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Conflict and Mass Violence in Africa: Is There an End in Sight?

Dinner Keynote Address by Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, to Aspen Atlantic Group/Stanley Foundation Conference on Africa at Risk or Rising? The Role of Europe, North America and Europe on the Continent, Berlin, 5 May 2007

Of all the hundreds of thousands, or more likely millions, of words I must have publicly uttered as Australian Foreign Minister for eight years, and a parliamentarian for 21, it is a little disconcerting to find myself best remembered in Australian politics for just three of them – uttered from the misery of the Opposition benches about a year after leaving office – when I described myself as suffering from ‘Relevance Deprivation Syndrome’, or RDS. The International Crisis Group has proved a pretty good cure for that – but an important part of the supplementary treatment has been this regular meeting of ‘Madeleine and Her Exes’. I’m grateful for the chance to be here again with Secretary Albright and her distinguished cast of former foreign ministers and policy experts: it’s always a stimulating experience.

I’m not sure that I’m quite so grateful about the poisoned chalice I have been offered as a ‘Dinner Keynote’ speaker. As we all know there are various death slots in this business – first up in the afternoon after a good lunch on a warm day being the most lethal – but a dinner speech on a serious topic, and there cannot be many more serious than ‘Conflict and Mass Violence in Africa’, towards the end of a conference, when everyone is pretty well speeched-out, must come a close second.

So I’ll try to minimise the pain, and just offer you a series of rather staccato observations on the topic – five bits of good news, five bits of bad news, and five things the international community (including those of us who hover on its edges and try to influence it) can do to make the bad news better. After which we can pick up one or two themes for more discussion, or go back to the carousing and gossiping that I suspect we would all rather prefer.

Some Good News

1. Despite almost universal perception to contrary, and how counter-intuitive this seems, the overall number of conflicts and episodes of mass violence in the world has declined dramatically since the end of the Cold War, and nowhere more so in recent years than in sub-Saharan Africa. The figures come from the Human Security Centre run by Andrew Mack at the Liu Institute at the University of British Columbia, of which our colleague Lloyd Axworthy was the founding father, and they are compelling.

Overall, the declines since the early 1990s have been of the order of 80 per cent in the number of serious conflicts (with quite a few conflicts starting but many more ending during the period); 80 per cent again in the number of those killed in battle; and – closely tracking the big decline in the number of civil wars – a drop of 90 per cent in campaigns of ‘political mass murder’ (genocide and so-called politicide and the like).

From 2002-2005, the number of armed conflicts worldwide shrank 15 per cent from 66 to 56 – but by far the greatest decline was in sub-Saharan Africa. Between 2002 and 2005, the number of state-based conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa declined from 13 to 5 or by 60 per cent; the number of non-state conflicts from 24 to 14. In addition to decline in overall conflict numbers in the region, the number of sub-Saharan African countries experiencing one or more conflicts on their soil shrank from 15 to 8. In 2003, Africa was home to 46 of 89 cases of armed conflict and one-sided violence that year. In 2005, it was home to only 25 of 71. The drop in number of conflicts in this region has been the single most important factor driving down the global armed conflict toll over the past four years.

2. It’s not just a matter of abstract statistics, which (as all of us in politics know from years of using and abusing and misusing them) can be very misleading: all this has translated into some very visible and specific achievements in particular country situations. The most significant successes in conflict resolution and successful peacemaking have come from the African regions that witnessed some the worst human tragedies of the 1990s: Sierra Leone and Liberia in the Mano River area of West Africa and DR Congo and Burundi in Central Africa’s Great Lakes.

3. The decline in armed conflict in sub-Saharan Africa has taken place despite the fact that ‘structural’ factors (poverty, low growth, lack of state capacity etc) associated with heightened risks of conflict have changed little or even worsened (for example, between 2003-5, the number of low-income countries under stress increased from 11 to 14). The best single explanation for the big declines in conflict and mass violence, both in Africa and around the rest of the world, is that there has been a major increase in international support for efforts to end wars and prevent them from restarting. What we all do – through the UN, through regional and sub-regional intergovernmental organisations, through significant players (like the U.S., or in Africa, South Africa) operating at a bilateral governmental level, and at the level of NGOs like my International Crisis Group or Human Rights Watch – does actually seem to matter: however frustrating it seems from time to time, we are not all wasting our time.

