What We Know About Preventing Deadly Conflict: A Practitioner's Guide
What We Know About Preventing Deadly Conflict: A Practitioner's Guide
Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2024
Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2024
Op-Ed / Global 20 minutes

What We Know About Preventing Deadly Conflict: A Practitioner's Guide

The world as we see it around us does not immediately suggest that we have learned much about preventing deadly conflict. Whether it’s Iraq or Israel, Sri Lanka or Nepal, Darfur or the Eastern Congo, Colombia or the Caucasus, London or Bali, or wherever else in the world the day’s blood is flowing, we are assailed with a constant flow of news about war, potential war or violent extremism which seems depressingly endless.

But for all that has gone wrong and continues to go wrong when it comes to war, civil war, mass violence and terrorism, conflict is not inevitable. We have learned a great deal about how to prevent and resolve it, particularly over the last decade; the record is rather better than it seems (at least in relation to war and civil war, if not terrorism); and we can do better still if governments and intergovernmental organizations apply the right kinds of policies and give the right kind of leadership.

The starting point in approaching conflict and extremist violence is to recognize that it is always context specific. Big overarching theories about conflict – whether cast in terms of clash of civilizations, ancient tribal enmity, economic greed, economic grievance, or anything else – may be good for keynote speeches, and certainly good for royalties. They may also be quite helpful in identifying particular explanatory factors that should certainly be taken into account in trying to understand the dynamics of particular situations. But they never seem to work very well in sorting between those situations which are combustible and those which are not.

For every case of religious or ethnic or linguistic difference erupting in communal violence, there are innumerably more cases around the world of people and groups of different cultures and backgrounds living harmoniously side by side; for every group economic grievance that erupts in catastrophic violence there are innumerably more that don’t; for every instance of economic greed - for control of resources or the levers of government – generating or fuelling outright conflict, there are innumerably more that don’t;   for every assertion of power or hegemony -  internal, regional or global -  that results in outright military aggression there are many more that don’t;  for every Muslim in the Arab-Islamic world whose feeling of grievance or humiliation against the US or the West takes a violent form, there are many millions more for whom it doesn’t; and for every alienated second-generation immigrant, not succeeding in the new world but feeling adrift from the cultural moorings of  his old, who  translates that rage or despair into indiscriminate terrorist violence, there are innumerably more for whom that is inconceivable.

All this simply means that there are no single causal explanations, and no accompanying  single big fixes,  for any of the various continuing problems of conflict and violence that beset us.  The problems are complex and multi-dimensional, and so too are the solutions.

But there are solutions, they do work, and we are getting better all the time at identifying and applying them. The best evidence that those of us who spend our time in the conflict prevention and resolution business are not wasting our time is now laid out in the long-awaited Human Security Report, launched in October 2005 at the United Nations. The product of a project supported by five major governments (Canada, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK), edited by Andrew Mack of the University of British Colombia and formerly Director of Kofi Annan’s Strategic Planning Unit, and published by Oxford University Press, this seeks to bring together for the first time in a really comprehensive way data about wars within and between states, terrorist acts and atrocity crimes that is presently not collected by any international agency. Among its key findings are these:

  • There has been a dramatic decline in the number of armed conflicts since the early 1990s – by 80 per cent in the case of conflicts with 1000 or more battle deaths in a year. Although some 60 conflicts of varying degrees of intensity (most of them quite low) are still being waged around the world, war between states has almost completely disappeared – now less than 5 per cent of all conflicts – and the overall environment is one of really major reduction.
     
  • Paralleling the number of conflicts, the number of battle deaths is also dramatically down, both in absolute numbers, and in terms of the deadliness of each individual conflict.  Whereas back in the 1950s and for years thereafter the average number of deaths per conflict per year were 30-40,000, by the early 2000s this number was down to around 600 – reflecting the shift from high to low intensity conflicts, and geographically from Asia to Africa. Of course violent battle deaths are only a small part of the whole story of the misery of war: as many as 90 per cent of war-related deaths are due to disease and malnutrition rather than direct violence. But the trend decline in battle deaths is a significant and highly encouraging story.
     
