What Are Some of the Challenges for Conflict Prevention and Resolution over the Next Two Decades?
What Are Some of the Challenges for Conflict Prevention and Resolution over the Next Two Decades?
The Moscow Attack, Afghanistan’s Islamic State Branch and the Ukraine War
The Moscow Attack, Afghanistan’s Islamic State Branch and the Ukraine War
Speech / Global 12 minutes

What Are Some of the Challenges for Conflict Prevention and Resolution over the Next Two Decades?

By Nick Grono, Deputy President of the International Crisis Group. To Conference on "Global Conflict - Future Trends and Challenges towards 2030", at Wilton Park, UK. Wednesday 2 March 2011.

The first question I’ve been asked to address is whether countries doing conflict prevention, and those affected, have a shared sense of the challenges and opportunities.

The simple answer is “no”.  You don’t need to look beyond the remarkable developments in North Africa and the wider Arab world in recent weeks to reach this conclusion.  For instance,  how would the different actors in that region define and rank the challenges?  Are they political stability, the threat of Islamic extremism, lack of political voice, economic inequality, army rule, relations with Israel, the right of regimes to forcibly suppress challenges to their authority, sovereignty versus humanitarian intervention, or something else? And how different would the answers have been if the same question had been asked just three months ago?

Who is to define the challenges? If a government is not broadly representative of its people – as will be the case in most authoritarian states – then you can’t readily assume that the rulers and the ruled have the same perspective on the challenges. The regime will likely identify stability and threats to it, and many of its people will focus on lack of political voice and economic inequality.

And, momentous though North African developments are, they are just a slice of the conflict spectrum.

Ask the US and Europe what the big conflict and security challenges are, and they would answer: failed and failing states, Islamic extremism, mass casualty terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, transnational organised crime and variations thereof.

Whereas much of the developing world might answer: poverty, infectious diseases, climate change, food security and internal conflict, and perhaps the West’s willingness to override sovereignty in places like Iraq or Afghanistan.

Let me give two examples to better illustrate how the perspectives of the conflict- affected countries can be quite different from those of external actors

The first is Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government of Mahinda Rajapaksa waged a “successful” counterinsurgency campaign against the LTTE, a brutal, violent terrorist group. But was it successful conflict resolution? I suspect you would get different responses on that question from the Sri Lankan government, from the Tamil population and from, say,  the EU or Beijing.

In executing its campaign, the Sri Lankan government waged total war. Perhaps 30,000 civilians were killed in the last few months of that conflict (Jan-May 2009). Crisis Group has documented the deliberate targeting of civilians, hospitals and humanitarian missions by the Sri Lankan military . The LTTE was wiped out. The iron rule of the central government has been restored throughout the country.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, Defence Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa, have trumpeted this as a model of how to deal with terrorist or insurgent groups. The Sri Lankan armed forces are now holding seminars for militaries around the world on how to deal with troublesome insurgencies.

And if the end justified the means, then this campaign was brutally effective. On the other hand, if you believe in universal human rights and a rules-based international order (as opposed to a force-based one), then the means were utterly unacceptable – with the deliberate trashing of the Geneva Conventions being just one of many egregious breaches of international law.

With a smothering peace now in place, the government of Sri Lanka  argues that what is important is reconciliation and economic development, and that reconciliation means forgetting about the past. Others, such as Crisis Group, argue that without accountability for atrocity crimes, there will no sustainable peace over the longer term. And accountability is essential to make clear to other governments contemplating the Sri Lankan option of unrestrained warfare (such as Libya), that it is not an acceptable or viable approach.

Which leads into the second issue I want to discuss briefly - international justice. Is international justice a challenge or an opportunity when it comes to conflict prevention? The role of norm promotion as a check on bad behaviour is a particularly important issue when looking at a 20-year conflict horizon.

The Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court, now has 114 ratifications, including 31 from sub-Saharan Africa and every EU member state. It has investigations or prosecutions going on in Congo, Uganda, Sudan, CAR, and Kenya. All in Africa. In Congo, Uganda and CAR, the governments specifically requested ICC intervention. In Sudan the Security Council sent the situation to the ICC, and in Kenya the government was initially welcoming, before turning cold. And of course on Saturday we had the UN Security Council unanimously refer Libya to the ICC.

So is the ICC a Western imperialist imposition on the South, and on Africa in particular, or a means to bring greater accountability and justice to abusive actors? African leaders increasingly seem to think the former, though it’s unclear whether their people, and particularly the victims of conflict, would agree.