4. There have been major advances in conflict prevention and resolution institution-building over the last decade or so, which gives cause for hope that this is all not just a transient phenomenon, and that we have a real chance of going on doing better in the future. The African Union has been established with a completely different and much more activist mandate than the OAU it replaced; the EU has gradually been getting its act together both militarily, with Operation Artemis giving a good foretaste of what might be achievable as the concept of battle groups takes hold and the recent German-led effort for the Congo elections, and through excellent civilian peacekeeping operations like the Aceh Monitoring Mission; the UN has established a Peacebuilding Commission to fill some of the huge gaps which had previously existed in ensuring sustained commitment in post-conflict situations; many individual countries have developed much more sophisticated in-house conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms; and even NGOs like mine, which didn’t exist a decade ago, are established features of the early warning, response and general conflict policy landscape.

5. There has been accompanying all this a big conceptual shift away from the traditional Westphalian notion that sovereignty is, in effect, a license to kill. We didn’t manage it with Bernard Kouchner’s droit d’ingérence, or ‘the right of humanitarian intervention’ in the 1990s – which was a noble and effective rallying cry for some, but overall enraged as many as it inspired around the world; nor with Kofi Annan’s suggestion that we regard national sovereignty as having to be balanced by individual sovereignty – which really only restated the problem without resolving it. But we do seem to have got there with the concept of the responsibility to protect (or R2P as we are now all calling it in this age of acronymphomania) – which starts with the responsibility of sovereign states to protect their own people from genocide and ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity, but doesn’t finish there: when they fail to do so, through incapacity or ill-will, the responsibility shifts to the wider international community, to be exercised by appropriate means up to and including military force. Embraced unanimously by the more than 150 heads of state and government at the 2005 World Summit (with strong, and crucial, support, from sub-Saharan Africa), and endorsed since by the Security Council, this is – in the history of ideas – one of the biggest normative shifts we have seen, and taking place in the shortest time.

Some Bad News

1. The conflicts and mass violence situations that have not been resolved in Africa, include some very bad ones indeed, with Darfur, Chad and Somalia – and in its own way Zimbabwe – being the most currently troubling.

In Darfur, since the Government of Sudan began its extreme overreaction to the challenge to its authority launched by Darfur rebel groups in 2003, more than 200,000 have died violently or from war-caused disease and starvation, more than 2 million remain displaced and homeless, with another 2 million dependent on international assistance. Countless numbers of women have been raped, and adults and children seriously injured. The government-supported ‘Janjaweed’ militias, responsible for most of the atrocity crimes, have been neither disarmed nor controlled, and in some cases are now fighting among themselves. The rebel groups have divided and multiplied rather than consolidated since the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) in Abuja in May 2006, and the overall humanitarian, human rights and security situation has again deteriorated.

As the conflict spreads and deepens, aid operations are threatened, with civilians, once again, bearing the brunt of the escalation in violence and insecurity. Meanwhile, the ruling National Congress Party in Khartoum continues to deny the gravity of the situation, to obstruct the deployment of a strengthened peacekeeping force to the region and bolster the undermanned and struggling African Union mission, and to hinder the resumption of serious political negotiations. And the international community continues to fiddle, refusing to put in place even the kind of very robust economic sanctions that would do much to change President Bashir’s current cost-benefit calculation.

At last count the EU had expressed ‘concern’ in one way or another 54 times, without significant accompanying action. And President Bush has yet again threatened to take coercive economic action if Khartoum does not rapidly move to embrace the full hybrid force package. But we’ve heard that before, and we’ll no doubt hear it again, while the people of Darfur continue to grievously suffer.

The instability in Darfur is increasingly being exported to Chad, where more than 200,000 Darfur refugees are housed in camps. Within Chad, at least 90,000 Chadian civilians have been displaced by violent attacks from Sudanese and Chadian militias in 2006, and the pattern of chaos, lawlessness and attacks against civilians is increasingly spilling across the border, further complicating an already fragile and vulnerable internal situation with its own deep roots.

