More war or more peace?

By Jonathan Power

September 27th 2016

The last war in the Western hemisphere came to an end yesterday with the signing of the formal peace treaty between Colombia and the FARC rebels, a conflict that has raged on and off for 50 years.

Fortunately, the cities have been spared overt destruction – it was the army and individuals who were targeted.

In Syria, even though the war has lasted only 5 years, in some cities, such as Aleppo, the bombing and fighting have wrought almost total destruction.

Is the world going to hell in a handbag? If one looks at Colombia the answer is “no”. Moreover, Latin America has long been the most peaceful of all continents. Only East Asia rivals it. Africa after decades of civil wars, at one time being the most violent of all the continents, is increasingly peaceful.

If one looks at the Middle East – Syria, Iraq and Yemen the answer is a loud “yes”.

So too in South Asia- in Afghanistan and to a certain extent in Pakistan and in Kashmir, divided between India and Pakistan.

This last three years the “yeses” have it. For the first time since the end of the Cold War and the subsequent fast fall in regional conflicts the number of those killed in war has taken a sharp turn up.

In 2010, such had been the rate of fall in conflicts since the end of superpower competition, when mucking and muddling in the Third World was an everyday habit, the number of wars reached a record low.

Since then they have started to occur with greater frequency. However, the number is still a good way below its high during the Cold War years and the World War years of the last century.

Will the graph continue to go up? It is doubtful, I think. Nowhere else in the Middle East looks like bursting into flames.

Africa should stay peaceful, although the impending elections in the Congo will doubtless bring about rioting. The one big danger is Pakistan and India. Will they go to war over Kashmir? Recently, after years of quiescence, there has been a flare up in fighting. Nevertheless, since both sides have nuclear weapons it would be catastrophic to raise the temperature too high, and both sides know it.

Public opinion is ignorant of just how much violence has declined over the last 400 years.

From the seventeenth century until the twentieth the percentage of the world’s people who died from warfare declined from 3% of the deaths in the century to 0.7%. Judging by the historical record of the 21st century thus far, it is the least violent century of all. Despite Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Nigeria, there are less people being killed in war than ever before.

Mass killing – genocide – has become rarer and rarer. Not since the war in Bosnia in the 1990s and the Rwanda-Burundi pogroms has there been a genocide.

Nor are the number of coups increasing, although this year’s events in Turkey remind us that even a functioning democracy is not immune from a near-successful attempt. The heyday of attempted coups was in the mid-1960s when nearly 15 took place every year.

In the 2000s that fell to less than five a year. A recent article in The Economist asked why there should be a decline and reasoned it is because of the world becoming more prosperous. Poor growth rates, it said, make coups more likely.

This month the big question is how to stop war, in particular how can war in Syria be mediated first to a truce and then to a solution. Is it too late – or perhaps too early – for negotiations to succeed?

According to Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), until 1989 victory for one side in a civil war was common (58%). Today victory is much rarer (13%), although in one dramatic case after a long drawn out war the Sri Lankan government defeated its Tamil rebels in 2009. Negotiated endings have jumped from 10% to 40%.

Over the last two decades UN peacekeeping and its high-powered mediators, have become more ubiquitous, experienced and effective. This has certainly been a major reason for successful peace-making. So has the effort to cut off funding to militias.

UN troops should now be deployed in Ukraine and should have been, right at the beginning of the conflict, deployed in Syria.

No one can at this stage tell if peace can be brought to Syria, as it has been to Colombia. Is Syria going to be one of the 40% with a negotiated ending? The UN’s Security Council must act in unison. The effort made over the last two weeks has been squalid. Russia (accused of being the main culprit in sabotaging the truce) and the US have no choice but to bury their enmity and try again.

Copyright: Jonathan Power

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