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Preventing deadly conflict: how can we do better?, Gareth Evans

Address by Gareth Evans, President of International Crisis Group, to Foreign Policy Association ‘Off-the-Record’ Lecture Series, New York, 6 December 2006

Every month the International Crisis Group produces a CrisisWatch bulletin summarizing the state of play in some 70 different situations of actual or potential conflict around the world. We have just had to report, in our 1 December issue, that November was the worst single month for conflict prevention since we started publishing this bulletin 40 months ago. There were ‘down’ arrows, indicating significant deterioration, for fourteen situations, including Burundi, the Central African Republic, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Somalia and Sudan; and in Iraq and Lebanon. We identified with a ‘bomb’ sign seven different new ‘Conflict Risk Alerts’, including for Bangladesh and Fiji (where the military coup we feared has now in fact occurred). In only three situations - Nepal, Senegal and Kyrgyzstan – did risky environments improve last month (although we could probably now add the Congo to that list); and we could not identify a single situation where there was a real ‘Conflict Resolution Opportunity’ which we could identify with a ‘dove’ sign for this coming month, certainly not anywhere in that most volatile region of all, the Middle East.

To add to the gloom we now have the UK government’s announcement earlier this week that it was determined to proceed with a replacement for the Trident nuclear missile system – thus putting paid to any hope of serious leadership from one of the nuclear weapons states on a revival of the disarmament side of the NPT bargain. It has not been a great few weeks for optimists.

But let me try nonetheless - you may think a little heroically - to offer you some reasons why we do still have some reason to look on the bright side. For everything that is still going wrong, we have been learning, slowly and painfully, how to do things better. Life is a learning experience, even for neo-cons. And there are some lessons that we ought very clearly to have learned from the experience of the last fifteen years, even if some of them are still only just beginning to sink in. We can do better in preventing and resolving deadly conflict in the future if we recognize five big things that the post Cold War years should have taught us.

One: recognize that conflict prevention effort does work.

As bad as things seem at the moment, it’s important to keep a sense of perspective. Contrary to conventional wisdom, and perhaps all our intuitions, there has been a very significant trend decline – after a high point in the late 1980s and very early 1990s - in the number of wars taking place, both between and within states, in the number of genocidal and other mass atrocities, and the number of people dying violent deaths as a result of them. There are now 40 per cent fewer conflicts taking place than there were in 1992. In the case of serious conflicts (defined as those with 1000 or more battle deaths in a year) and mass killings there has been an 80 per cent decline since the early ‘90s, and an even more striking decrease in the number of battle deaths. Whereas most years from the 1940s through to the 1990s had over 100,000 such reported deaths – and sometimes as many as 500,000 – the average for the first years of this new century has been more like 20,000. Of course violent battle deaths are only a small part of the whole story of the misery of war: 90 per cent or more of war-related deaths are due to disease and malnutrition rather than direct violence, as we have seen, for example, in the Congo and Darfur. But the trend decline in battle deaths is significant, and highly encouraging.

We have seen the almost complete disappearance of interstate wars, between governments. September this year in fact marked the longest interlude of interstate peace for more than half a century – 1000 consecutive days with no such wars anywhere in the world. Such wars as are still occurring are within state borders, or – as in Lebanon in August – between states and non-state actors, but even in these categories the number of conflicts in which a state is one of the warring parties has been in steady decline since the early 1990s. The only figures in all of this which are unequivocally worse are the number of high-casualty terrorist incidents, but even here the annual death toll remains only a small fraction of the war death toll.