As in Darfur, the NCP has exploited the lack of resolve on the part of the international community, and weaknesses in its junior partner, to delay and frustrate the peace process, often playing the Arab and Muslim solidarity card, to oppose western pressure.

Somalia, which has known no effective central government since 1991, is now plunging again into full-scale bloodshed following the Ethiopian army’s intervention in support of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in January, backed by the U.S. – seizing Mogadishu and Southern Somalia from the Islamists, and an assorted group of conservative pragmatists and militant hardliners, accused of sponsoring separatist Somali movements in Ethiopia and harbouring Al Qaeda-linked international terrorists. The African Union has decided to believe the fiction that the TFG was a legitimate government, implementing the program of transition, and has sent a protection force to add to the chaos now prevailing in Mogadishu. It might well face its first peacekeeping quagmire in the coming months.

Simultaneously, in Zimbabwe, a political and economic crisis that has reached its seventh year is pushing the country, if not necessarily toward major internal conflict (though I was struck by the amount of speculation I heard about this when in South Africa a few days ago), certainly towards total collapse. The world’s fastest-shrinking peacetime economy has left the country teetering on the brink. The combination of that meltdown, rampant corruption, a deteriorating humanitarian situation, high poverty, political paralysis, and repression mirrors the situation in the Congo during the last days of Mobutu’s rule. And now, in defiance of the growing domestic outcry for a radical change in leadership and new policies to return credible democracy and prosperity, we have President Robert Mugabe evidently determined to run for another term and extend his rule.

2. On the responsibility to protect principle, we cannot, unfortunately, assume that the bridgehead achieved at the World Summit and in subsequent Security Council resolutions will necessarily hold. Some member states – particularly in Asia – were very reluctant to accept this part of the Summit outcome document, and continue to fight a rearguard action against it. They have been much aided in this respect by R2P’s false friends. Occasional efforts by defenders of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, notably the UK government, to paint it as justified by R2P principles (as other defences in terms of possession of weapons of mass destruction or support for international terrorism crumbled away) have succeeded admirably in reinforcing the arguments of R2P opponents that any concession as to the limits of state sovereignty would create an excuse that would be exploited all too willingly by neo-colonialists and neo-imperialists keen to return to their bad old interventionist habits of decades past.

One sign of possible difficulties ahead was the rejection by the Security Council in January this year – with vetoes from China and Russia (cast together for the first time since 1972), and South Africa voting against – of a resolution condemning Myanmar’s appalling human rights record. The argument of the opponents was that the government’s behaviour was not ‘a threat to international peace’, and thus outside the Security Council’s jurisdiction. It is certainly arguable that Myanmar’s human rights violations, while deplorable, have been not of the same character or scale of those in Darfur, or Kosovo or Srebrenica or Rwanda before it, but it is disturbing nonetheless to see any return to favour of a broad view that state sovereignty inherently confers protection from international scrutiny and censure. As Desmond Tutu, put it: “If others are using the arguments we are using today when we asked them for their support against apartheid, we might still have been unfree.” Those of us concerned to consolidate R2P as a universally accepted international norm – and one legitimising close attention by the Security Council to the behaviour toward their own people of a number of deeply unsavoury regimes – will have to stay on our toes for a good while yet.

3. There has been a conspicuous failure to get serious in relation to the kind of enhanced civilian and military capacity building that is necessary if we are to give real operational content to the responsibility to protect concept, and also to lift our game still further in response to peace operations generally. In particular there has been a failure to give effective financial and logistical support to the African Union to better enable it to fill the gap between rhetoric and reality when it comes to operational effectiveness. It’s one thing to support ‘African solutions to African problems’, or an – again much to be desired – increase everywhere in the world in regional and sub-regional roles and responsibilities in relation to security matters. But it’s quite another thing to use this as an excuse to abdicate responsibility for giving the kind of material support that the major developed countries are very capable of delivering. (In this context there may be something to be said for the idea of a newly created US military Africa Command, to more effectively deliver military cooperation and support, but there is a lot of understandable scepticism that first has to be overcome about what else the US might be carrying in its baggage in proposing to play such a constructive role.)

