Competing authorities and norms of restraint: governing community-embedded armed groups in South Sudan

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International humanitarian actors and academics continue to struggle to understand armed group conduct and how to restrain this conduct when it violates moral, legal and humanitarian norms. Armed groups that lack a visible, explicit formal hierarchical command structure, equivalent to those found in state militaries, have proved a particular puzzle. A growing body of scholarship on the strategic functions of patterns of violence and restraint has usefully moved beyond assumptions that extreme violence is indicative of an absence of authority over armed actors. However, literature has tended to ignore the potential plurality and complexity of authority figures that shape violence and the constraining, conservative nature of certain moral orders. This article makes use of qualitative and ethnographic research in South Sudan to understand patterns of restraint among the gojam and titweng cattle-guarding defense forces from 2014 to 2017. The analysis documents how public authorities gained legitimacy within these groups by renegotiating a group’s social order, moral boundaries, and restraint through their own reinterpretations of meta-ethical ideals and histories. Cultural norms of restraint were manipulated by elites but were also remade into acts of creative refusal against these same elites. The article specifically focuses on how the life-giving work of children, women and old friends was used to protect life as well as incite violence. The article has implications for how international humanitarians can engage with the remaking of custom to enhance armed group restraint and better protect civilians.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Interactions
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 12 May 2021


  • South Sudan
  • ethnography
  • patterns of violence
  • civil war
  • public authority

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