  • There has been a dramatic increase in the number of conflicts resolved by active peacemaking, involving diplomatic negotiations, international mediation and the like: the Human Security Report states that approximately half of all the peace agreements negotiated between 1946 and 2003 have been signed since the end of the Cold War. (The High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change which reported to the Secretary-General in the lead-up to this year’s UN Summit, and on which I served, came up with the even more startling, but well-researched,  statement that more civil wars have been ended by  negotiation in the last 15 years than in the previous two centuries.)
     
  • The only unequivocally bad news is the dramatic increase in high-casualty terrorist attacks since 9/11 – but even here the annual death toll from international terrorist incidents remains only a small fraction of the annual war death toll (so far anyway: things will be different if terrorists ever manage a nuclear attack).

There are a number of reasons contributing to these turnarounds in relation to the prevention and resolution of conflict. They include the end of the era of colonialism, which generated two-thirds or more of all wars from the 1950s to the 1980s; and of course the end of the Cold War, which meant no more proxy wars fuelled by Washington or Moscow, and also the demise of a number of authoritarian governments, generating internal resentment and resistance, that each side had been propping up.

But as the authors of the Human Security Report argue, the best explanation is the one that stares us in the face, even if a great many do not  want to acknowledge it. This is the huge increase in the level of international preventive diplomacy, diplomatic peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations, for the most part authorised by and mounted by the United Nations, that has occurred since the end of the Cold War. In particular there has been:

  • a six-fold increase in UN preventive diplomacy missions (to stop wars starting);
     
  • a four-fold increase in UN peace operations (both to end ongoing conflicts and reduce the risk of wars restarting); and
     
  • an eleven-fold increase in the number of states subject to UN sanctions (which can help pressure warring parties into peace negotiations).

The UN of course has not been the only player: regional intergovernmental organizations have played an increasingly significant role, as have the international financial institutions and individual states. And, in a development which deserves more systematic attention than it has received, a very much more central and important role has been played in recent years by NGOs and other civil society actors, working alongside the UN system and governments, needling them into action, acting as partners in delivery, or playing critical support roles in, variously, institutional capacity building, community dialogue and confidence building and actual peacemaking through mediation and conciliation.

My own International Crisis Group, which didn’t exist ten years ago, but which now plays quite an influential role with our analysis and advocacy across some fifty actual or potential conflict situations worldwide, is a case in point. Devoted exclusively to the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict, it now has an annual budget of around $12 million, and a full-time analysis and advocacy staff of 110 people of over 40 nationalities working in some 50 conflict or potential conflict areas across four continents, with advocacy offices in New York, Washington, Brussels and London – all of us spending our time, with a reasonable degree of success, telling governments and intergovernmental organisations what they don’t want to hear and persuading them to do what they don’t want to do.

But it is the revitalization of the UN system that has been at the heart of nearly all the recent process, and the UN – the only international organization with a global security mandate – that has been the central player. And that is at least some cause for celebration after a year in which those of us committed to major necessary UN reform have had reason to feel more than a little desolate about the outcome of the September World Summit, in which the only outcomes of any real consequence in relation to global security were agreement on the establishment of a Peacebuilding Commission to better manage post-conflict reconstruction and acceptance of the principle of ‘the responsibility to protect’, crucial if the international community is to do better in responding to genocide and atrocity crimes than it’s often lamentable record in the 1990s.

So what have we learned, over the last fifteen years or so, from all that has gone both right and wrong in our efforts to prevent deadly conflict, in particular as this relates to the UN’s role?  Taking a broad view of conflict prevention - treating it as involving not only the  prevention of outbreak of conflict (conflict prevention in the classic, core sense)  but  also prevention of its continuation, and prevention of its recurrence – I will offer in what follows a quick  check list, from my own experience, of the major lessons we have learned, or should have learned, for each of these crucial stages of the conflict cycle.   I will conclude with some observations about what we should be doing, also in the light of accumulated experience, in response to international terrorism – the form of contemporary violence that is troubling policy makers and publics even more than war between and within states.  

Preventing Conflict Outbreak

The first rule for preventing deadly conflict is not to start it, a message the U.S. is certainly now pondering after its rush to war in Iraq. There are circumstances in which there will simply be no alternative to taking military action, to respond to real and immediate cross-border threats, and – in the case of man-made internal crises of the kind we confronted in the Balkans and Rwanda and elsewhere so often in the last decade – to do so in the context of the principle of the ‘responsibility to protect’. But military action should only ever be undertaken in the most serious cases, as a last resort, and in circumstances where it will do more good than harm: unfortunately, one of the many things the UN Summit failed utterly to do was address the guidelines for Security Council action in this respect that had been proposed by the High Level Panel, and the Secretary-General in his own In Larger Freedom report.