A number of reasons contributed to these turnarounds, including the end of the era of colonialism, which generated two-thirds or more of all wars from the 1950s to the 1980s; and of course the end of the Cold War, which meant no more proxy wars fuelled by Washington or Moscow, and also the demise of a number of authoritarian governments, generating internal resentment and resistance, that each side had been propping up. But, as argued by the Human Security Centre in Canada, the research institute led by Andrew Mack which compiles and publishes all this data in its Human Security Report,1 the best explanation is the one that stares us in the face, even if a great many don’t want to acknowledge it: the huge upsurge in activity in conflict prevention, conflict management, and post-conflict peacebuilding activity that has occurred over the last fifteen years, with most of this being spearheaded by the much maligned UN, but with the World Bank, donor states, a number of regional security organisations and literally thousands of NGOs playing significant roles of their own - not least my own International Crisis Group, which didn’t exist until 1995, but has now become perhaps the most visible and influential source of analysis and advice for policy makers on conflict prevention and resolution.

We are getting better all the time at early warning and early reaction, with last year’s efforts to head off another catastrophe in Somalia (now having to be repeated right now as a result of some misguided anti-terrorism enthusiasm from Washington) being a good case in point. We are doing better at diplomatic peacemaking, with successes from Cambodia to the Balkans to Northern Ireland to West Africa to Nepal and Aceh well outnumbering in recent years what remain so far the failures, eg in Sri Lanka and Darfur: many more conflicts have ended than have begun during the post Cold War years.

We are becoming ever more professional at peacekeeping, with more than 90,000 personnel now in the field, and for the most part doing an excellent job, as in the Congo (where the election process has gone much more smoothly than feared). The Rand Corporation tells us, incidentally, that for all that has not gone as well as it should, the UN manages these transitional operations much better than the U.S: it certainly does it infinitely more cheaply, with the current cost of those 90,000 plus around $7bn, as compared with the hundreds of billions consumed by the Iraq operation alone.

And we are certainly now doing much better at post-conflict peacebuilding, as we have finally learned, against the backdrop of Angola, Rwanda, Afghanistan and Haiti, that the best single predictor of future conflict is past conflict, and that the critical need is to put in sustained resources and commitment during the years that follow peace agreements. Hopefully the new UN Peacebuilding Commission will consolidate and reinforce this positive trend, and provide a real discipline on governments to stay the course.

Two: recognize that military force has profound limits as a policy instrument.

It has taken the continuing catastrophe in Iraq, and the lesser but still painful one of Israel’s confrontation with Hizbollah in August, to drive the point home where it matters most, but the first rule of conflict prevention is that the best way to stop wars is not to start them. For most high security risk situations, whether cross-border or internal, overwhelmingly the best options, the military force option should be absolutely the last measure contemplated – with other strategies, whether they be political and diplomatic, or legal and constitutional, or economic and developmental, or involve non-coercive military measures like security sector reform, being far more likely to be productive, and not absolutely counterproductive.

There is an awful lot to be said – not least for the interlocking Middle East problems of Israel-Palestine, Lebanon-Syria, Iran and Iraq – for good old fashioned diplomacy, containment and deterrence, as Baker-Hamilton among many others seem now at one in saying. I don’t underestimate for a moment the degree of difficulty involved in now unpicking each of these situations and finding positive threads to follow - although the International Crisis Group has been among the leading organizations trying to come up with positive strategies for each one of them. For example, on Israel-Palestine we have insisted that the key to any kind of sustainable movement is recognizing that Hamas cannot be dealt out of the equation; that getting a Palestinian government of national unity in place is crucial for a sustainable ceasefire, prisoner exchange and the larger necessary political negotiation; and that getting this to happen will require putting right way up again that very useful old maxim that ‘what matters is not what you say but what you do’, i.e. a moderation of the insistence on the ‘three conditions’, including recognition of Israel, which has not been offered to this day by any Arab country apart from Egypt and Jordan, and is just not achievable until a final peace deal is done.

Iraq now is the toughest mess of all to clean up. Probably the only way forward (and some at least of this seems to be reflected in the Baker-Hamilton report released this morning) is a major effort to internationalise and regionalize the conflict resolution process, and to use the broad-based pressure applied by an international contact group to create a new internal political settlement, aimed in turn not at dividing the country, but at some kind of asymmetric federal system involving better power and wealth sharing agreements than those on the table at the moment better power; all of this would be accompanied by a negotiated drawdown of the coalition forces, with the endgame commitment being the removal of all foreign forces and bases.

