The hidden good news of the last two decades since the end of the Cold War is that, despite throwing up horrors to rank alongside history’s worst, this has been an era of growing peace. This progress is now threatened with reversal but it did not happen by chance and it is possible to prevent the worst from happening.
Overviewing the period, most attention is probably caught by the human capacity to inflict misery and destruction. This is an era that includes the Rwanda genocide of 1994, ten years of mayhem in Democratic Republic of Congo, especially in the east, that is still not over, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia in 1992-95 , slaughter and flight in Darfur, war and terror in Iraq Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, among a total of over 120 armed conflicts. Against that background, perhaps it seems paradoxical or unfeeling to talk of growing peace. But it is true.
The good news
The Human Security Report Project in Vancouver caused considerable controversy when it brought the improvement to international attention in 2005. Data from peace researchers in Oslo and Uppsala backed the finding.
The pattern is as follows: in the immediate wake of the end of the Cold War (early 1990s), there was an outburst of violent conflict and the numbers of wars each year increased sharply; from about 1994 the number started to fall. Before the war spike, there were 56 wars in 1990; there were 34 in 2007. And on average, so far as very imperfect data can tell us, wars in this decade are less lethal than in the past.
How has this happened? It is, of course, still a grisly record and one way of understanding the “good news” is not that it is better than during the Cold War era, but simply that it is less bad. The recent era has not included the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Biafra, the partition of India and Pakistan, or the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. But there is more to it than that.
The Human Security Report’s argument was that more effort was put into ending internal armed conflicts after the end of the Cold War than before. This is partly because the end of the US-USSR confrontation gave the United Nations a new freedom to try to bring wars in developing countries to an end. And increasing effort has also been put into seeing it through – into benefiting from the respite gained through a peace agreement by getting stuck into the slow and unspectacular work that is required for societies to build a sustainable peace.
Frozen, simmering or under wraps
There are several reasons for caution so as to balance the optimism that this might engender. The first is that the general upswing of peacefulness has passed by too many areas, not least Darfur, Iraq and Afghanistan, but also others – Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Colombia and Somalia among them. The second is that the decline in numbers of wars each year has plateaued out. In 2006 there were 33 armed conflicts, in 2007 34, and when the data-seekers have got the numbers for 2008, they will probably be at about the same level.
The third reason for caution is that many conflicts have had their violence suppressed without there being any transformation of the situation so that sustainable peace can develop. A stark illustration of that came in the South Caucasus with the Georgia-Russia war in August 2008. The conflict over South Ossetia’s bid for independence had long gone past its most violent phase, but had never been settled. It was one of what many commentators referred to as the “frozen conflicts” of the region – Abkhazia and Nagorny-Karabakh being the notable other cases. We can now see that the metaphor of “frozen” was the wrong one – the expression, “simmering conflicts”, just below boiling point, catches the dangers much better.
Around the world there are plenty of other situations where the conflict issues remain live, but circumstances and, very often, the active engagement of international forces and money keep things under wraps.
Sadly, “under wraps”, while better than open war, is not peace.
Economic crisis and conflict risk
The fourth note of caution builds on the third. The economic crunch that began in the finance sector has long since hit the real economy. Business are closing, unemployment is rising, investment is drying up, demand is depressed – and nobody really knows how long this is going to last. Ordinary people will suffer everywhere and the most serious effects of the global economic downturn are likely to be found not in the rich countries but the poor ones.
As markets for the raw materials and food exported, for example, from African countries to Europe begin to shrink, people and communities in the exporting countries will lose their jobs, their incomes, their livelihoods. As employment in rich countries falls, their need for migrant labour will fall too, and the remittances that migrant workers send home will dry up. And as investment capital dries up, there will be precious little for Africa and other poor regions. This combined loss of markets, remittances and investment will hit a lot of poor countries very hard for they have no margin of safety and no state funded welfare system
As economic resources and possibilities shrink, the risk of resentment and conflict grows. Social unrest and upheaval have already been seen as food prices rose catastrophically in 2008. Where there have been recent armed conflicts, the evidence of experience shows that is where there is greater risk of future conflict – and the economic crisis can set this rolling.
Following almost two good decades, we are entering a period of enormous risk for violent conflict worldwide.
Knowing what to do
This is the risk. It is terrible but there is no call for despair – and, indeed, no room for it.
To manage the risk of increased violent conflict, we can start by affirming that there is more knowledge and experience available now in the world about how to make, build and sustain peace than there was even a decade ago. It is to be found among the major inter-governmental organisations, in non-governmental peacebuilding organisations, in some development agencies, in governments and communities that have staved off violent conflict or, having gone through it, have created the opportunity to build peace.
In the midst of global economic crisis, we have to keep mobilising, resourcing and growing that knowledge and capacity. If we can do that, we can prevent some of the potential horrors from being unleashed, we can protect the progress that has already been made, and slowly expand the domain of peace.
This builds on a post on 22 October 2008 on my previous blog-site.