The second rule of conflict prevention is to understand the causal factors at work – political, economic, cultural, personal – in each particular risk situation. What is always necessary is detailed, case by case, context-specific analysis:  not making assumptions on the basis of experience elsewhere, but looking at what is under one’s nose.

The third rule is to fully understand, and be prepared to apply flexibly as circumstances change,  what is in the conflict prevention toolbox – the range of possible measures, both long-term structural and short-term operational, that can be deployed to deal with high-risk situations.  Broadly speaking, there are political and diplomatic tools (eg negotiation of new power or resource-sharing arrangements), legal and constitutional tools (eg human rights protections for individuals or groups – of the kind often negotiated by the OSCE’s High Commissioner for National Minorities), economic tools (eg development measures to redress inequities, or targeted sanctions) and military tools (including security sector reform, preventive deployments and, in extreme cases, the threat of military force) – and we know a lot more about how to use them now than we did even just a decade ago.

The fourth rule is to be prepared to put in the necessary government and intergovernmental resources, when and where they are needed, and particularly at the early prevention stage, where any investment now is likely to be infinitely cheaper than paying later for military action, humanitarian relief assistance and post-conflict reconstruction - something the international community is still much better at talking about than doing. Early warning and response capability is a critical requirement for effective early prevention, and one of the long-running battles in the UN system – brought to a head by the Brahimi Panel on Peace Operations recommendations in 2000 – has been about giving the Secretariat increased capacity in this respect, over the objections of those who think this might identify them sooner as suitable cases for treatment. It may be that this battle is now beginning to be won. One of the little-noticed achievements of the UN Summit was the incorporation, in the ‘responsibility to protect’ section of the outcome document and in the context of prevention of genocides and other crimes against humanity, of the following words: “The international community…should support the United Nations to establish an early warning capability”.

The fifth rule is for governments to leverage those resources by using all the extraordinary capability that is now available from non-governmental organizations and civil society generally in the ways already mentioned above.

Preventing Continuation: Conflict Resolution

When prevention fails, and the task becomes that of conflict resolution – hopefully achieved by peacemaking negotiations rather than the use of overriding military force. In this context, again, there are a number of lessons we have painfully learned about what makes a successful peace accord:

  • First, it is not an event so much as a process, and signing the agreement is not the end of it. The critical need is to generate commitment to, and ownership of, the peace by the warring parties: so their commitments are not just formal, but internalized, and will stick. That takes real skill on the part of those mediating or otherwise assisting the negotiation, a conspicuously variable quality among UN special envoys and representatives. The UN Summit did agree ‘to support the Secretary-General’s efforts to strengthen his capacity in this area’ of good offices, but it remains to be seen what this means in terms of new resources, and the need for better selection and training of envoys (about which the High Level Panel was a little more direct in its report than was the Secretary-General in his).
     
  • Secondly, any peace accord must deal with all the fundamentals of the dispute: all the issues which will have to be resolved if normality is to return. Sometimes that can be done in a sequential or stage-by-stage way, with confidence building measures now and some key issues deferred: the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the Caucasus might be such an example. But the failed Oslo process for Israel-Palestine shows how risky that approach can be.
     
  • Thirdly, any successful peace accord must get the balance right between peace and justice.  The South African truth and reconciliation commission model, with its amnesties for the perpetrators of even serious crimes, is widely admired, but in other cases sustainable peace will not be possible without significant retributive justice: visible trial and punishment. What is clear is that the people of every country, whether it’s Cambodia or Rwanda or East Timor or Liberia, have to resolve what works for them.
     
  • Fourthly, the terms of any accord, and the method of its enforcement and implementation, must be sufficiently resilient to deal with spoilers – those who would seek to undermine or overturn it.
     
  • Fifthly – and this follows particularly from the last point – a peace accord to be successful must have the necessary degree of international support: with all the guarantees and commitment of resources that are necessary to make it stick.

