A billboard promoting peace in Kotido District in Uganda
© Khristopher Carlson/IRIN
Amidst the Carnage, Hope.
“Scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history” was how one of the judges on the international criminal tribunal set up to investigate and prosecute crimes committed during Yugoslavia’s wars of dissolution described the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica. Over 7,500 unarmed men and boys were slaughtered there. A year earlier “scenes from hell” were written right across the small African country ofRwanda, where around 800,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days: a rate of killing higher than the Holocaust, achieved with Kalashnikovs, machetes and improvised methods of brutality. Shortly after the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region erupted in 2003, characterised by mass killing, widespread and systematic rape and ethnic cleansing, the then Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Annan, sharply criticised the world’s inaction. “We have learned nothing fromRwanda” he complained. More recently, the brief hope that the solidarity and determination exhibited by the UN Security Council when Gaddafi’s forces in Libya threatened to overrun the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and root out the ‘cockroaches’ (incidentally, the term used by Rwanda’s Hutu extremists to incite genocidal violence against the Tutsis in 1994) signalled a change of thinking about how the world should respond to acts of unconscionable and systematic inhumanity has quickly been replaced by cynicism as a result of the Council’s inability to reach a consensus on Syria.
It is easy to look at the carnage being unleashed on the civilians in the Baba Amr district of Homs, the children indiscriminately killed in their homes, the fate of thirteen year old Hamza Ali al’Khateeb who was tortured to death by the security forces, and come to the conclusion that we have indeed learned nothing. Learned nothing and changed nothing. According to this logic, regimes that can, will use extreme violence to preserve their privileges and the rest of the world will stand aside and accept it unless powerful outsiders have other interests at stake. From this cynical vantage point, it would be easy to criticise the efforts of those who champion the UN and its principles of human rights and the responsibility to protect as naïve idealists or, worse, as vain glory-seekers spouting fashionable hot air that signifies nothing. It would be easy to think like this, but wrong.
Wrong not just because the cynical belief that humanity can do no better breeds the very sort of behaviour it purports to condemn. If no good can be done, the logic goes, better not to try; the perfect rules out pursuit of the good. The cynical view holds that it is better to stand and watch from the moral high ground than to get dirty hands trying to make things better.
This kind of thinking is also wrong empirically. Although it may not seem it at times, things have actually improved in the past few decades and international institutions, primarily the UN, have played a significant role in that. The simple fact of the matter is that there are fewer wars; when wars do happen they are shorter and fewer people tend to die; and fewer, not more, civilians are dying as a result of mass atrocities. None of this happened by chance.
We have known all of this for a few years and the evidence is now piled up very high, but still the cynicism prevails in some quarters. So it’s worth repeating what many other studies have found.
Last year, two important books were published that made the same basic point in very different ways. Taking a very long historical sweep, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, psychologist Steven Pinker showed that human societies have turned away from violence. Our human past was much more violent than our present. Tribal wars in antiquity were nine times as deadly as the wars of the twentieth century; murder was about thirty times more frequent. A combination of government, law, literacy, trade and cosmopolitanism heightened human empathy and reduced human violence, Pinker found. With a much shorter historical sweep, Joshua Goldstein’s Winning the War on War brings home clearly how the UN has been at the fore of a remarkable decline in war between states and more recently between non-state actors too. In the period since the Second World War, when the number of states quadrupled, war between them became much rarer. According to data gathered by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), since the early 1990s, the number and intensity of state-based armed conflicts involving the world’s governments has reduced by as much as 40%. Andy Mack from the Human Security Report argues that a significant part of the credit for this should be given to the UN and its peacekeeping operations.
What though about the ‘new wars’ of the post-Cold War world? TheRwandas, theBosnias, the Darfurs? Don’t these at least show that the end of Cold War certainties unleashed a new wave of tribal and ethnic hatreds that produced a ceaseless wave of cyclical violence? Isn’t it true that whilst in the past soldiers killed other soldiers in war, today they concentrate on massacring civilians in what Mary Kaldor famously termed ‘the new wars’ and others labelled the ‘new barbarism’?
The short answer is no. The myth of the ‘new barbarism’ is based on an overly gloomy picture of the present and a rose-tinted view of the past.