The EU has repeatedly expressed its support for international justice as a concept, and the ICC in particular. But it is in a bind when it comes to specific cases. Right now European leaders are actively considering whether to put the ICC prosecution of Bashir on hold for a year, as a reward for the successful Southern succession referendum and an incentive for future restraint. Yet while those talks are going on, Sudanese armed forces are still mounting disproportionate attacks on civilians in Darfur. How does that sit with the European commitment to justice and the ICC? And how can EU leaders call for the ICC to investigate Muammar Gaddafi for atrocities against his own people, and expect to be taken seriously as proponents of justice if they are simultaneously contemplating deferring proceedings against Bashir?

Another way of framing this issue is, should justice and accountability be seen as ends in themselves, or simply a tool in the conflict resolution toolbox? If the latter, then will the shorter-term imperatives of crisis management always trump the longer-term objectives of justice and its role in preventing future conflicts? And given that 3 of the P5 have not signed up to the ICC, how can it be argued that international justice in the form of the ICC is a universal value, and not simply a tool to be used by the strong against the weak? Certainly that’s the view of many leaders in the developing world, self-serving though that often may be.

What should be done differently?

We are in the policy prescription business, and we’ve been tasked to propose what might be done differently.

At Crisis Group we are cautious about our ability to predict trends and big picture scenarios  – particularly given our role as country-specific conflict analysts.  We tend to take the approach that much of what drives conflict today will continue to drive conflict for the next two decades.

These drivers include:

  • Weak states with low capacity.
  • Tensions between authoritarian regimes and popular demands for greater political space.
  • Competition over scarce resources, exacerbated by climate change
  • Extremist religious movements seeking violent political change
  • The growing reach and power of transnational organised crime networks.

Given this context, in many cases it’s not about doing things differently, but doing better the things we already know should be done.  The findings of the most recent Human Security Report, are of interest here – the report stresses the importance of the full range of UN interventions, and how, despite their considerable limitations and flaws, they have had very significant impact over the last 20 years because there were few or no effective multilateral interventions before.

So, what needs to be done differently, or better?  One credible scenario presented at this conference was that of  growing global wealth, a continuing decline in the number of authoritarian states, and a consequent rise in the number of democracies. Given the conflict prone nature of such moves from autocracy to anocracy to democracy, these transitions will likely provide much (though by no means all) of the context for conflict in the next two decades. This is what we are seeing right now with the dramatic events across North Africa and the wider Arab world right now.

That being the case, I’d like to share some of Crisis Group’s thinking on what needs to be done differently or better in supporting  transitions from authoritarian rule to a more pluralistic form of governance.

The following observations are drawn from Crisis Group’s internal discussions on what lessons, if any, can be drawn from these events. The specific examples (and much of the language) are those of our analysts, particularly in our Asia and the Middle East programs.

The starting point is that policymakers need to have a sophisticated understanding of the key dynamics of the countries they are dealing with. Of course, I would say that, working for a conflict analysis organisation. But the North African events starkly demonstrate the validity of this premise. While there are clearly some general linkages between the various countries and their uprisings,  not least that they all have authoritarian leaders and limited political space, they are all distinct in ways that will influence how these transitions will play out over the longer term.

Let me list some of the differences, as identified by our Middle East and North Africa program: the role of the military (somewhat similar in Egypt and Tunisia, very different in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen); the use of pro-regime militias (in Egypt, Yemen and Iraq – as a way of hiding the regime’s role) or mercenaries (Libya and Bahrain – fighting alongside, or as part of, security forces); the role of tribes (none in Egypt, Tunisia or Bahrain, prominent in Libya, potentially important in Yemen, Jordan and Iraq); variations in state legitimacy (the presence of prior national dialogue, as in Yemen, Bahrain and Jordan; no legitimacy in Egypt and Tunisia except for the military, none at all in Libya), and so on.  

And in the search for solutions, there is a temptation to too readily draw parallels with past popular uprisings elsewhere in the world. There are no shortage of precedents. Just take Asia for example:

Dhaka 1971; Manila 1986; Rangoon 1988; Beijing 1989; Bangkok 1992; Jakarta 1998; Bishkek 2005; Kathmandu 2006; Rangoon 2007; Bangkok 2010; Bishkek 2010  (a non-exhaustive list from our Asia program).

They have very mixed legacies: Manila in 1986, Bangkok in 1992, Jakarta in 1998, and Kathmandu in 2006 could all be judged as successful to some degree. Dhaka created Bangladesh but led to the slaughter of 1.5 million. Thailand's post-1992 democracy was more or less overturned in subsequent years, Kyrgyzstan has been hollowed out completely. There are no unalloyed successes here. Rangoon's uprisings ultimately went nowhere, likewise Beijing’s in 1989.

