Katherine Sawyer (Stony Brook University)
Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham (University of Maryland)
Kanisha D. Bond (University of Maryland)
Rebel organizations vary dramatically in how they and their conflict behaviors are perceived in the international community. These perceptions are often deeply rooted in questions about group legitimacy. In this paper, we connect rebel group legitimacy to internal political processes and resource mobilization strategies. We contend that leader selection mechanisms are an important vector of internal group legitimacy: they reflect an organizational structure that minimizes principal-agent problems and promote an organization culture that encourages normative constraints against civilian abuse for both leaders and the rank-and-file. We argue further that both conditions should also correlate with positive external perceptions of legitimacy from states and potential grassroots supporters. Using original data on rebel leadership selection practices in conjunction with data on civilian victimization from the Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict (SVAC) project, we test the implication that perceived legitimacy should reduce the risk of sexual abuse as a form of civilian victimization during irregular war. Our results show that rebel groups who choose leaders by election are indeed less likely to engage in systematic acts of sexual violence during civil war.