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Ending Deadly Conflict: Just a Dream?

Address by Gareth Evans, President of the International Crisis Group, to UN Women’s International Forum, New York, 5 February 2007

As we read each day’s newspapers and look at each night’s television news, think about everything that is going wrong in the world from Iraq, Iran and Gaza, to Darfur and Somalia, to Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, and start listing all the impossibly difficult issues with which the Secretary General and the Security are currently wrestling, it really is hard to believe that ending deadly conflict – something to which everyone in this room is I know passionately committed - could ever be anything more than a dream.

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, and for the last few months we have had almost nothing but gloom to report, with deteriorating situations way outnumbering improving ones – and last November being in fact the worst single month for conflict prevention since we started publishing this bulletin 40 months ago. It’s hard to believe, again, in all of this, that the world has learned anything very much at all about how to prevent and manage and resolve deadly conflict.

But we do have some reasons still 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. We are doing better, and can do better still in preventing and resolving deadly conflict. And we can do so in particular if we recognize five big things that the post Cold War years should have taught us, five big lessons that I want to talk about today.

One: recognize that conflict prevention effort does work – we’re not all wasting our time

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 1990s, 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.

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 being fuelled by Washington or Moscow, and also the end of the road for a number of authoritarian governments propped up by each side who had been provoking internal resistance.

But, as argued by the research institute which compiles and publishes all this data in its Human Security Report (the Human Security Centre in Canada, which is led by Andrew Mack, who some of you may remember from his days in the UN Secretariat) the best explanation is the one that stares us in the face, even if a great many don’t want to acknowledge it. And that is the huge upsurge in activity in conflict prevention, conflict management, negotiated peacemaking and post-conflict peacebuilding activity that has occurred over the last fifteen years, with most of this being spearheaded by the much maligned UN.

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. The Rand Corporation - that quintessential US institution, which you would not expect to have any great enthusiasm for the multilateral system – told us in a recent report that, for all that has gone wrong from time to time, the UN actually manages these kind of transitional operations much better than the U.S. And 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, having finally learned – after the horrendous experiences of Angola, Rwanda, Afghanistan and Haiti – that the best single predictor of future conflict is past conflict in the same place, and that there is an absolutely critical need to put in sustained resources and commitment during the years that follow peace agreements to stop the whole horrible cycle of violence starting again.n 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 – that the best way to stop wars is not to start them.

It takes a long time for some things to sink into the heads of some policymakers, but– with the continuing catastrophe in Iraq, and the lesser but still painful one of Israel’s confrontation with Hizbollah last year - this message does seems to be finally getting through. Life is a learning experience, even for neo-cons.

It’s true that there is still an undiminished enthusiasm in some quarters for preventive strikes to deal with non-imminent threats – and we cannot assume that the bottom has entirely dropped out of the market for a strike on Iran’s still very early stage nuclear installations. But my sense, from successive visits to Washington – most recently last week – that there is now a fairly complete understanding of two key factors in relation to Iran: the range of demons, both regionally and globally, that we would be unleashed by preventive strikes; and the limited and short term nature of the gains that would be achieved – probably at best only delaying Iran’s program by four or five years.

There is a great deal to be said for good old fashioned diplomacy, containment and deterrence – not least in trying to solve the interlocking Middle East problems of Israel-Palestine, Lebanon-Syria, Iran and Iraq. It’s a great pity that the Baker-Hamilton report – which made the point as clearly as it could be made that diplomacy is all about talking to and finding common ground with your opponents, not just your friends – seems to have been for the moment thrown out the window. We thought for a few fleeting moments that we were seeing the return to Washington of some rather overdue adult supervision, but it seems like that’s still some distance away.

Certainly in Iraq the only way forward seems to be 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 with a broader group of players than those now dominating the government. This would be aimed in turn not at dividing the country, but at better power and wealth sharing agreements than those on the table at the moment - and at creating a security environment in which there could be a speedy negotiated drawdown of the coalition forces.