4. There has been a lack of coherence, consistency and consensus in the way in which the key international players respond to these situations: a point that has often been made, about the EU response to various conflict situations, but the point can easily be generalised. Even in a highly specific area like response to actual or threatened mass atrocities, it remains very difficult to get countries to move beyond acceptance of the general principle that sovereignty has its limits, to get agreement on what precise action should be taken by whom and when, above all when, the question of military intervention arises.

Part of the problem here is that a crucial part of the R2P package – as conceived by the Canadian Commisson which gave it birth, and the High Level Panel and Secretary-General’s reports which recommended it to the World Summit – was left as unfinished business, ie. adoption of a set of prudential guidelines as to when the use of non-consensual force would be appropriate. We identified five of them: the seriousness of the harm being threatened (which in the case of internal misbehaviour would need to involve large-scale loss of life or ethnic cleansing to prima facie justify something as extreme as military action); the motivation or primary purpose of the proposed military action (whether it was primarily to halt or avert the threat in question, or had some other main objective); whether there were reasonably available peaceful alternatives; the proportionality of the response; and, not least, the balance of consequences – whether overall more good than harm would be done by a military invasion.

Of course – with the world of national interests, and perceived national interests, and cynical realpolitik being what it is – no criteria of this kind, even if agreed as guidelines by the Security Council, will ever end argument on how they should be applied in particular instances, for example Darfur right now. But it is hard to believe they would not be more helpful than the present totally ad hoc system in focusing attention on the relevant issues, revealing weaknesses in argument, and generally encouraging consensus.

5. The other piece of bad news worth emphasising is that, although things have been improving in many ways on the democracy front, the problem of governance in Africa, and in particular governance at the top, remains desolately widespread. The ‘big man’ syndrome is still far too evident, with too many of the renaissance heroes who have been successively identified proving to have feet of clay – Meles , Issaias, Museveni and now Obasanjo being pretty clear examples for a start. As most of us who have been foreign ministers would be quicker to testify than those who write theses about the causes and solutions of conflict, individuals just do matter a huge amount, often much more than underlying deep-seated structural factors. I guess it may ultimately be just a matter of luck of the draw whether a vulnerable country in transition finds itself with a Mandela, rather than a Milosevic or a Mugabe, but Africa has not had a huge amount of luck in the past in this respect – and with only a small handful of exceptions, it’s not clear that it’s luck is going to get much better in the future.

Things We can Do to Make the Bad News Better

1. Get our heads analytically very clear about what each situation requires, because despite superficial similarities, they are all different, with their own dynamics. We should not plunge into any kind of remedial action, preventive or reactive, without having a pretty comprehensive idea of all the forces in play, local, national, regional and international. You’d expect me to say this because analysing these situations is what Crisis Group does, but necessity in this case is actually accompanied by virtue – I really believe it.

The need for case-by-case analysis is particularly acute when it comes to devising solutions, or creating the conditions for solutions, and getting consensus among all relevant players as to what those solutions should be. The current situations in Darfur and Zimbabwe, for example, require a rather different approach to sanctions.

In the case of Darfur, I think it’s hard to argue that we don’t need right now – in addressing both the security need for an effective civilian-protection military force on the ground, and the political need for a cooperative approach to the necessary new political negotiations – some very tough measures on the table to change the balance of calculation, and balance of risk, for the Bashir regime. The threats have been made so often they’re now a joke in bad taste: it’s time to implement them, and the U.S. and the EU can do so between them without the need for UN support, though of course that’s always desirable.

In Zimbabwe, by contrast, while we should certainly maintain the present targeted sanctions, it is hard to believe that their wider or deeper application would – in the present condition of the country – make any difference. What we need is an approach, focused on finding a workable exit strategy for Mugabe, that his neighbours in SADC can fully buy into and actually make work.

