The Ethics of Arming Rebels

| December 2015
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One of the most notable ways that states attempt to realize their foreign policy goals is the arming of rebels in states where there is severe oppression, low-level conflict, or civil war. This was particularly patent during the Arab Spring. Following the uprising in Libya in 2011, various states provided lethal and nonlethal arms to the forces opposed to Qaddafi’s regime, including material and financial support from the Libya Contact Group as well as arms from France, Qatar, and the United Kingdom. In Syria the arming of the various parties by external actors became one of the key elements of the conflict. It was reported that, on the one hand, Qatar and Saudi Arabia (and others) supplied arms to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the United Kingdom and France provided it with supposed nonlethal support, and the United States and Turkey facilitated and coordinated the supply. On the other hand, Russia and Iran supplied weapons such as missile systems, mortars, and rockets to the Assad regime. In 2012 the United Kingdom even secretly drew up plans to train and equip a 100,000-strong Syrian rebel army abroad, which would then strike at Assad in a manner similar to the “shock and awe” strikes on Iraq in 2003. And in September 2014 the U.S. Congress approved President Obama’s plan to train and equip “moderate” Syrian rebels.

For states, there are two main reasons why arming rebels may be preferable to direct military action. First, it is often far less costly for the sending state, both in terms of the lives of military personnel and financial resources. (This has led some to refer to the arming of rebels as “intervention-lite.”) Second, the arming of rebels can more easily be carried out covertly, that is, out of the public gaze and without the widespread knowledge of the international community. The upshot is that states have often supplied arms to rebels, most infamously under the Reagan Doctrine, which aimed to support anti-Communist insurgencies. Notorious examples include the U.S. arming, training, and financing of the Nicaraguan Contras against the Sandinista government (including the covert funding of the Contras without congressional approval in the Iran-Contra affair); the British arming, in contravention of a UN arms embargo, of Sierra Leone through Sandline, a UK-based private military and security company (the Arms-to-Africa affair); and the Russian supplying of arms to various pro-Russian separatist rebels in former Soviet states (including, at the time of writing, Ukraine). There have also been numerous cases of the arming of rebels in potentially more morally justifiable cases. These include the supply of arms by the United States and some Islamic groups to the Bosnian Muslims during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, and Soviet and Cuban military support for anti-apartheid forces in South Africa. Despite the popularity of arming rebels as a foreign policy option, there is very little, if any, detailed engagement with the ethical issues surrounding the practice.

There is a growing literature on the ethical issues surrounding civil wars and, more specifically, the conditions for engaging in just rebellion; but the focus of this literature is largely on the question of the justifiability of the rebels themselves in engaging in civil war and their conduct when doing so, rather than the permissibility of the arming of rebels by other agents. It is precisely this issue that I want to address here. Overall, I argue that arming rebels should be generally eschewed. More specifically, this article seeks to establish that arming rebels is generally impermissible and only exceptionally morally permissible (even, as I will argue, when rebels are engaged in unjust wars). The former, far more restrictive claim will be established in the first part of the article. The latter, more permissive claim will be established in the second part of the article.

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Category: Article, Issue 29.4, The Ethics of War and Peace

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