Preventing Recurrence: Post-Conflict Peacebuilding

The biggest lessons of all about the handling of conflict that we have learned in recent years  - not least from Rwanda (where the 1994 genocide, taking 800 000 lives, followed the Arusha peace deal just a year before), Angola (where the 1991 Bicesse Agreement to end the war in was followed by a relapse into bloody conflict for another decade with another million or more lives lost), Haiti, Afghanistan and now Iraq, is the critical necessity of effective post-conflict peacebuilding, to ensure that the whole weary conflict cycle does not begin again. We know all too well that the best single indicator of future conflict is past conflict – reflecting the reality that over and again the critical underlying conflict-causing factors have simply not been properly addressed. For international peacebuilding missions to be successful, there are again a number of prescriptions we have learned from hard experience.

  • First, sort out who should do what and when -  immediately, over a medium transition period and in the longer term: allocate the roles and coordinate them effectively both at headquarters and on the ground.  High-level coordination is one of the critical roles envisaged for the new Peacebuilding Commission, approved at the UN Summit  and now established by General Assembly resolution.
     
  • Secondly, commit the necessary resources, and sustain that commitment for as long as it takes: this again is envisaged as a critical role for the Peacebuilding Commission, given the long and lamentable history of ad hoc donors’ conferences, and rapidly waning attention, and generosity, once the immediate crisis is over.
     
  • Thirdly, understand the local political dynamics – and the limits of what outsiders can do. Iraq is an unhappy example of how much can go wrong when that understanding is lacking.
     
  • Fourthly, recognise that multiple objectives have to be pursued simultaneously: physical security may always be the first priority, but it cannot be the only one, and  rule of law and justice issues, and economic governance and anti-corruption measures, deserve much higher priority than they have usually been given.
     
  • Fifthly, all intrusive peace operations need an exit strategy, if not an exit timetable, and one that is not just devoted to holding elections as soon as possible, as important as it obviously is to vest real authority and responsibility in the people of the country being rebuilt.  Every peacebuilding situation has its own dynamic, but many of the worst peacebuilding mistakes of the last decade have had more to do with leaving too soon or doing too little than staying too long or doing too much.

Confronting Terrorism

The contemporary problem of terrorism is in a number of ways more intractable, and more alarming, than that of war between and within states. The positive news, confirmed in the Human Security Report, is that even since 9/11 and with all the news about new outrages that we wake up to almost every week, the overall death toll from terrorist attacks is very low by comparison with the numbers still dying in battle or from war-related disease and malnutrition.  But that will only be the case so long as these are conducted with conventional weapons: the casualty rate will soar dramatically if, or perhaps more accurately when, the ‘big one’ occurs – a major terrorist attack using chemical, biological or above all nuclear weapons, a risk which remains all too real given the amount of fissile material in circulation, and the nature of the technical skills needed to construct and deploy an explosive device.

If the ‘war on terrorism’ as it has so far been conducted has been an overall success, that’s a well kept secret. Terrorist attacks classified by the U.S. government as ‘significant’ more than tripled worldwide to 650 in 2004 from 175 in 2003: this was the highest annual number since Washington began to collect such statistics two decades ago, and there is no reason to assume that the trend has been reversed since. Nearly a third of those attacks – 198 of them, nine times the number of the year before - took place in Iraq, meant to be the central front of the war on terror.

The struggle against violent extremism – better terminology than ‘war on terrorism’ - can be won, but it is going to be neither quick nor easy, and it is going to require a lot more thought and application and persistence, a lot more balanced approach, and a lot more attention to underlying causes and currents as distinct from surface manifestations, than comes easily to most of the world’s policy makers.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2005 sketched out the response strategy  needed in terms of ‘five Ds’:  “dissuade disaffected groups from choosing terrorism as a tactic to achieve their goals, deny terrorists the means to carry out their attacks, deter states from supporting terrorists, develop state capacity to prevent terrorism, and defend human rights in the struggle against terrorism.” That list of objectives remains extremely helpful in capturing the flavour of what is required, but to put the elements of the required strategy in slightly more operational terms, to talk of ‘five P’s’ may be more effectively descriptive:

  • Protection strategy: Airline security, border protection, improved public health emergency response measures and all the rest are obviously unavoidable.
     
  • Policing strategy:  Good police work, supporting intelligence work, and ultimately (in occasional extreme situations) military operations are also obviously indispensable. The hardest issue here is getting the balance right between necessary counter-terrorism measures and indefensible, and possibly counterproductive, intrusions on civil liberty: the risks have to be very great and immediate to justify putting under strain core values about human freedom and dignity that are at the heart of making our societies what they are, not what terrorists want them to be.
     