In terms of opportunity cost, it’s harrowing to think of just how much has already been squandered, not only in lives but in treasure, in Iraq. At the end of September 2006, the incremental cost of the Iraq war to the US budget had already reached a mind-boggling $318.5 billion, and it may be salutary – at this State of Humanity Forum – to stop for a moment to think what else that amount of money could have bought. On recent UN figures,2 this would have been enough to pay for the cost of keeping 400 million people from hunger for the next 13 years; or stopping the spread of HIV-AIDS worldwide for the next 30 years; or achieving effective intervention for maternal and newborn health for 95 per cent of the world’s population for the next 35 years; or immunising every child in the developing world for the next 100 years, while still leaving more than a little pocket money in each case for enhanced conflict prevention and resolution efforts.

None of this means that we should swing to the opposite extreme and foreswear military responses in situations where this is both legal, as a matter of international law, and legitimate, as a matter of morality and decency: there are two big problems with military force, not just using it when we shouldn’t, but not using it when we should (as was obviously the case in Rwanda and Srebrenica) And in this context we need to be focusing much more intently, in the Security Council and everywhere else, on formulating agreed guidelines for the use of force, as the High Level Panel and Secretary-General’s report last year urged the Security Council to do, so far to no avail.

The point about introducing such agreed criteria, is not that their application will produce push-button consensus, but they will concentrate everyone’s attention, both decision makers’ and publics’, on the critical issues: (1) whether the situation is prima facie serious enough to justify even the contemplation of force, (2) whether the primary reason for the proposed attack is really the stated one and defensible as such, (3) whether other remedial options are reasonably available and if so have been exhausted, (4) whether the nature of the force proposed is proportional to the harm being stopped or averted, and (5) – often the real show stopper – the balance of consequences: whether the proposed coercive military intervention will in fact do more harm than good.

If these criteria are applied, for example, to a possible military intervention in Darfur, most of them are clearly satisfied except the last – just about everyone agrees that a ground invasion would, by making humanitarian relief operations almost impossible to sustain and probably tearing apart the fragile north-south peace agreement, almost certainly cost many more lives than it saved. This doesn’t mean that the ‘responsibility to protect’ principle, on which I’ll say a little more in a moment, has been rendered irrelevant, as some who both love it and hate it are now rushing to say: it just means that it might have to be implemented here by measures falling short of full-scale military ground invasion, including economic sanctions, legal measures and less-intrusive military means like an enforced no fly zone.

The bottom line is that military force, anywhere and everywhere, must always be a last resort - and that there is a huge amount to be said for exploring all the avenues that diplomacy offers (however much harder it may be to contemplate talking to your enemies than your friends) before launching the missiles and artillery and air strikes and tank assaults that cause so much death and destruction and sheer human misery.

Three: recognize that the most effective foreign policy for any country, whatever its weight, is one that balances realism and idealism.

With the neocon confessionals now overflowing after the conspicuous failure of this administration’s adventures in bombing for democracy - combined with its undoubted success in uniting as one a previously almost completely disunited ‘axis of evil’ - hard-headed foreign policy realism is back in business in a big way in this country. The rafters are ringing for the Bush 41’ers Jim Baker and Robert Gates, with Brent Scowcroft hopefully not too far behind, as people across the political spectrum find deeply comforting the prospect at last of some adult supervision returning to Washington.

My Crisis Group Board member colleague Ken Adelman – a fierce supporter of the Iraq war, and the rest of original Bush 43 administration mission – now laments, in the current issue of Vanity Fair, that after Iraq ‘the idea of a tough foreign policy on behalf of morality, the idea of using our power for moral good in the world’ is ‘not going to sell’ for a generation. If he means the particular kind of idealistic foreign policy that has been pursued over the last six years - impervious to demonstrable facts, naive in its assumptions, crude in its application of military power, and totally bungled in its general execution - then we should be grateful to be spared any more of the same.