In terms of opportunity cost, it’s harrowing to think of just how much has already been squandered, not only in lives but in dollars, in Iraq. At the end of September 2006, when I last looked in detail at the figures, the incremental cost of the Iraq war to the US budget had already reached a mind-boggling $318.5 billion. It is instructive to stop for a moment to think what else that amount of money could have bought. On recent figures from various UN agencies, $318 billion 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 reject 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.

One of the issues being currently most hotly debated is whether the civilian protection situation in Darfur is now getting so bad that we should be looking not just at an enhanced peacekeeping operation (on which President Bashir is still dragging his feet) but a full-scale non-consensual military invasion. If we apply the five criteria I have just mentioned, most of them can be argued to be met, but there is a real problem with the last – the issue of balance of consequences. The problem is that just about everyone close to the situation on the ground 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 this principle and who hate it are now rather quick 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.

The debate between idealists and realists is one that recurs in many countries, but in few does it matter as much to the rest of the world as the debate in the United States. We have been through a period in which a particular brand of idealism has held sway and rather conspicuously failed – with bombing for democracy not proving to be very popular, and the one visible achievement of the ‘axis of evil’ rhetoric being to bring rather more closely together three countries which previously had nothing in common at all!

My Crisis Group Board member colleague Ken Adelman – the former head of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and originally a fierce supporter of the Iraq war (and who will be known to the end of his days as ‘Cakewalk Ken’ for the way in which he expressed that enthusiasm) has lamented in the last issue of Vanity Fair, that after all that has gone wrong in 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, naïve 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 George Bush Senior’s, whose foreign policy performance in many other ways was much to be 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 the US, like every other country, 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.

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, and was given huge impetus by Kofi Annan’s outspoken support for it during the last years of his term – is a simple one. It is 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.

Given the implications of this for traditional notions of state sovereignty, 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, this new ‘R2P’ principle (as ‘responsibility to protect’ has now come to be abbreviated in this age of acronymphomania). As the current still horrifying events in Darfur make all too clear, there remains a long way to go in ensuring that in practice this principle actually means something, but at least a 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. 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 point that I hardly need to labour before this audience, but it runs through almost everything I have said so far. 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 the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain famously did in the 1930s, ‘quarrels in far away countries between people of whom we know nothing’ We know too much now about the capacity of failed states, in this globalised world, to be a source of havoc for others.

It is simply not possible to respond effectively to security threats, whether global or regional or in many cases even local, and whether they come from state or non state actors, 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. It’s in every country’s national interest, not just small or medium sized countries like my own, to operate in a rule-based rather than raw power-based international order.

Five: recognize there is no substitute for leadership

Of course what I’m talking about here is not just any leadership: a couple of months ago I spent a weekend in Nuremberg, sampling not just the delights of Europe’s most wonderful Christmas market, but standing where Hitler screamed his obscenities from the crumbling podium of the Zeppelinfield, and in that courtroom where Goering and others stood trial for their crimes against humanity ¬– reminding myself just 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. It’s leadership 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.

It’s the kind of towering moral and political leadership showed, above all perhaps, by Nelson Mandela in South Africa’s transition, completely avoiding – with crucial support, it should be acknowledged, 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 the 2005 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, not least in his huge support for the principle of the responsibility to protect and the limits that implies for state sovereignty.

To be effective, an S-G 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 S-G 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, with the P5 obviously wanting him to be more secretary than general, and certainly not the kind of secular pope that Kofi Annan was often described as being (no doubt much to his embarrassment: and I can’t imagine that Nane liked very much the idea of being married to a pope!). I just hope, as I suspect many will here, that the new S-G 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; in Iraq, where it has 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 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.

Many of you in this audience are leaders or potential leaders in your own right, or are deeply involved in supporting partners in high and responsible leadership positions in the international community. You understand better than most how important it is for not only for our own generation but for all those who follow us, that we do find and nurture the leaders we need - to apply the policies we know we need, and the policies we now know can work, to make the dream of a world without deadly conflict closer to reality. It has been a privilege to talk to you, and I look forward to tackling your questions.