University of Aberdeen Takes you to the main page for this section

latest releases | archive

Pro-government militias unmasked by new research

Steven Spielberg recently drew the world’s attention to the atrocities committed by militias in Darfur by pulling out of his Beijing Olympics’ role.

Sudan's Islamic government and pro-government Arab militias, the Janjaweed, are accused of war crimes against the region's black African population.

Spielberg claims that China – a strong economic and military ally of Sudan – has not done enough to end the humanitarian crisis in the region.

Now a new project is set to show how such pro-government militias have become a world-wide phenomenon, with any state – including the US – prepared to engage them for their own ends.   

Researchers at the Universities of Aberdeen and Nottingham have received an £180,000 ESRC grant to create the world's first database on informal armed groups and militias.

The aim of the project is to identify these groups around the world in order to:

Professor Neil Mitchell, a Chair in Politics at the University of Aberdeen, said: "Steven Spielberg's actions drew our attention to the operation of the Janjaweed in the Darfur region of Sudan, the sort of group we also associate with Colombia, the former Yugoslavia, or the Russian Federation and Chechnya. 

"But, as the project will help show, it is not just poor, weak or illiberal states that make use of these non-state actors.  Pro-government militias are a world-wide phenomenon and almost any type of state seems capable of resorting to these groups. 

"The United States, for instance, now arms and employs Sunni 'Awakening' militias to fight insurgent forces in Iraq, without seeming to worry about a morning after.  In the 1920s, Britain arrived at a similar fix during the Iraqi rebellion against British rule, with Secretary of War Winston Churchill recruited militias or 'levies,' notably including Assyrian Christians, as a way to avoid the more costly deployment of British troops to the Gulf." 

Professor Mitchell said that militia forces offer governments a way to quickly increase force strength and buy off enemies, while addressing the information problems states face in suppressing insurgencies in unfamiliar geographical and cultural terrain.

"Under some circumstances these organisations even may offer governments an opportunity to avoid direct accountability for violence," he added.  "However, while Lawrence of Arabia adds romance to the use of irregular forces, choosing to use them has risks. These militias are likely to be less easy to control than regular forces, with a variously motivated membership, disposed to violence and lacking training in 'combat morality'."

Major databases on conflict and human rights violations already exist in the United States and Scandinavia – but none contain detailed information on the militia groups now dotted across the world. 

This new project, a collaboration with Dr. Sabine Carey at Nottingham University and which has now been launched online, will give the UK more of a presence in this research area.

It builds on the existing research and teaching infrastructure in human rights at the University of Aberdeen, including the School of Social Science with its new 1-year taught MSc in Democracy and Human Rights and the School of Law with its International Human Rights Law programme.

Within the University of Nottingham, it further enhances the work of the Centre for International Crisis Management and Conflict Resolution and the Human Rights Law Centre and various degree programmes, such as the MA in International Security and Terrorism.

More information on the project can be found at



Notes to Editors

Issued by the Communications Team, Office of External Affairs, University of Aberdeen, King's College, Aberdeen. Tel: (01224) 272014.

Issued on: Thursday 21st of February 2008


<< back

University Switchboard: +44 (0)1224 272000
Enquiries about studying at The University of Aberdeen should be directed to