But if idealism has its limits, the alternative is not a crude and one-dimensional brand of foreign policy realism either. A foreign policy that is founded only on hard-headed realism is a policy that can all too readily descend into cynical indifference: the kind that enabled successive previous US administrations (both Bush 41’s, whose foreign policy performance in many other ways I much admired, and Bill Clinton’s) to shrug their shoulders about Saddam Hussein’s genocidal assaults on the Kurds in the north in the late 80s and the Shiites in the south of Iraq in the early 90s, or to find reasons for ignoring the rapidly unfolding Rwandan genocide in 1994.

What this country, like every other, needs, and what all the polling evidence suggests all our publics will support, is a foreign policy based on a principled and judicious mixture of both idealism and realism. And one crucial element in that mix is a willingness to accept and embrace, without ifs, buts and maybes, the principle of ‘the responsibility to protect’. The concept - which had its birth in the Canadian-sponsored Commission I co-chaired in 2001 – is a simple one: that while the primary responsibility to protect its own people from genocide and other such man-made catastrophes is that of the state itself, when a state fails to meet that responsibility, either through incapacity or ill-will, then the responsibility to protect shifts to the international community – to be exercised by measures all the way up to, if absolutely necessary, military force.

The major breakthrough with the emergence of this concept was the way it changed the terms of the debate, away from all those stifling, polarised arguments about whether there could or should be a ‘right of humanitarian intervention’ which stalemated action – from Rwanda to Srebrenica and Kosovo – throughout the 1990s. There is much less tolerance than there used to be for claims by sovereign countries that what goes on inside them is none of the rest of the world’s business, that state sovereignty means, in effect, a license to kill. And although not without a lot of difficulty along the way, it was a huge breakthrough, within a remarkably short time as the history of ideas goes, for the 150 heads of state and government at the World Summit last year, followed by the Security Council itself, to adopt, in effect as a new international norm, the responsibility to protect principle (or ‘R2P’ as it has now become known in this age of acronymphomania). There remains a long way to go in ensuring that this principle is actually internalized and operationalised in actual state, and intergovernmental organization, behaviour, but the toehold has been cut.

We can, if we need to, always justify making R2P a reality on hard-headed, practical, national interest grounds: states that can’t or wont stop internal atrocity crimes are the kind of rogue states, or failed or failing states, that can’t or wont stop terrorism, weapons proliferation, drug and people trafficking, the spread of health pandemics and other global risks.

But at the end of the day the case for R2P rests on our common humanity - the impossibility of ignoring the cries of pain and distress of our fellow human beings. Just as does the case for effective international judicial mechanisms to remove the impunity of those who commit atrocity crimes, and the case for relentless pressure against those who harbour them - now sadly undercut, I have to say, by NATO’s embrace last week of Serbia, before it had yielded up to The Hague the fugitive Mladic and Karadzic, and by Javier Solana subsequently welcoming this and flagging a similar relaxation of the EU’s conditionality policy. For any of us in the international community - from individuals to NGOs to national governments to international organizations - to yet again ignore that distress and agony, to once again make ‘never again’ a cry that rings totally emptily, is to diminish that common humanity to the point of despair.

Four: recognize that there is no substitute for cooperative internationalism.

This is a corollary to almost everything I have said so far, and it can be a point simply made. In this globalized, interdependent age, with so much ease of cross-border communication and movement, of people, materials and technology, it is simply no longer possible to dismiss as irrelevant, as Chamberlain famously did in the 1930s, 'quarrels in far away countries between people of whom we know nothing', simply because of what we do know now about the capacity of failed states, in this globalised world, to be a source of havoc for others.

