How can international humanitarian actors help to restrain the conduct of armed groups when they violate moral, legal and humanitarian norms? Using qualitative and ethnographic research in South Sudan, this article explores patterns of restraint among the gojam and titweng cattle-guarding defense forces from 2014 to 2017. Rather than acting under an absence of authority, certain public authorities, including those external to the armed groups, gained sufficient legitimacy within these groups to intervene in debates about restraint during conflict.

Armed groups and their members could still reinterprete norms to allow restraint, as acts of ‘creative refusal’ against their militarised leaders. This implies that while there is an opportunity for the international community to participate in debates about restraint during conflict, they will only be taken seriously if they invest in understanding the underlying logics which govern such restraint.