Most of the trends that The State of the World Atlas looks at are ones that are visible across the last two decades since the Cold War ended. During that period, peace is one of the big, under-reported (though not unqualified) good news stories.
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. Using consistent definitions, the Uppsala Department of Peace and Conflict Research reports that there were 50 open armed conflicts in 1990 and 30 in 2010.
For most concerned citizens, the opposite feels true. Opinion surveys tend to find gloomy views about armed conflict and about the prospects for the future because what makes the news are the wars and disasters.
The investment in peace
A huge if often quiet effort has been invested in peace. There have been more peace agreements than at any time in history – Christine Bell’s authoritative study On the Law of Peace found 646 from 1990 until the end of 2007. There have been more peacekeeping operations – on the part of the UN, there were 6 active in 1980, 10 in 1990 and 18 in 2000, falling to 15 in 2010 as some no longer needed were wound down in the century’s first decade. There has been significant and sometimes massive international spending on trying to build firm foundations for peace in war-torn countries. And as the Human Security Report has found, wars are on average less lethal today than in the 20th century.
Grounds for concern
That’s the good news but there’s inevitably a cloud to the silver lining.
The fall in frequency of armed conflicts has stopped. Compared to 30 in 2010, the Uppsala team 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.
They also noted that from 2008 to 2011 the number of new peace agreements 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.
And there’s grounds for concern about whether the governments that have funded the making, keeping and building of peace will be able to continue the effort at the same scale, given the economic downturn of the past five years and the next however many. What makes that particularly worrying is that in many countries recovering from armed conflict, violence has been suppressed but peace has not really been built.
All this suggests that the gains made during two decades of growing peace, while real, are not stable or fully consolidated.
Elsewhere on the spectrum of violence
But there is a further reason why, with or without the increase in armed conflicts in 2011, the good news on peace should be regarded with caution. So far this article has discussed armed conflicts in the terms in which it is normal to. The conflicts referred to above consist of open armed conflict between two or more parties, at least one of which is a government, with conflicting aims for control of government or territory, and 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 is left to one side. It has only come into view in the lst ten years or so.
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.
Most of these armed conflicts look just like conventional armed conflicts except that the government isn’t a combatant. But it is not a crisp category. On the spectrum of violent conflict, these conflicts shade into other kinds of violent conflict that the Uppsala team does not count, especially large scale criminality, whether in the form of gangs’ control of deprived urban areas ,or the heavily profitable trafficking in illegal narcotics, other contraband and people, especially for the sex trade.
The World Bank’s World Development Report 2011 did a lot to surface this problem with its estimate of 1.5 billion people living under the threat of large scale violence and instability. What the authors had in mind was not only the non-state conflicts with explicit political orientation, and not only political violence erupting around election time in some countries, but also organised crime.
The institutuional lack
The point that the WDR 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.
Casting the net of peacebuilding wider
It is a priori likely that mediation of some kind among criminal groups and between them and government is possible; one example that has been described to me happened quite recently in El Salvador. The possibility is there – but the international institutions are not.
International Alert is exploring these issues – there’s a roundtable meeting in London on 28 January with a public meeting that evening on the topic. The question for us is whether it could be possible to spread the net of peacebuilding over a wider range of the spectrum of violent conflict than hitherto. And what would be the key vocabulary, underlying concepts and lead policies if it is possible?