Nor is it possible in this age of global markets and financial interdependence for any power to be self-sufficient in its economic needs, or to compensate for domestic resource shortages by acquiring hegemony over the others, to the extent – as I was reminded by a senior official in Beijing a couple of weeks ago (disavowing as he was any such imperialist ambitions for his own country) that the British Empire at its height was 111 times the size of the home country.

Nor is it possible to respond effectively to security threats, whether global or regional or in many cases even local, whether coming from state or non state actors - aggressors, or proliferators, or terrorists – without effective international cooperation, whether on early warning and intelligence, effective preventive strategies, conflict management and response strategies, or – as the has become particularly evident in Iraq and Afghanistan - post conflict reconstruction. There are limits to any country’s capacity, even the US’s, to do anything without allies, friends or supporters, or by extension, working through international and intergovernmental institutions, starting with the UN Security Council. And its in every country’s interest, not just small or medium sized ones like my own, to operate in a rule-based rather than raw power-based international order.

These are all obvious enough lessons, which the US nonetheless throughout its history seems periodically to have had to relearn, during its periodic cycles of isolationism, or – more often in recent times – unilateralism and exceptionalism. But they do seem to have struck home again in recent times, in a way that gives the rest of us international lesser mortals some greater confidence in their longevity - not least, interestingly, because of the rapidly growing recognition of just how big and significant China is becoming, both economically and politically, and how this 21st century is looming as one that the US simply wont have all to itself.

I’ve never heard the point made so clearly as by Bill Clinton – in one of those many post-presidential speeches of his that have made great issues of principle sound rather more clear, and compelling, than they ever did when he was in office - when he said that: We in this country have a choice. We can use our great and unprecedented economic and military power to try to ensure that we stay top dog on the global block in perpetuity. Or we can use it to create a world in which we will be more comfortable living when we are no longer top dog on the global block.

Which brings me directly to the fifth and final lesson.

Five: recognize there is no substitute for leadership

Of course what I’m talking about here is not just any leadership: I have just spent last weekend in Nuremberg, sampling not just the delights of Germany, and Europe’s, most wonderful Christmas market, but reminding myself – standing where Hitler screamed his obscenities from the crumbling podium of the Zeppelinfield, and where Goering stood trial in the eery familiarity of Courtroom 600 ¬– how monstrously, horribly astray a country can go when it succumbs to the collective belief that the only thing that matters in a chaotic environment is leadership strength.

The kind of leadership I’m talking about is what we can all recognize when we see it, and lament it when it goes missing. That recognizes the big turning points in national or global history, and makes the right calls, and delivers the right responses – as Roosevelt did in the 30s, or Truman and Marshall after the war; or as Dag Hammarskjold did in inventing peacekeeping and keeping the UN flame at least partially burning during the worst of the Cold War years; or as Gorbachev did in Russia, seeing the impossibility of sustaining the Cold War, or as Deng Xiao Ping did in China, at least in setting a wholly new economic course for the country in the chaotic and desolate aftermath of Mao; or as George Bush Senior did in leading, through the UN, the unequivocal response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, the first big post Cold War test of the system of international order. Or above all, perhaps, as Nelson Mandela did with his towering moral and political leadership of South Africa’s transition, completely avoiding – with crucial support from another leader, in FW de Klerk, who came to understand, late but not too late, what the moment demanded - what just about everyone feared would be an unavoidable racial bloodbath.

The kind of leadership I’m talking about doesn’t always have to be delivered in a spectacular way to be effective, and it doesn’t always have to be delivered by the biggest figures or the greatest powers. I’m thinking of the kind of leadership that was shown by Canada, for example, and its Prime Minister Paul Martin, who worked away diligently behind the scenes for months in the run-up to last year’s world summit to ensure that the ‘responsibility to protect’ norm would be embraced: an example which, if followed by a few more leaders in a few more capitals, would have saved a good deal more of the outcome we hoped for from that summit, which turned out a huge missed opportunity for the international community. It’s perhaps the kind of leadership that was shown by Australia, working closely with Indonesia, in crafting the UN peace plan that brought a final end, at the beginning of the 90s, to Cambodia’s protracted nightmare. It’s the kind of leadership that was shown by Sadako Ogata as UNHCR and more recently Jan Egeland as the UN’s humanitarian relief coordinator, in speaking out strongly and consistently and relentlessly about the horrors they saw unfolding around them and demanding an international response.