If Mugabe is intent on remaining in office until he dies, little can be achieved through diplomatic efforts, and we face a future of confrontation and conflict, hopefully short-lived. But there remains a chance that a package can be devised which would assure Mugabe of immunity from prosecution – however ill-deserved that might be – and the confiscation of his assets; lift international sanctions; offer some protection of his political and ideological legacy, by not vesting power immediately in the MDC opposition for which he has such loathing, but rather a ZANU-PF loyalist, albeit with provision also being made for a ZANU-PF/MDC transitional arrangement; and have the British provide some resources for a reasonable land reform program 27 years after Lancaster House.

2. Get our heads clear about the peace versus justice trade-off which is often involved in conflict resolution. The issue is constantly now arising with the role of the new International Criminal Court – e.g. in Darfur and Uganda. Because the ICC’s jurisdiction under the Rome Treaty is only available for events occurring after July 2002, a great deal of its work is necessarily bound up with ongoing conflict: the peace versus justice dilemma is much less of a concern when prosecuting past crimes arising out of concluded conflicts.

We simply have to acknowledge that situations can arise in which the need to advance a peace process can work against the impunity principle to which all of us in the human rights community are so committed: as much as it may shock the conscience to contemplate not pursuing prosecutions when major perpetrators of atrocity crimes are involved, this can be helpful in certain circumstances in ending conflict, and in saving as a result a great many more lives. The classic case is Nigeria’s initial grant of asylum to Liberia’s murderous Charles Taylor in 2003, not at all unreasonable given the prospect then looming of thousands more deaths in the final battle for Monrovia. The corollary is that if such deals are made, they have to continue to be honoured, as was not the case here: Robert Mugabe, for one, is acutely conscious that Nigeria, under international pressure, subsequently handed over Taylor for prosecution, without making any serious attempt to prove that he had acted in breach of the conditions of his asylum.

In the ICC case, if decisions to give primacy to peace over justice do have to be made in certain hard cases, those decisions are best made not by its prosecutor but by those with appropriate political responsibility. The prosecutor’s job is to prosecute and he should get on with it, with bulldog intensity. If the judgement has to be made, on occasion, that the interests of peace should override those of justice, then that should be for the Security Council to decide, as it has the power to do under Article 16 of the Rome charter, enabling it to suspend prosecutions for renewable periods of twelve months.

3. Get the R2P norm consolidated, with a global campaign aimed at embedding it among the recalcitrants and potential backsliders; finishing the unfinished business about rules governing the use of force; and helping to generate effective responses to new conscience-shocking cases, as they all too inevitably come along. Some preliminary discussions have already taken place on the formation of an organisation which might be called the ‘Global Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect’ (GCR2P for short) – which, supported by foundations and governments and private sector donations, would draw together civil society organisations to work with like-minded governments and international organisations to recommend strategy, coordinate efforts, identify gaps, build political will, and serve as an information clearing house on R2P. Any such organisation should be structured, on an evenly balanced North-South basis, with distinguished patrons from around the world, and with an effective working secretariat – probably most effectively based in New York, but visibly more broadly connected, especially in Africa and Asia – not trying to tightly control campaign and related activity, both top-down and bottom-up, but helping to guide and coordinate it.

4. Get serious about capacity building – civil and military – in all the multiple dimensions, well known and often listed, that are necessary for this to be real.

5. Emphasise the good news, rather than the bad. It reinforces morale, helps to get governments to take action, and in particular to unlock treasury vaults. Let the perception continue that deadly conflict and mass violence in Africa is inevitable – that these are ancient enmities that have prevailed from time immemorial, and will continue to forever – and it will always be hard to build and sustain effective international support. Get the story out that serious efforts to prevent and resolve conflict – through all the multiple institutions and measures that are now available to us at all stages of the conflict cycle – do make a huge difference, with the proof already on the table in the dramatic decline in the number and intensity of conflicts, and that support will be much more readily deliverable.

To get that story out – that there is indeed an end in sight to the scarifying violence that has debilitated so much of Africa for so long – is the challenge for all of us here. And what makes it easier than many of the tales we had to tell in our previous political lives is that this story happens to be true.