How does the international community deal with conflicts?

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Soldiers stand guard at the market, women with child pass them by


Which methods exist to avoid conflicts?

The international community - the United Nations, the European Union, individual western governments, but also neighbouring countries, etc. - mainly take a diplomatic approach, but it is also via development support or trade. You can either encourage good conduct with incentives, or punish with sanctions.

Mediation is one of the instruments of diplomacy. With mediation, you get involved in a conflict situation as an independent outsider. This is only possible if you are accepted as 'neutral' by all the parties involved. A mediator first needs to learn the positions of the various sides, and then encourage communication and bridge-building. To this end, the conflict must have reached a certain level of maturity: the parties must be willing to make concessions. This willingness only materialises when they realise that continuing with the conflict will not result in any gain. In other words: when looking for a solution is more beneficial than violence.

In addition to diplomacy, the states involved - heads of state, political parties, the police, etc. - also play a decisive role in determining whether or not a conflict arises. Moreover, the instruments which a state has at its disposal offer the best guarantee of success, as long as they are used effectively. I have examined this during elections. If the police can act fairly and win the respect of the community, and if there are clear rules regarding their actions, they can guard polling stations effectively. In addition, high-quality electoral commissions are essential for avoiding election violence. Electoral commissions play a vital leadership role if they can operate freely, and independent from the state.

To avoid conflicts, it is therefore beneficial to invest in a properly functioning state. These days, diplomacy is usually deployed too late: when violence has already broken out, or is just about to. It then becomes a crisis instrument rather than a prevention instrument, and has little effect in the long term.

There is clearly a large number of potential conflicts around the world. The international community cannot act preventively everywhere. How do they decide where to act?

Take Libya and Syria for example, 5 or 6 years ago. In Libya, the international community took robust action, while in Syria the response was slow in coming. This was a huge disappointment for NGOs. Although it is not surprising if you look at the criteria which were used to decide whether or not to intervene. Of course the gravity of the situation plays a role, but inevitably, self-interest does as well: how many of our compatriots are there, how much trade do we have there, etc. In addition, the odds of success are also taken into account. In Syria, these were all very low. Unfortunately, prevention still has very little effect in serious situations. Consequently, the cases where action would be most effective are not always chosen.

From your research, it appears that the prevention methods used are not always adapted to the context. Can you shed some light on that?

Prior to elections, it is preferable to deploy peace messaging and youth programming. With peace messaging, a significant amount of civilians are brought together, who are not involved in the political game. A cricket game was organised in Pakistan, while in Malawi, large slogans were painted onto train carriages… In this way, people can be encouraged not to commit violence, or respond to provocation. On paper it seems very straightforward, but behaviour doesn't really change.

Youth programming is also very popular. Of course, youth is the future. We need to inculcate an ethical awareness in them so that they later act with dignity in politics. This looks good for peace organisations, and it is also easy to implement.

These programmes need to be implemented in the very short term, 3 to 4 months before the elections. That is too short! It is often not possible to start sooner since the budgets are only available at a late stage.

Neither approach achieves much success. Intervening sooner is the solution, as well as supporting the state. For example, by training the police or forming electoral commissions.

What can be done if a conflict still rages?

At the least, attempts can be made to prevent the violence from escalating further (things can always get worse). And the most vulnerable groups (women and children) need to be protected. Tragically, rape becomes widespread in conflicts. To protect the vulnerable, they can be transferred to safe havens in neighbouring countries, which can develop into refugee camps. But they can also remain within the country, close to their roots, whilst attempts to negotiate are made with the warring factions: 'You are entitled to wage war, but not in this area.' The International Red Cross is very active in this kind of 'humanitarian dialogue'.

Two Red Cross workers negotiate with local soldiers

Mediation is one of the instruments of diplomacy. With mediation, you get involved in a conflict situation as an independent outsider. © ICRC

Does that also happen in Syria?

Absolutely. Although don't expect too much. As Martin Griffiths from the European Institute for Peace (EIP) put it: failure is the rule! The EIP is specialised in initiating dialogue with factions which are entrenched in heavy conflict. In these extremely difficult situations, you need good connections and a certain willingness. The chances of success are very small. But if you do manage to achieve success, the reward is enormous!

How can you build peace if the conflict is 'mature', as you put it, and the parties are tired of conflict?

As a mediator, you need to be seen as meeting the parties half way. To this end, there needs to be a minimum amount of common ground between the various parties.

Colombia is a good example. The leaders of all the parties involved were very discreetly brought together in a neutral location in Cuba. Firstly, the extended agenda was agreed upon. That in itself is an enormous task: determining what people want to discuss and what not. You have several options in this respect. You can either start off very tough and later become more flexible, or you can start flexible and become tougher as the process wears on. Roger Fisher gives an excellent account of this in his book ‘Getting to Yes’.

