07 July 2011

Can we thank the U.N. for reducing armed conflict?

Ernie Regehr, a Research Fellow at the University of Waterloo's Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, recently published an interesting and useful Background Paper, titled Armed Conflict: Trends and Drivers. The analysis leans heavily on a 2006 synopsis written by Gareth Evans of ICG, but Regehr also draws materials from Project Ploughshares' annual Armed Conflicts Report and the Human Security Report 2009/2010.

Armed Conflict is fundamentally defined as a political conflict involving armed combat by the armed forces of a state or the forces of one or more armed factions seeking a political end,in which at least 1,000 people have been directly killed in the fighting.

The good news is, when the dust settled on the conclusion of the Cold War, armed conflicts declined and the number continued to drop through the 2000s. The bad news (or part of it) is that "one-third of the conflicts that were underway in 1987 are still active today." So, if anyone needs a reminder, modern war is a marathon. It is also a breeding ground for mass atrocities. In fact about 85% of mass atrocities occur in the context of an existing armed conflict.

Regehr's paper thoughtfully acknowledges the increasingly blurry lines between political violence and criminal violence and the complexity of fitting terrorism into a specific category, but does not belabor the point.

The report then goes on to discuss different types of war, how wars end, and the human toll of armed conflicts. Death tolls are notoriously hard to count accurately, but based on estimates from the Global Burden of Armed Violence (GBAV) and from Ploughshares, the number may fall between 45,000 and 52,000 each year.

What drives these conflicts? With a nod to Thomas Ohlson and Alex Bellamy, the report suggest four major causes: Grievances, Identity (intergroup conflict), Capacity; and (Perceived) Absence of alternatives. It provides an interesting and thoughtful discussion of each.

The final section attempts to unpack the question of why armed conflict has declined in recent years and what implications those reasons might have for preventing conflict in the future. The report contains a concise list of explanations for international and civil wars drawn from the Human Security Report. These range from an increase in the number of democratic states and international institutions to growing economic interdependence, declines in ethnic discrimination, and "normative" shifts away from war. Citing Evans and the Human Security report, Regehr suggests a great deal of credit for for the decline in interstate wars goes to the United Nations (UN) and its bolstered efforts in preventive diplomacy and peacekeeping operations. Though the trends of declining conflict and increased UN diplomacy and peacekeeping initiatives have certainly run concurrently, whether there is a causal link between them may remain an open question.

You can read the full report HERE.