The President's Take

How Crisis Group Chooses its Ten Conflicts to Watch

In his introduction to this month’s edition of CrisisWatch, Crisis Group's President Robert Malley reflects on the once-unimaginable scenes that unfolded in the U.S. Capitol last night, as a mob violently stormed the building. He also explains how we choose our ten conflicts to watch each year.

For Crisis Group, along with best wishes, the ringing in of the new year brings our Ten Conflicts to Watch. Our most widely read output, it is, as its title suggests, a list of ten conflicts my colleagues and I believe warrant special attention over the coming twelve months. It does not come without debate.

The first question is why it is so popular – indeed why, even well into 2020, readers still turned in large numbers to the 2019 version. Humans apparently like lists: as a means of ordering our thoughts, providing us clarity and a sense of ranking, and ten is a memorable number.   

The more difficult question is what the list actually means. Each year, we receive complaints about why we include one country (officials from its government perceive it as an indictment) but not another (victims of that conflict view it as undervaluing their suffering). There is no scientific nor objective standard, of course. Instead, our choice reflects a balancing of factors. Some we include for their humanitarian toll, as in Yemen or Venezuela. In others, we see the risk of escalation, as in Ethiopia or the Sahel. Some have potentially grave geopolitical consequences, as in the struggle between the U.S. and Iran or the odd couple frenmity between Russia and Turkey. Some we feel receive insufficient notice, as in Somalia. In others we might see an opportunity for resolution that we want warring parties or peacemakers to grasp. Afghanistan fits several of those criteria: the world’s deadliest conflict, geopolitically important, given the array of outside actors involved, and one where recent peace talks present at least some chance – even if huge challenges remain– of ending the war. The impact of climate change on war and peace arguably fits all of them.

Do we get it right? That too is a challenging question. Last year we made the correct call on Ethiopia, but failed to mention Nagorno-Karabakh; Ukraine and North Korea were part of the list, both debatable inclusions in hindsight. This year, we struggled with China and its tense relations with India, Taiwan and the United States and may come to be sorry about leaving it out. We left off many wars with high death tolls, particularly in Africa. We regularly wonder about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before just as regularly concluding that an entrenched status quo, however appalling and unjust, does not justify an entry. That decision is likely to be right until the explosion to which despair inevitably gives rise proves us wrong.

Then, there are those whose absence we regret almost as soon as our list comes out. As I write these lines on 6 January, scenes once thought unimaginable are unfolding in Washington, in the U.S. Capitol.  As members of the House and Senate were meeting to confirm Joe Biden’s victory in last November’s presidential election, a mob violently stormed the building. When he finally spoke, President Trump – whose every utterance since his defeat baselessly denouncing that election as fraudulent seemed designed to egg his followers on – feebly called for calm even as he once again validated the lie that incited the insurrection in the first place. Later, on social media, he appeared to revel in the violence, which saw one person shot and killed and left three others dead in unclear circumstances. A few months ago, Crisis Group issued a report warning of the toxic brew born of a heightened polarisation, the fomenting of distrust in the electoral process, and most of all the dangerous antics of President Trump, who had shown himself willing to court violence in order to advance his political agenda. Biden’s victory and the resilience of democratic institutions that resisted Trump’s efforts to overturn it may have created the sense that the worst of the crisis had been avoided. It had not. The new president will inherit a fractured country, angry Trump supporters and a Republican Party that for the most part has enabled Trump’s worst instincts. The U.S. has spent decades telling other countries that they need to face up to their problems. It is past time to turn its gaze inward. The stakes could hardly be higher.

A list of ten is, by definition, restrictive. Which is why, every month, Crisis Group offers a far broader look at the state of conflict worldwide in our other flagship output – CrisisWatch.

Of all the developments my colleagues and I will track in 2021, we will be watching most closely what happens to our friend Michael Kovrig. He has just spent his third New Year’s Day in a Chinese prison cell, marking 760 days of unjust and arbitrary detention. His grace, courage, and resilience inspire us every day. China should release him at once, and allow him to be reunited with his loved ones.

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