Crisis and Conflict: Global Challenges in 2012
Crisis and Conflict: Global Challenges in 2012
How the UN Can Make the Most of the New Agenda for Peace
How the UN Can Make the Most of the New Agenda for Peace
Speech / Global 12 minutes

Crisis and Conflict: Global Challenges in 2012

Speech by Louise Arbour, President & CEO of the International Crisis Group at the Vancouver Board of Trade, Monday 23 April – Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Thank you very much for being here. I’m hugely impressed by your willingness to engage in the cheerful subject of war at lunchtime, or at any other time for that matter. Nowhere more than here, in this amazingly beautiful city, would it be tempting to disengage from issues that are easily dismissed as remote if not irrelevant to our daily preoccupations.

Yet it is our collective engagement, more than anything else, that can continue to set us on the path towards a more secure and more prosperous world … But first let me introduce the perspective from which I speak. The International Crisis Group, of which I’m president, is a non-governmental organisation set up about a decade and a half ago to prevent deadly conflict. We work in about 60 of the world’s trouble spots – from Afghanistan to Libya, Guinea to Guatemala. Our fundamental approach is that you need to understand a conflict to resolve it.

We base our work on field-based research. Our analysts, usually based in – and often from – the countries they cover, identify the root causes and immediate triggers of each conflict, the main actors involved, and what or who influences them. Based on their analysis, we develop targeted prescriptions aimed at addressing legitimate grievances while reducing violence, which we then press senior national and international policymakers to adopt. We aim to set forth what needs to happen, how and by whom, and even how the relevant actors can be persuaded to do the right thing.

We tend, therefore, to view each conflict as unique and to avoid drawing overarching theories. Indeed, trying to apply broad theories to specific conflicts is usually futile – each has its own dynamics, its own cast of actors. Inevitably, though, our collective work reveals global patterns, and today I would like to explore some of these with you, looking especially at: (1) trends in conflict worldwide; (2) changes in the nature of warfare; (3) and shifts in global power.

Conflict Trends

It may surprise some of you that there is actually some good news – namely that war may be on the retreat. While modern communications bring instant images of bloodshed in Somalia or in Afghanistan, thereby creating an impression of unrelenting warfare, in fact over the past two decades the number of conflicts across the world has decreased.

Most wars now are fought within states than between them, of course – but even the number of civil wars has declined since twenty years ago. Conflicts are down, and so are battle-related deaths.

What explains this decline? The end of the Cold War, with many of its proxy wars, and the end of the post-colonial liberation conflicts account in part for the reduction. But an additional explanation – that proffered by the Human Security Project, based here in Vancouver – identifies as the major contributor the huge expansion in international peace activities. The UN, with the Security Council freed up from superpower rivalries of the Cold War era, is responsible for many. But other inter-governmental organisations, regional ones like the African Union, or specialised agencies active on the ground, like UNHRC, have contributed; donors and civil society groups, humanitarians like Oxfam or MSF and conflict prevention organisations, particularly those operating on the ground like Crisis Group, have also played an important part.

Behind the statistics, however, lie less positive stories. First, the overall decline in war is due not to fewer conflicts starting, but to more ending. Just as many wars are breaking out as did twenty years ago. So while the world’s collective ability to resolve conflicts once they start – or at least freeze them, which is more often the case – may be improving, we’re still struggling to prevent them erupting in the first place.

Second many countries in the global south face repeated cycles of widespread, high-intensity violence; violence which can be either political or criminal – indeed, it is often difficult to distinguish between the two.

Thousands have died, for example, in Mexico and Central America over the past five years in violence related to organised crime and battles for control of transit routes for Andean cocaine to the U.S. Preventing criminal gangs and violence permeating politics is proving an uphill struggle, especially for countries like Guatemala with frail institutions. The harm inflicted on poor countries by the illegal narcotics trade has led to initiatives, first by Latin American leaders and now more broadly, to question the wisdom and effectiveness of the 40-year-old War on Drugs. As a member of the Global Commission of Drug Policies, I am delighted to see this important debate taking place and even happier to signal that much of the progressive work in this field is taking place here in Vancouver.

Changing Nature of Warfare

The nature of warfare is changing too. Fifty – even twenty – years ago, soldiers died in wars. Most casualties were army casualties. You’ll recall one of General George Patton’s famous quips: “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his”. War was a soldier to soldier affair. While it’s fair to say that protection of civilians was not an overriding concern in WWII, and despite the enactment after the war of the Fourth Geneva Convention dealing with Protection of Civilians, paradoxically, in today’s wars, civilians pay a higher price than combatants.

