuate, fund, enable, and legitimise violence. Such an analysis should include a focus on private and proxy actors including but not limited to the Wagner Group.


4.3   The Government should target the infrastructure and members of the Wagner Group and other private and proxy actors enabling atrocities in Ukraine and elsewhere. The goal should not be to punish but to change the behaviour or transactions of the targets, to inhibit the enablement of violence.












October 2022





[1] https://www.stimson.org/2022/from-network-analysis-to-creative-leverage-mapping-new-horizons-of-modern-atrocity-prevention/; https://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/architectures-of-violence/

[2] Mass atrocity crimes is a non-legal umbrella term for the specific categories of extreme human rights violations of ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes. Crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes are legally defined international crimes.

[3] In Mali, https://www.csis.org/analysis/massacres-executions-and-falsified-graves-wagner-groups-mounting-humanitarian-cost-mali; in Central African Republic, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/27/world/asia/russia-mercenaries-central-african-republic.html; in Syria, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/06/11/russia-wagner-group-methods-bouta-killing-report/  in Ukraine, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/25/wagner-group-fighters-accused-murdering-civilians-ukraine-war-crimes-belarus

[4] Alvarez ‘Militias and Genocide,’ War Crimes, Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, 2 (2006), pp1-33; and Ahram, ‘State-Sponsored Militias’

[5] It is worth noting here that the west is far more likely to succeed in conflicts against similar structures to their own, see Bart Schurman, ‘Clausewitz and the “New Wars” Scholars,’ Parameters, 2010, pp89-100, p89

[6] Armed Non-State Actors: Current Trends & Future Challenges, Horizon Working Paper 2015, DCAF (Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces), p12

[7] Uğur Ümit Üngör, ‘Team America: Genocide Prevention?’ Genocide Studies and Prevention, 6:1, (2011), pp32-38, p33

[8] Among the first to do so was Mary Kaldor in 1999, New Wars, Old Wars, (Second Edition), Stanford University Press, 2007; see also Martin Shaw, War and Genocide; Organised Killing in Modern Society, Polity Press, 2003, p155

[9] James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin. ‘Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War,’ American Political Science Review, 97:1 (2003), pp75-90; Ariel I. Ahram, Proxy Warriors; The Rise and Fall of State-Sponsored Militias, Stanford University Press, 2011

[10] Robert H. Bates, ‘Probing the Sources of Political Order’ in (ed.) S. N. Kalyvas, I. Shapiro, and T. E. Masoud, Order, Conflict, and Violence, Cambridge University Press, 2008; David T. Mason and Dale A. Krane, ‘The Political Economy of Death Squads: Toward a Theory of the Impact of State-Sanctioned Terror,’ International Studies Quarterly, 33:2 (1989) pp175-198; Ariel I. Ahram, ‘The Role of State-Sponsored Militias in Genocide,’ Terrorism and Political Violence, 26:3, (2014) pp488-503; Sabine C. Carey, Neil J. Mitchell, and Will Lowe, ‘States, the Security Sector, and the Monopoly of Violence: A New Database on Pro-Government Militias’, Journal of Peace Research, 50:2, (2013), pp249–24

[11] Kaldor, New Wars, p9-10; for misinterpretation of the militias during the Rwandan genocide see Linda Melvern, ‘Missing the story: The media and the Rwandan genocide,’

Contemporary Security Policy, 22:3, (2001), pp91-106

[12] Kaldor, New Wars; also Fearon and Laitin, ‘Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War’

[13] Ahram, ‘State-Sponsored Militias’; John Mueller, ‘The Banality of Ethnic War,’ International Security, 25:1 (2000) pp42-70, regarding Yugoslavia p47-8

[14] Syria Human Rights Report 2013,’ United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, 2013; “The Government Could Have Stopped This” Sectarian Violence and Ensuing Abuses in Burma’s Arakan State,’ Human Rights Watch, 1 August 2012

[15]  The Prosecutor v. Ahmad Muhammad Harun (“Ahmad Harun”) and Ali Muhammad Ali

Abd-Al-Rahman (“Ali Kushayb”); Philipp Kuntz is currently undertaking research into how the Khartoum government presented paramilitary perpetrators of genocide in Darfur as non-state;

Selling mass atrocities abroad: Analyzing the rhetorical strategies of perpetrator regimes’ (paper presented the International Network of Genocide Scholars Conference 4-7 December 2014, University of Cape Town) ICC-02/05-01/09 The Prosecutor v. Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir; ICC-02/05-01/07

[16] https://www.stimson.org/2022/from-network-analysis-to-creative-leverage-mapping-new-horizons-of-modern-atrocity-prevention/