How do you achieve a genuinely lasting peace?

A genuinely lasting peace is self-perpetuating. Among other things, it is achieved through political institutions and a robust legal system whereby society is able to deal with conflicts itself in a peaceful manner.

That is very ambitious, especially following an intensely violent conflict. People cannot simply forgive and forget. France and Germany was a success story after WWII, but even here, rancour remained afterwards. In the case of the genocide in Rwanda, it is simply unrealistic to expect that Hutus and Tutsis will be completely reconciled with one another.

New forms of conflict have emerged, such as international terrorism and radicalisation. How can these be tackled?

At the present time, we are unsure how to tackle phenomena such as radicalisation. The worldviews on violent extremist organisations are so diverse, that it is impossible to find common ground. We first need to thoroughly reflect on the issue before taking any action. We need to be sure that any actions will not make the situation worse. For the time being, we have a very limited understanding of what works and what doesn't, beyond a few local anecdotes.

Besides, can we really negotiate with groups like ISIS, Boko Haram and Al Shabab? In the US, it is completely illegal, and therefore punishable by law, to negotiate with extremist organisations: they are terrorists after all. Switzerland is much more flexible in this respect. That is why some mediation organisations are based in Switzerland.

Who is actually active in the area of peace negotiations?

Numerous international organisations such as the UN, EU and the International Red Cross (ICRC) are actively involved in negotiating for political or humanitarian aims. But also national envoys. For example, countries often have significant expertise and influence in their former colonies. In addition, local actors also generally play an important and underestimated role. This could be a bishop for example, a figure with status who is respected by all ethnic groups. For example, during the crisis linked to the elections in Gabon, the archbishop of Libreville thoroughly examined the matter before requesting the international community to mediate. The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (CHD) in Geneva is also a highly active mediator.

Political mediation mainly involves working towards reconciliation between the warring factions in question. On the other hand, humanitarian mediation (ICRC, CHD, etc.) attempts in the first instance to enforce concessions in order to protect civilians.

What role does the media play?

The media can play a positive role if they can provide objective information which can protect people. Radio is the main channel in this respect. But media can also broadcast messages of hate and incite population groups against each other. Training can be provided to help prevent this. This can also help prevent strong connections being forged between the media and the political system, in which opposition parties are gagged. The media is generally highly politicised, which is a problem.

Yet in many countries, the media is a source of objective information. For example, everyone in Nairobi can be seen walking around with a newspaper. Both the written press and the radio are highly respected. But that is not the same everywhere.

Do you think there are more or less conflicts now, compared with the last century?

After the Cold War, there was a slight fall in the number of conflicts and the amount of victims, but this trend has reversed. Moreover, we are confronted by new kinds of conflicts with new victims. The civilian population is increasingly a target. Even the Red Cross or UN forces are no longer avoided. They are no longer considered as neutral. That makes everything much more complex than before.

Wat zijn de diepere oorzaken van conflict?

I would think conflict is the natural consequence of differences of opinion. A world without conflicts would neither be possible nor desirable. The challenge consists of channelling divergent opinions and formulating solutions which are acceptable to everyone. Unfortunately, differences of opinion are often manipulated by leaders to strengthen their own positions of power.

Is een vredevolle wereld mogelijk?

At any rate, it is a goal we all need to strive towards. Will it ever be possible? We have methods to deal with armed conflict at least. Unfortunately, vast resources are spent on warfare and defence, while the 'peace industry', and also diplomacy and development cooperation have to make do with peanuts.

Welke rol speelt ontwikkelingssamenwerking in vredesopbouw?

It is clearly important. The grievances which are at play in a conflict can often be mitigated by development cooperation. For example, if there is only one access point to vital raw materials, attempts can be made through development cooperation to provide access for everyone to, e.g. water or fertile land.

Johan Claes

Jonas Claes works as a senior researcher at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, DC. He is primarily focused on research into the prevention of election violence and mass atrocities, as well as methods to combat violent extremism. His obtained his Master's degree in international relations at the KU Leuven. He also has a Master's in Security Studies from Georgetown University.

Belgium organises international conference on mediation

On 14 February 2017, Jonas Claes participated as a speaker in an international conference on mediation, organised by Minister for Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders. The conference was designed to highlight the importance of mediation in conflict resolution. A dozen ministers and speakers, together with around 300 diplomats and experts, shared their experience. The initiative was a response to the call by the new UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to place more emphasis on conflict prevention and mediation. Belgium immediately added potency to the slogan of its candidacy for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council: 'forge consensus, build peace'.