Think of the Syrian government’s brutal, and ongoing, repression of protesters, first unarmed, and now unmatched to the state security forces, including the murder of entire families. Think of indiscriminate attacks against civilians by the Taliban, or of the estimated forty thousand Sri Lankan Tamil civilians slaughtered on the beaches of Sri Lanka in 2009. Think of the number of Iraqi civilians killed over the past nine years, which dwarfs the number of American or Iraqi fighters, or think of the fact that the primary victims of violence in the lawless border areas around eastern Congo, the Central African Republic, Chad, Somalia, Darfur and Jonglei are villagers – actually mostly women and children.

Death and suffering – disease, malnutrition, profound deprivation – in all places tend to be inflicted disproportionately on civilians. So that’s the first change – civilians rather than the military bear the brunt of much of today’s political and criminal violence.

The second shift, which is related to the first, is the increased use of technology. Technology permeates, of course, almost all walks of life, so its impact on war is hardly surprising.

Its increased use is partly driven by the hope of reducing casualties – the use of so-called “smart” bombs, for example. But it is also driven by politicians’ desire to avoid combat deaths. And in doing so – usually by keeping soldiers as far as possible from the battlefield – it tends to transfer the costs of warfare onto civilians.

Perhaps the most extreme example is the use of “unmanned combat aircraft systems”, or drones. Traditionally used for intelligence gathering, over recent years their use for airstrikes has become ever more prevalent, in what is, in effect, an extensive program of targeted assassinations.

This program is most renowned in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the CIA uses drones to target militants in the tribal areas on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border. Beyond there, however, drones are used in Yemen to assassinate suspected members of al-Qaeda and, in Somalia, to kill Islamist militants linked to Al-Shabaab. In both places the programs operate with the support of the host governments, but provoke deep popular hostility.

The ability to target one’s enemies without risking the lives of one’s own soldiers obviously holds enormous attraction. But the use of drones for targeted assassinations poses major political, strategic and – most important – legal challenges. The most serious concern is the secrecy which surrounds these operations, added to the fact that they are mostly deployed in isolated, inaccessible areas, which makes it virtually impossible to determine whether they are used in compliance with the laws of war.

Already under the cover of the War on Terror some states have challenged the fundamental premises of the protection of civilians requirements in the Geneva Conventions, by including more and more civilians in their definition of combatants, and pushing the boundaries of acceptable collateral damage in the face of mounting civilian casualties. While many modern armies claim to be increasingly attentive to their legal obligations, they also are increasingly resistant to accountability. There has been, for instance, no transparent assessment of the civilian casualties suffered in Libya as a result of the UN-authorised NATO airstrikes, which are perceived in many of the contributing countries, as clinical, perfectly executed targeted operations which cost no innocent civilian lives. There is, of course, no way to determine whether this is or not the case.

The third shift in the nature of warfare has only recently emerged and is paradoxical, in light of the increased shift in the burden of warfare from combatants to civilians. Protection of civilians is still a major legal constraint in the conduct of war yet it is becoming increasingly an acceptable cause for war. From President Calderón of Mexico deploying the army to combat narco-traffickers, thereby making the War on Drugs a reality, not a euphemism; to teenagers rallying in the millions to call on the Ugandan army to chase Joseph Kony into the jungles of neighbouring countries; to the rush to Western military action allegedly to protect the civilians of Benghazi in Libya, but soon to reveal a more controversial agenda of regime change; and now to calls, in some quarters, for military intervention in Syria: we seem to be ever more prepared to go to war to protect civilians, while civilians – not soldiers – are increasingly the largest victims in combat.

And the military are not always, not even often, the chief proponents of resorting to war, as the expression of concerns of Pentagon officials over military operations in Syria or Iran have illustrated.

Shift in Global Power

There are, of course, many other global trends with implications for international peace and security – climate change, nuclear proliferation, organised crime, demographic challenges, resource competition, and the perennial minority grievances and secession claims. All those inevitably generate conflict. The question is whether and how the conflicts can be managed to prevent degeneration into armed conflict.

One of the most significant developments in that respect is the recent shift in global power and its implications for the stability of an increasingly multipolar and interdependent world.

The past decade has seen power shift dramatically east and south.

This year marks a decade since the term BRICs was first coined. China, Russia, Brazil, India and now South Africa, which together account for about 45 per cent of the world’s population, met late last month for their fourth summit in New Delhi. The countries have very different sets of values and interests and their alliance appears united mostly by a desire to balance North American and European power. But their increased importance to world affairs is undeniable.

In 2030, China, India and Brazil will, according to some estimates, represent three of the five biggest global economies. China and Brazil in particular are investing heavily in Africa, and their leverage over leaders on the continent increases with their spending. They, and other emerging powers with fast growing economies and even faster growing populations – Turkey, Indonesia, Mexico prominent among them – project power and influence within their regions and beyond.