  • Political strategy: A variety of familiar political grievances – the occupation of Palestine and Iraq pre-eminent among them, along with foreign support for so-called apostate governments – are a significant part of the motivations of at least some categories of terrorists. But the main point to be made here is that addressing, and being seen to seriously address, political grievances, is not just a strategy designed to appeal to violent extremists themselves, many of whom we know all too well will not be in the slightest moved by advances of this kind.  It is, rather, above all a strategy designed to change the atmospherics in the communities in which terrorists swim, to deny them some of the oxygen they breathe when there is support for their presumed objectives, if not always their most violent behaviour. And, in the case of governments in countries where there is strong street sentiment in favour of the political objectives in question, it is a strategy designed to improve the will and capacity of those governments to cooperate effectively internationally, and to crack down effectively domestically. Political problems that are seen as such throughout the Arab/Islamic world, and which  are unresolved, unaddressed, incompetently or counter-productively addressed, or deliberately left to fester until they become so acute they explode, are not the stuff of which willing local governments, capable of acting effectively, are made.
     
  • Peacebuilding strategy: We usually talk of peacebuilding in the context not of terrorism but of war between and within states, but it is also highly relevant here, given that one of the central preoccupations of peacebuilding is to avoid the emergence or continuation of failed states  - in Afghanistan, Somalia, Sierra Leone or wherever – and we are all acutely now conscious, after the Taliban in Afghanistan,  of the role that such states are capable of playing in harbouring and nurturing terrorist groups capable of causing real damage elsewhere.
     
  • Psychological strategy: It is crucial to change the way people think and feel about terrorism, and to remove any vestige of a comfort zone around it either for the individuals engaged in terrorism, or for the countries and communities that to a greater or lesser extent support them. For this to happen, efforts have to be made at both the micro and macro level.

At the micro, or individual and group, level, among those who are or would be terrorists, the psychological task is very specific – to make them understand the wrongness, the indefensibility of their acts, and in the case of Muslims to make them appreciate that such acts, and the suicides so often involved in their perpetration, are absolutely not sanctioned by anything in the Koran.  The absence of any kind of accepted institutional hierarchy of authority in Islam on a state or global as distinct from local level, like that which prevails in most other religions, makes very difficult the emergence of authoritative pronouncements in this respect. But efforts have increasingly been made to bring senior clerics and scholars together in Europe and North America and elsewhere to agree upon and pronounce appropriate fatwas, and those efforts should continue. Anything that spreads the belief that nothing can justify terrorism, that nothing can be an alibi for murder, cannot be anything but helpful. We should not nurture too many illusions, however, about the likely effect on some violent extremists of these kind of exhortations from moderate Muslim leaders – let alone inter-faith dialogues. In many cases, including in relation to the groups that the International Crisis Group has been examining closely in Indonesia, turning away present members and potential recruits from violence can probably only be done through individuals who are perceived as having legitimacy within the jihadist movement in question.

At the macro, or global,  level what is needed above all, once and for all, is agreement on what actually constitutes terrorism, viz. a definition that makes attacks on civilians, whatever the context – resistance to foreign occupation or anything else – as absolutely and comprehensively prohibited, and as absolutely indefensible, in the 21st century as slavery and piracy became in the 19th. The UN, which remains hugely important as a global norm-setter on issues like this, dropped the ball badly on this issue at the September 2005 World Summit, with a handful of resisting states ensuring that there was, yet again, no agreement on this issue. So long as anyone anywhere nurtures the belief the that it is not always wrong to kill civilians – that maybe that’s not even terrorism, but rather an act of liberation or whatever – then a basic precondition for ridding the world of terrorism will not be there. The struggle against violent extremism starts with the battle of ideas.

We have come a long way in recent times in saving, in the great words of the UN Charter, ‘succeeding generations from the scourge of war’. But the task is far from complete, not least in saving our peoples from the scourge of violent extremism – and of the risks associated with the possession and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, only fleetingly addressed here. But the ideas are out there, along with a large body of recently accumulated experience. We know as a global community what we have do, and it remains only to find the sustained, committed, capable politicl leadership to get it done.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.