Two Kinds Of Violent Conflicts? Two Kinds Of Peacebuilding?

Peace is one of the big, under-reported good news stories of the two decades since the Cold War ended. After an upsurge in the number of armed conflicts in the early-to-mid 1990s, there was a marked decline that continued to about 2008 when it bottomed out. For purposes of simple comparison, using consistent definitions, there were 50 open armed conflicts in 1990 and 30 in 2010. For most concerned citizens, this is the opposite of what they believe to be the case. Opinion surveys tend to find gloomy views about armed conflict and about the prospects for the future. But for close observers, this ought to be no surprise. Far more effort has been put into peace in the two decades following 1990 than at almost any other time. There have been more peace agreements than at any time in history – one authoritative study found 646 from 1990 until the end of 2007. There have been more peacekeeping operations – on the part of the UN, there were six in 1980, ten in 1990 and 18 active in 2000, falling to 15 in 2010. And there has been insignificant and sometimes huge international spending on trying to build firm foundations for peace in war-torn countries. That’s the good news (or part of it – because another feature of wars during the past two decades is that they have become on average less lethal) but of course there is a cloud to the silver lining. One is that the fall in frequency of armed conflicts has stopped. Compared to 30 in 2010, the Uppsala Peace and Conflict Research Department identified 36 in 2011. Whether that is the start of a new rising trend it is too soon to say but the previous trend of fewer wars appears to have stopped. The Uppsala team has also noted that from 2008 to 2011 the number of peace agreements being arrived at has fallen. This may in part be a trick of the data, for there were fewer wars to make peace about, but in part it likely also reflects something more substantial – that the wars that persist are much harder to bring to a negotiated conclusion. There are also grounds for concern that many of those governments that have provided most of the money for both peacekeeping and peacebuilding over the recent past have been hard hit by the economic downturn of the last five years. It may be increasingly difficult to justify this spending when taxpayers see their own public services declining and need at home growing. This is particularly worrying because in many countries recovering from armed conflict, the situation remains far from safe: violence has been suppressed but peace may not have really been built. All of this suggests that the gains made during two decades of growing peace, while real, are not stable or fully consolidated. Those gains reflect real effort but it is not a case of job done – and nor was it before the figures for armed conflict took a turn for the worse in 2011. But there is also another reason why, with or without the increase in armed conflicts in 2011, the good news of peace should be regarded with caution. That is because the data used so far in this article is all about armed conflict defined as an open clash between two or more parties, at least one of which is a government, with conflicting aims for control of government or territory, with continuity between clashes. And that definition means that while inter-state and civil wars are counted, other kinds of armed violence are not. A whole category of the problem of violent conflict has been left to one side in discussing the issue of armed conflict. It has only recently come into view. The conflict counters at Uppsala do now count non-state armed conflicts – take the definition two paragraphs above and remove the words “at least one of which is a government.” And like other observers of security and insecurity today, they try to record the numbers in non-state armed forces and how many people are killed. These armed conflicts that look just like the conventional armed conflicts except for the fact that the government isn’t a combatant shade into other categories of violent conflict that the Uppsala team does not count, especially the large-scale criminality whether of the sort that dominates deprived urban areas or the heavily profitable trafficking in illegal narcotics, other contraband and people, especially for the sex trade. It is this kind of violent conflict as much as non-state conflicts with explicit political orientation as much as simply violent politics that the authors of the World Bank’s World Development Report 2011 had in mind when they did a lot to surface the problem with their estimate of 1.5 billion people living under the threat of large-scale violence and instability. The point that the World Development Report authors especially wanted to ram home is that our international institutions for making, keeping and building peace have got quite good at dealing with inter-state and civil wars. But we do not have institutions that were designed for the full spectrum of violent conflict including criminality, criminal politics and the like. The UN can mediate between parties involved in armed conflict and the Red Cross/Red Crescent can find humanitarian space between them. But the UN has no role mediating between governments and criminals, let alone between two criminal gangs, nor can the Red Cross/Red Crescent find that humanitarian space. It may well be that mediation of some kind between criminal groups and between them and government is possible – indeed, I would regard it as a priori likely and one example that has been described to me happened quite recently in El Salvador. The possibility is there – but the international institutions are not. As we start thinking about how the net of peacebuilding might be spread to cover these other kinds of conflicts, one of the problems we have is definitional. Without being rude or self-punishingly confessional about this, the fact is that we don’t know what we are talking about. All these different kinds of violent conflict shade into each other and we do not know whether and how to define them distinctly from each other (neither the “we” of International Alert, nor the “we” of the international research community, nor the “we” of broadly speaking people concerned about this sort of thing). Finding out what we are talking about, seeing if there is common ground and establishing a vocabulary as a preparatory step for figuring out practice and policy – this is what International Alert’s work on these issues is about, as is the Conflict Ideas Forum on 28 January. Click on the attachment below to see a look at a map estimating non-state armed forces strength 2010-12.