They will be ever more central to conflict resolution. Existing institutions – a UN Security Council whose permanent membership looks ever more anachronistic and international financial institutions whose leadership transition is increasingly challenged – will have to reflect the new balance of power if they are to retain sufficient legitimacy for global governance.

Regional groups have also become more important, though their centrality to peace making varies markedly between conflicts. The OAS has long played a crucial role in conflict prevention in Latin America. The AU is vital in Sudan but was sidelined in Libya, and, to an extent, in Côte d’Ivoire, where a more activist sub-regional organisation ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) took the lead. ECOWAS has also appeared to have played a key role in persuading the coup leaders in Mali to stand down and restore constitutional order. Arab League support was critical in Libya and still central in Syria. Whether its fragile unity would remain in the face of a serious challenge to the Gulf monarchies, for instance, is less certain.

A multi-power system does not, however, necessarily equate to a decline of the U.S. It would be premature to declare the U.S. role anything but pivotal, at least in major conflicts. But there is little the U.S. can do alone. It cannot bring peace to Israel/Palestine alone; nor to Afghanistan or Sudan. It cannot curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions, or battle drug traffickers alone.

Finally, as new alliances, coalitions of the willing, “Friends of Syria” or quartets develop, not all will be value-based.

Despite the alternative offered by China’s economic success, the rise of democracy seems incontrovertible. The rhetoric of democracy, however, is advancing faster that its practice. While many countries display some of the trappings of democracy – parliaments, civil society groups, and especially elections, they often lack important ingredients such as competent, independent courts and other real functioning institutions and free media. Elections are manipulated, institutions subverted, opposition stifled, citizens’ basic freedoms curtailed even as their leaders pay lip service to democratic values.

While most emerging powers – bar China – are democracies themselves, they have been reluctant to promote, let alone impose, a values system on others. For the moment if they have a guiding value in their foreign policies, it is that of state sovereignty and non-interference rather than human rights or democracy – perhaps a legacy of colonialism and a perception of western double standards.

New Thinking for Conflict Prevention

Having started on a reasonably cheerful note, I don’t want to leave you with a message of doom and gloom. Yet we can do much better, even with the limited tools with have, to divert deadly conflict, or at least mitigate further the scale and scope of war and widespread violence.

So far, our usual response to the emergence of conflict is quite predictable.

First, predominantly Western leaders use highly principled, lofty – and often intransigent – rhetoric. They set benchmarks for the offending regime; benchmarks which are highly unlikely to be met, especially considering they are made publicly, in part to satisfy Western domestic electorates. These benchmarks are often accompanied by threats of prosecutions, some more immediate than others. Meeting them would often involve if not outright political suicide, then at least a tacit admission of guilt with potentially unpleasant consequences.

That was certainly the case for Presidents Bashir of Sudan, Kim Jong-il of North Korea, Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak of Egypt, Qadhafi of Libya, Saleh of Yemen, Gbagbo of Côte d’Ivoire, and now Assad of Syria. Their response obviously varied, and so do the lessons learnt. Faced with similar threats and calls for compliance, President Ahmadinejad of Iran may wonder whether Qadhafi’s decision to abandon his nuclear weapons ambitions served him better that the North Korean leader’s defiance. True they’re now both dead, but one died in somewhat better circumstances than the other.

Next: when – unsurprisingly – the regime does not respond to having been chastised publicly by western leaders, come sanctions, their effectiveness often more presumed than real. Although greater care is now taken to avoid undue hardship on innocent populations, economic sanctions have to hurt to work and often backfire in allowing the regime to blame the sanctions for every ill faced by the country, thereby conveniently obscuring corruption and ineptitude. Zimbabwe is a good case in point.

When sanctions don’t work, the next step is international isolation of varying degrees, accompanied by the threat – more direct in the case of regimes without international allies and strategic significance – of open belligerence including military intervention.

As mentioned before, before we advocate starting to war to stop war, we need to step back and return to the time-tested kind engagement that is more likely to avert it: diplomacy, mediation and international confidence- and consensus-building.


For any of that to work, there is a fundamental precondition. You have to get the story straight. I have spent fifteen years in the Canadian court system. You learn many things in court. One of them is that there is not a case that is just like any other. Understanding all sides, canvassing all points of view, and eliminating superficial ready-made responses go a long way. From legal doctrine to the resolution of a case, from political theory to the prevention of armed conflict, solutions must be grounded in accurate fact-finding and proper reasoning and analysis. It must be contextual, dispassionate, workable and responsive to every complex reality on the ground, including, often, the irrationality of human actors. It can be frustrating, especially when the obvious right solution is not allowed to work.

There are 150 of us at International Crisis Group, and this is what we do. And often it actually does work.

Thank you for your kind attention.

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