It is true that there was an increase in the overall number of armed conflicts in the first part of the 1990s, but there has been a steady and consistent decline since. What is more, in an article published in 2009, Erik Melander, Magnus Oberg and Jonathan Hall – scholars based atUppsalaUniversity– demonstrated that the impact that civil wars have on civilians declined dramatically after the Cold War. The ‘new wars’ thesis, they discovered, was a myth based on an exaggeration of civilian casualties in recent wars (for example, in Bosnia, civilians made up 60% of the war’s total casualties not the 80-90% of casualties often claimed) and a massive under-estimation of civilian casualties in earlier wars. Bosnia’s civilian casualty ratio of 60% compares quite favourably with the Second World War’s 60-67%, the Korean War’s approximately 75%, the Vietnam War’s approximately 65%, and the 1982 Lebanon War’s 80%. And for every post-Cold WarRwanda(800,000 civilians), there’s a Cold War Cambodia (1.5 million killed by Khmer Rouge) orIndonesia(c. 650,000 killed in anti-communist pogrom of 1965-1966).
In a soon to be published article in African Affairs, Scott Straus adds more evidence to the pile. After a detailed examination of the facts, Straus concludes that “major forms of large-scale organized political violence in sub-SaharanAfrica are declining in frequency and intensity, and the region is not uniquely prone to the onset of warfare. African civil wars in the late 2000s were about half as common compared to the mid-1990s. The character of warfare has also changed. Contemporary wars are typically small-scale, fought on state peripheries and sometimes across multiple states, and involve factionalized insurgents who typically cannot hold significant territory or capture state capitals. Episodes of large-scale mass killing of civilians are also on the decline.”
Obviously the causes of these trends are many and varied and go to deep-seated changes in human society, governance and economics. But there is clear evidence that international activism through the UN makes an important and positive difference.
An exhaustive study of UN peace operations by Virginia Page Fortna showed that peacekeeping significantly reduced the likelihood of wars reigniting after peace agreements. In her book, Does Peacekeeping Work? she found that where peacekeepers were deployed, the likelihood of war reigniting fell by at least 75%-85% compared to those cases where no peacekeepers were deployed. This is especially significant because countries are at their most vulnerable immediately after war.
In the post-Cold War era, traditional peacekeeping operations deployed with the consent of the belligerents reduced the likelihood of war reigniting by as much as 86%. For large and complex multidimensional operations – often deployed in regions with unstable politics and lingering violence – Fortna found that the figure remained above 50%. In addition, since 1990, peacekeeping operations have become more proficient in reducing the likelihood of war reigniting. By dramatically reducing the risk of war, peacekeeping makes a vital contribution to reducing the frequency and lethality of war in our world. Other studies have found that the presence of peacekeepers also reduces the duration of war and the civilian casualties.
But the contribution does not end there. Statistical analyses also support Samantha Power’s claim that ‘for all the talk of the futility of foreign involvement’ in cases of genocide and mass killing, the evidence categorically points to the fact that even small steps by concerned outsiders save lives. Big steps, properly coordinated and executed, save lots of lives. In only a third of cases has outside intervention either had no effect in terms of saving lives or made matters worse. In these cases, there is a correlation between the size, composition and legitimacy of an operation and its ability to save lives. Well-equipped operations dispatched with the broad-ranging support of the international community are much more likely to save lives than contentious, ill-equipped and ill-conceived operations.
So when you hear the cynics say that it is foolhardy to believe that we can do more to protect people from man-made harm, think of the progress that has been made. Also remember that every forward step has been hard won and bitterly opposed. And turn your mind to the stories you won’t see in the popular media. In eastern Congo – where women live in constant fear of rape – ill-equipped, overstretched, and undermanned peacekeepers from countries outside the West park their vehicles close to settlements and stay awake all night with their engines running and lights on as a deterrent to would-be rapists. When morning comes they invariably find women asleep on the ground, sheltering by their vehicles.
Remember, too, the words of the current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, whose call for a focus on human protection inspired the creation of the Hub and this blog: “The task of human protection is neither simple nor easy. We don’t always succeed. But we must keep trying to make a difference. That is our individual and collective responsibility.”
Alex Bellamy, Director of the Human Protection Hub
Griffith Asia Institute