Yet there are some general points that can be made on what approaches might best  support reform and improve the chances of a transition ultimately leading to a peaceful and democratic state.   But these must be viewed through the lens of the earlier caution – all of these situations are unique to a greater or lesser extent, and lessons and interventions must be tailored to the specific circumstances.

1. Reform has to happen quickly before the impetus runs out, which it will very quickly. If reforms don’t happen almost immediately, the opportunity is soon lost. Not full democratic transition of course, but enough to establish momentum for continued transformation.  Indonesia is a positive example. There was no leader in the 1998 uprising that forced Soeharto out, but it was public pressure that forced a creature of the old system (Habibie) to undertake dramatic reforms to save his own skin. The Philippines didn't move quickly (Aquino was too feudal and had to deal with coups), Thailand didn't deal with its military (the King didn't want that to happen).

2. Democratisation after protests may come more easily and rapidly in places that don't have deeply entrenched traditional elites. In Asia, Taiwan and Korea had been through land reform and industrialisation which had eroded many traditional structures. They were more modern societies that were comfortable with change.  In Eastern Europe, the elites with popular credibility were more often than not the dissident intelligentsia. But frequently popular uprisings are co-opted or taken over by the members of the existing elite. Sometimes this is defensive, to ensure the elites’ survival, after the sacrifice of a few leaders - query whether this is what is happening in Tunisia and Egypt; at other times, as recently in Kyrgyzstan, the revolt was simply an extra-constitutional, intra-elite, reshuffle.

3. Try to get the military out of politics as quickly as possible. They rarely go back to the barracks unless there is a powerful civilian component to the revolt leadership. All too frequently Western nations seem comfortable with this, as the militaries are known entities, create a semblance of order and normality, and their commanders have often been trained at Leavenworth or Sandhurst. But more often than not, the military just ends up undermining democratic development, as in Pakistan. Political parties end up looking to the military instead of voters for their blessing.

4. Get elections right. That means not holding them too early, or too late, and understanding they are not an endgame. Elections in divided societies, or in the absence of strong, impartial institutions and the rule of law, carry the risk of increased conflict. High-stakes contests for power can spark violence: politicians may use it to influence outcomes or protest results; spoilers attack the process itself. Look at Cote d’Ivoire right now, and reflect on the fact that there are some 20 presidential or parliamentary elections scheduled for Africa this year. Elections almost always reflect, rather than transform, deeper societal trends. Without the rule of law the powerful win office. Corrupt countries suffer electoral fraud. Authoritarian rulers skew the playing field or manipulate elections to their own ends. Dominant executives dominate elections. It sounds obvious, but the extent to which expectant new electorates and donors hope for polls insulated from broader negative trends is astonishing. Often it will be better to build elections from the ground up – starting with local elections before moving to parliamentary or presidential polls, as local democracy helps build capacity.

5. Understand that outsiders are largely bystanders during the transition -  at least in the initial chaotic stages. The UN, EU, US, Arab League and African Union have been irrelevant in influencing  the course of the uprisings and regime responses to date (with possible exception of the US vis-à-vis Bahrain). The US did not persuade Mubarak to leave, nor could the Saudis convince him to stay – the Egyptian army decided. Whether Gaddafi stays or goes will depend on the internal revolutionary forces, not the international community. Where outsiders may have a role is in supporting any transition after the initial stages, but even here influence is likely to be limited. Over the longer term there will be a role for the international community in supporting fragile states as they grapple with their new-found freedoms and longstanding problems: particularly in addressing economic injustice, providing humanitarian and development support and so on.

6. Don’t try to pick winners. It’s too often an irresistible temptation for international actors, and it usually fails. The focus should be on building institutions over preferred individuals. In fact, a focus on chosen individuals often contributes to the lack of development of institutions for fear that they will undermine or constrain the chosen leader. This has been done with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, at a significant cost to governance in that country. But perhaps the starkest case study is the U.S. enthusiasm for Africa’s renaissance leaders: Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, Ethiopia’s President Meles Zenawi and Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni. All have been in power for since the mid-90’s for multiple terms, and appear unlikely to voluntarily leave power anytime soon, while their legislatures and other checks on power have whithered.

7.  My final point. In the end, so much of it comes back to prevention. Conflict prevention matters. The long term, painstaking work of investing in institutions, building the rule of law and developing civil society may be the most effective way for outsider actors to influence these transitions, in the years before they occur. Those countries with more developed institutions and more entrenched rule of law will likely stand a better chance of a stable transition than those without – think Jordan, or even Egypt, as compared to Libya. But this requires policymakers to commit the necessary resources – political, diplomatic and financial – for many years, without much evidence, let alone certainty, of a return. That’s the challenge for policymakers, and as events in the Arab world are so starkly demonstrating, it’s one they ignore at their own peril.

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