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Conflicting views: War and conflict have long been among the greatest threats to global sustainability and harmony

Monday 25 January 2010
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Giles Crosse examines our historical capacity for bloodshed.

Conflict over resources is perhaps the most ancient of human problems. But in spite of advancing technologies and advancing mindsets, war and violence remain as prevalent as ever at the start of the 21st century. What’s stopping us moving beyond such archaic ways of resolving differences?

International Alert (IA) is a worldwide independent peacebuilding organisation. According to their research, the complexities behind global conflict are wide ranging. Mistrust between neighbouring countries and intolerance between different ethnic groups are at the heart of much conflict.

These elements combine with greed, economic interests and political cultures that fail to involve citizens properly, with little accountability for dictators or military leaders. Ambivalence from the international community and lack of willingness to intervene are further drivers. These, say IA, are among the reasons behind conflict in the Great Lakes in Africa.

The arms race

Africa is not alone among worldwide countries suffering from internal conflict, but it does exhibit key characteristics which act as drivers toward violence. ‘The DRC faces significant social and structural problems, including poverty, government mismanagement, extensive physical, psychosocial and sexual violence, especially against women,’ explains IA, describing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

‘Political elitism, mistrust between communities, unbridled impunity, severe land disputes and acute ethnic tensions. Key governance questions such as decentralisation and participatory management of local resources remain.’

Conflict is by no means resigned to developing countries only. Ongoing tensions in Israel, Gaza and recent Western interventions in the Gulf illustrate how developed countries too rely on violence to settle their differences.

“Impunity, if it is allowed to persist, not only undermines justice and the rule of law but makes it all the more likely that further, grave human rights violations will be committed,” said Malcolm Smart, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International. He’s describing the need for truth following Israel's major military offensive on the Gaza Strip.

“There must be accountability for what happened in Gaza and southern Israel one year ago,” he continues. “Those responsible, on both sides, cannot be allowed to evade accountability for the crimes that were committed. If the Israelis and Palestinians cannot, or will not, deliver justice themselves, the international community must ensure that the perpetrators are held to account.”

Sadly, all too often this appears impossible. And with questions surrounding the legitimacy of Western moves in Iraq, it’s understandable that other global governments feel less than compelled to react to Western or UN demands for transparency when such regimes are less than open with regard to their own policy.

Resource depletion

A worrying driver towards future global conflict may stem from increased pressure on worldwide resources, as climate change and sea level rise push up volumes of people relying on scarcer land. It’s tough to see how this can be avoided.

“Investing in countries who are now experiencing the knock on consequences of climate change, such as large scale migration flows as people search for commodities like water or ground on which to live, will pay dividends in peacefully managed change,” suggests Dan Smith, Secretary General for IA.

“The alternative is almost inevitably a descent into violence, as institutions and communities are unable to cope with ever reducing resources.”

One way in which future conflict might be minimised is through more stringent controls on the arms trade. Amnesty International continues to call for arms transfers to the Somali government to be suspended, until there are adequate safeguards to prevent weapons from being used to commit war crimes and human rights abuses.

Sadly, often money speaks more loudly than compassion in such scenarios. And in practical terms it can be virtually impossible to determine the pathways and end destinations for weaponry when corruption is rife.

In its latest briefing paper on the country, Amnesty International details US shipments of arms, including mortars, ammunition and cash for the purchase of weapons to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

“International concern for the future of the Somali government has not been matched by an equal concern for the human rights of civilians,” explained Michelle Kagari, Amnesty International Deputy Director for Africa.

Mortar attacks continue to claim lives, it is time for international donors to apply tighter controls to their support for the government”

The organisation reckons in 2009, indiscriminate attacks by all parties to the armed conflict have resulted in thousands of civilians killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. The number of people internally displaced within Somalia is now 1.5 million and some 3.7 million are dependent on humanitarian assistance for their survival.

Trial and retribution

The International Criminal Court (ICC) continues to pursue international war offenders, but so often the length of time required for successful prosecutions and the vast numbers who seem to evade the net makes ICC work harder.

But steps are being taken. From 26 January, the trial of Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui resumes, says an ICC release.

‘Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, Congolese nationals, are charged with three crimes against humanity and seven war crimes allegedly committed in the context of an armed conflict in Ituri which began in Djugu territory and in the town of Mongbwalu, and in particular during the joint attack by combatants led by Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui and Germain Katanga on Bogoro village on 24 February, 2003, which was part of a widespread attack and was directed not only against a military camp located in that village, but also against the civilian population of the village.’ reads the document.

There’s no doubt that such work is worthy, but it’s tough to judge whether the trials have any real world effects in diminishing global violence. It remains among the hardest challenges facing our planet to limit war and conflict and establish more peaceful methods for dispute resolution.

Realistically, unless developed countries can show more robust procedure in holding to account their own military actions, it will be difficult to ask developing countries to show a similar willingness for peace and transparency. As such the work of agencies like Amnesty or International Alert may yet be required for some time.

What are your views?  Not sure? Read the resources below for more information. Add your comment below. We welcome your thoughts and proposals. Not a Planetary Citizen? Sign up to Our Future Planet now!


Amnesty International: Human Rights Challenges - Somaliland facing elections
Amnesty International: israel-OPT Fuelling conflict: foreign arms supplies to Israel/Gaza
Initiative for Peace Building / International Alert: A CLIMATE OF CONFLICT The links between climate change, peace and war by Dan Smith, Janani Vivekananda November 2007
Initiative for Peace Building / International Alert: CLIMATE CHANGE, CONFLICT AND FRAGILITY Understanding the linkages, shaping effective responses by Dan Smith, Janani Vivekananda, November 2009
International Crisis Group NEPAL: PEACE AND JUSTICE -Asia Report N°184 – 14 January 2010


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