I believe it’s also the leadership that Kofi Annan has shown throughout his ten long and difficult years as Secretary-General, building on the insufficiently acknowledged intellectual legacy of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, in bringing back into prominence, and some kind of balance, the three great roles of the UN in peace and security, development and human rights, and in being a constant voice – even if not heeded as much as he should have been – for doing the right thing. To be effective, an SG has to have practical intelligence, particularly in his personnel choices, an iron constitution, emotional resilience, good friends, and good luck - but if he is to be great, he must also have an abundance of moral courage.

At the end of the day of course an SG can only deliver what the member states allow him to deliver. But he must never stop making clear what they should be delivering, not least when it comes to their responsibility to protect the world’s most vulnerable people. It’s a more or less impossible job that Ban Ki-Moon is taking on, and maybe his greatest starting asset is that he has worked hard to dampen expectations of what he can hope to achieve. If the perception is that he will be, as most of the P5 clearly want him to be, more secretary than general, let alone secular pope, he retains perhaps one of the most useful of all political weapons, the capacity to pleasantly surprise. I just hope that Ban does come quickly to recognize not only the constraints and limitations, but the opportunities, that go with this great office.

We all know, without me needing to take the time to spell it out, where international leadership has spectacularly failed us in recent years, most obviously in the Middle East, where it’s gone astray when it hasn’t gone completely missing, and where its been shown over and again, if we needed to be reminded, that tenacity is no substitute for intelligence; in Africa, where a succession of celebrated leaders of a new continental renaissance have turned out to have feet of clay; in Europe, which continues to punch well below its weight across a spectrum of global issues and is showing alarming signs of completely losing the plot on Turkey; and on weapons of mass destruction, where none of the P5 nuclear weapons states seem to begin to understand that the rest of the world is fed up with double standards, and non-proliferation can only begin to get back on track if disarmament is taken seriously.

We know all too well that when it comes to this crucial ingredient of leadership, there is an awful lot of pure chance in play. So much does seem to depend just on the luck of the draw: whether at a time of fragility and transition a country finds itself with a Mandela or a Milosevic or a Mugabe; an Ataturk or an Arafat; a Rabin who can see and seize the moment, and change course, or someone who never will. Despite all our best efforts, that has always been so, and I suspect it always will be. Looking around the world at those individuals who currently matter most, we just have to express the fervent hope that even if leaders are not always born, and only on very rare occasions are elected, they can at least on occasion be made.

Of all the lessons we have learned about conflict prevention the need for good leadership is probably the single most obvious and the single most important. But it remains the hardest of all to get right. And maybe at the end of the day, the responsibility for getting it right – in voting democracies like ours at least – is something that we cannot pretend belongs to anyone but ourselves as ordinary, individual citizens.


1. Human Security Report 2005, Human Security Centre, University of British Columbia, Oxford University Press, 2005. A new 2006-07 report, which confirms all these trends, is to be published shortly. See www.humansecurityreport.info.

2. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has stated that an annual increase of $24 billion would reduce world hunger by half (to 400 million people) by 2015; UNAIDS has repeatedly estimated $10 billion a year as the cost of mounting a comprehensive response to HIV-AIDS in low and middle income countries; and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has estimated the additional monies needed to immunise very child in the developing world at just $3 billion annually. See http://costofwar.com/numbers.html. The estimate of $9 billion per year for maternal and newborn health comes from Lynn Freedman, Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, cited by Nicholas D. Kristof, ‘Prudence’s Struggle Ends’, International Herald Tribune, 25 September 2006.