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What’s happening with the world’s civil wars and how do they end?

November 13, 2013
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Here’s an edited-down version of a brilliant overview of the state of civil wars around the world in this week’s Economist:

Ending civil wars is hard. Hatreds within countries often run far deeper than between them. The fighting rarely sticks to battlefields, as it can docivil war between states. Civilians are rarely spared. And there are no borders to fall back behind. A war between two states can end much where it began without the adversaries feeling in mortal danger. With nowhere safe to go home to, both sides in a civil war often feel they must carry on fighting if they are to escape slaughter. As those fighting in Syria know, defeat often looks like death, rather than retreat.

Yet civil wars do end. Of 150 large intrastate wars since 1945, fewer than ten are ongoing. Angola, Chad, Sri Lanka and other places long known for bloodletting are now at peace, though hardly democratic.

And recently civil wars have been ending sooner. The rate at which they start is the same today as it has been for 60 years, but they are coming to an end a little sooner. The average length of civil wars dropped from 4.6 to 3.7 years after 1991.

So far, nothing has done more to end the world’s hot little wars than winding up its big cold one. From 1945 to 1989 the number of civil wars rose by leaps and bounds, as America and the Soviet Union fuelled internecine fighting in weak young states, either to gain advantage or to stop the other doing so. By the end of the period, civil war afflicted 18% of the world’s nations. When the cold war ended, the two enemies stopped most of their sponsorship of foreign proxies, and without it, the combatants folded. More conflicts ended in the 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall than in the preceding half-century. The proportion of countries fighting civil wars had declined to about 12% by 1995.

The outcomes of civil wars changed, too. Until 1989, victory for one side was common (58%). Nowadays victories are much rarer (13%), though not unknown; the Sri Lankan government defeated Tamil rebels in 2009. At the same time negotiated endings have jumped from 10% to almost 40%. The rest of the conflicts peter out, subsiding to a level of violence below the threshold of war—though where that threshold should lie is a matter of some debate.

The main reason for jaw-jaw outpacing war-war is a change in the nature of outside involvement. In the Cold War neither of the superpowers was keen to back down; both would frequently fund their faction for as long as it took. Today outside backers are less likely to have the resources for such commitment. And in many cases, outsiders are taking an active interest in stopping civil wars.

The motives vary. Some act out of humanitarian concern. Others seek influence, or a higher international profile. But above all, outsiders have learned that small wars can wreak preventable havoc. Fractious Afghanistan bred al-Qaeda; the genocide in tiny Rwanda spread murder across a swathe of neighbours. In coastal west Africa, violence is passed back and forth between Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast like a winter cold round an office.

Outsiders can weigh in on one side, backing their desire for peace with cold steel. In Mali a brawl involving a mutinous army, ethnic rebels and Islamic extremists ended after less than a year thanks to French soldiers, who intervened in January and forced a partial reconciliation. [But overall], ever fewer powers, though, have the stomach for an overt armed intervention.

Orchestrating talks towards an end like the one brokered in Lebanon requires strong nerves and stomachs. Civil wars tend to end as messily as they are fought. Negotiations often take place in parallel with combat. For years Nepalese guerrillas negotiated with the government while also pummelling it, finally signing a peace deal in 2006. The prospect of an ending can quite often intensify the fighting.

Sometimes the dispute is so intractable that no agreed solution short of the break-up of the state seems possible. Wars of identity—those in which populations are mobilised by grievances that have ripened over decades or centuries—are the most likely to belong to this category.

Some break-ups do make sense. South Sudan’s government is lousy, and fighting continues along the border set up with the rest of Sudan two years ago. But most independent observers agree that the south made the right choice in negotiating to split off. The Arab elite in the north was never going to change its murderous attitude toward black southerners that brought about decades of miserable war and the death of 2m people. And there is little worry that South Sudan will look so attractive as to encourage secession elsewhere. Few minorities would accept such pain to win a seat at the UN.

UN blue helmetsIn talks aimed at a one-state solution, history suggests that several things can better the odds of success. The prospect of UN blue helmets is one (see chart). In Bosnia the outgunned Muslims could only imagine resting what rusty arms they had when assured of protection by trusted outsiders. In conflicts where parties agree not just to pause but also to disarm—thus further reducing the chances of more war—this is essential. Guerrillas worry that, without weapons, they will face oppression once again and stash some away.

Civilian mediators can be useful too, sometimes opening up negotiating tracks states cannot, and being trusted to operate without their own political agenda. Only when the fighters have been disillusioned, can mediators get to work—and then only for a limited period. Civil wars unresolved for more than a decade seem to drag on for ever, with both sides resigned to perpetual fighting, too disgusted or exhausted to face their enemies across the negotiating table. The armed conflict in the dense mountains of Colombia has been going since 1964. In some cases causality may run the other way. Conflicts last because they are unresolvable.

And conflicts recrudesce, too. Peace settlements can break down; indeed some worry that, at the moment, it is particularly easy for rebels to go back to war. Heavy weapons are easier to come by than once they were and insurgency tactics have been refined in Iraq and elsewhere.

The question of how outsiders can push settlements along is among the trickiest in international relations. One idea is to engineer a change in leadership. Warlords who start conflicts are rarely prepared to admit that they cannot win, and their charisma can be central to the cause. The capture of Abdullah Ocalan by Turkish forces in 1999 was such a blow to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party that peace talks have been going on ever since. Peru’s Shining Path withered after the 1992 capture of Abimael Guzmán. Leadership changes are a factor in the termination of between 25% and 40% of civil wars.

Changing leaders is not the only way to intervene. By using military power or curtailing the flow of money, outsiders can engineer what scholars call a “mutually hurting stalemate”. In this neither side can advance and the cost of holding tight is high—making peace the least bad option. In 1980 Britain ended Zimbabwe’s civil war by simultaneously squeezing the government and persuading Mozambique and Zambia to threaten to end the aid that they supplied to the rebels making gains in the field.


  1. Interesting and useful summary – but not much here about non-state and local actors – local peace movements, behind the scenes peaceworkers who provide safe spaces for people to talk and are respected and recognised as neutral. These may not bring about the change in themselves but they often create the conditions which make some of the other interventions you mention possible and effective – Northern Ireland is a good example, work in Kenya after the election violence another.

  2. Very interesting stuff with good news but also challenges for us all. Here are two related thoughts:
    1) a recent study also shows that including civil society in peace processes makes the peace deals significantly more likely to last: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03050629.2012.659139#.UoND6nA72fU. That’s what we’d expect from Oxfam’s experience, but nice to have it backed up by a statistical evaluation that concludes that “the inclusion of civil society actors in a peace accord reduces the risk that the
    overall peace fails in non-democracies by about 43%.”
    2) What’s this got to do with Syria? Indeed what has the whole overview got to do with Syria? Will IT ever be an example of outside powers really CONSISTENTLY pressing for peace? As opposed to, say, sending arms and ammunition? Others can answer that. Suffice to say that the lesson of jaw-jaw could not be applied to a more urgent case. As well as the lesson that sustainable peace tends to come from including civil society and all legitimate parties, not just outside powers’ favoured friends, in seeking that peace.
    Let’s hope.

  3. Can we deduce from this that outside interference by powerful states, e.g. in the form of transfers of arms to their favoured side, has been historically (pre-1991 responsible for lengthening civil wars by an average of about 12 months? If so I wonder if it’d be possible to put casualty figures to that….?

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