Perspectives on Conflict and Securing Peace

Presented by the Secretary General of the Socialist International to the Committee on Peace, Democracy and Human Rights

June 2001

 

1. In this the year of our 50th anniversary, the Socialist International continues to be an organisation defined by its commitment to resolving armed conflict and ensuring lasting peace, both within and between countries. Violence destroys human life and undermines the potential for economic development and social advancement. As we emphasised in the 1989 Declaration of Principles of the Socialist International, peace is a basic human value and a necessary condition for progress in all societies.

1.1 The Socialist International also believes that democracy and respect for human rights are fundamental to achieving and maintaining peace. This has been and remains an integral part of our social democratic identity. For instance, we were in the forefront in linking the successful quest for peace in Central America and South Africa to the promotion of democracy, and have continued this approach in the Balkans.

We also recognise that ensuring a lasting peace in these and other places requires that democratic institutions continue to be nurtured, that the protection of human rights be further strengthened and that a culture of peace be promoted, especially among youth. This is particularly important in countries that recently have thrown off authoritarian regimes but have yet to establish democratic rule sufficiently resilient to withstand the stress and pressures of globalisation.

1.2 Fortifying democracy and enhancing the democratic rule of law work to alleviate tensions and thereby help to prevent conflicts from breaking out or spreading once they have started. It has been the experience of our International, and been confirmed by a number of scholarly studies, that democratic states are far less likely to act violently against other nations, and are also much more likely to maintain relative peace internally, than are non-democratic states.

1.3 Democracy is also critical for the prevention and resolution of conflicts that involve ethnic, racial or cultural differences, because only democratic states are capable of guaranteeing the rights of minorities. The Socialist International rejects the notion that violence stemming from such differences is endemic and that these types of conflict are therefore intractable. But where ethnicity is a factor, differing sides in a conflict often exploit it for military or political advantage, preying on the fears of ordinary citizens and their memories of past violence.

This further underlines the importance of guaranteeing minority rights as an integral part of any effort to promote peace. As we stated in the 1951 Declaration of Principles of the Socialist International, "Democracy implies a government temporarily legitimised by the majority, provided that the basic human rights of minorities are safeguarded…There are principles that can never be revoked by majority decision, in particular respect for human rights, pluralism and tolerance." And, as we further stated at the XIX Congress of the International in Berlin in 1992, "Minority rights represent a fundamental principle of free, democratic societies. Their protection is one of the basic principles of human rights."

1.4 Conflicts, particularly those involving ethnic, religious or cultural differences, can be resolved only through dialogue and negotiation, fortified by accords that ensure political democracy and protection of human rights through the rule of law for all involved. This can be a protracted process, with frequent ups and downs, cyclical crises and unforeseen complications, as we have witnessed in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. But we have learned, too, that with perseverance, determination and patience during the most difficult stages, understanding eventually can conquer hate, segregation can be replaced by coexistence and peaceful resolutions found for every conflict.

1.5 Because of the increasing complexity of war and conflict since the end of the Cold War, the tasks of foreseeing and preventing outbreaks of hostility, as well as managing crises as they begin to emerge, have become even more challenging. At the same time, however, the Socialist International has become a truly global movement, with member parties growing in influence and regional committees increasingly active on every continent.

This allows the International to act as an early warning system as our parties provide detailed reports regarding threats to peace around the world - including economic and social deterioration and failings of governance - to our committees and to our Council. They in turn act as channels for alerting and informing the world and the appropriate international agencies in a timely way.

Our International also continues to provide a forum for dialogue - at the local, regional and international levels, both formally and informally - to help defuse tense situations before they become worse or spin out of control. We are also well positioned to carry out missions and other concrete initiatives underlining our solidarity with people in the search for peace.

 

2. In looking to enhance our work on behalf of peace, we should seek to develop and refine frameworks for understanding the nature of conflict in today’s changing world. All conflicts ultimately should to be treated individually, as each one will be rooted in a unique set of factors and underlying causes. However, different conflicts exhibit similar characteristics, particularly over the last decade, and certain trends and patterns can be discerned.

2.1 Based on the experience and reporting of our member parties and committees, as well as the analysis and surveys by nongovernmental organisations, academic institutions and international agencies which monitor armed conflict, it is evident that the most significant trend since the end of Cold War has been the increase in the number of intrastate conflicts - many linked to ethnic, religious and cultural tensions - coupled with a simultaneous decline in interstate conflicts.

2.2 Interstate conflicts would include, for example, Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the 1980-1988 war between Iraq and Iran. Such large-scale wars recently have been the exception, however, as interstate conflict is currently manifested more in smaller-scale border wars and skirmishes.

2.3 Intrastate conflicts, in turn, have proliferated since the 1980s and now account for up to 90 percent of conflicts worldwide. Such conflicts are more complicated as the causes are more diverse and often overlap. According to some surveys, close to half of intrastate conflicts are fueled primarily by ethnic, religious and cultural differences, which frequently are exacerbated by the repressive actions of non-democratic regimes.

Other intrastate conflicts are essentially political-military, taking the form of civil wars for national power and/or a change in the type of regime. Such conflicts can be triggered by excessive government corruption, the derailment of democratic transitions, profound social and economic crisis, or a combination of any of these factors. Ethnicity can also be a contributing although secondary factor.

At the same time, intrastate conflicts can spill across national borders and provoke interstate conflicts that then overlap with the internal disputes, further heightening the complexity of the situation, creating multiple conflicts in some countries and making peace efforts all the more difficult.

2.4 As we have asserted on numerous occasions, including at the XX Congress of the International at United Nations headquarters in New York in 1996, we recognise and fully support the UN as the principal institution for promoting and maintaining peace in the world. We also back the role of regional and subregional organisations in such efforts.

At the same time, we acknowledge that intrastate conflicts present a particularly difficult challenge for international organisations. The UN and other organisations are bound by the principles of sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of states. Intrastate conflicts, however, have led to systematic violation of human rights up to and including ethnic cleansing and genocide, with minority groups and civilians in general, particularly women and children, the principal victims. It is not easy for international organisations to find the right balance between sovereignty and the need to intervene. But non-democratic regimes should not be allowed to shield themselves behind the principle of non-interference, and sovereignty should not supersede the moral duty to come to the aid and protection of the weak.

 

3. Conflicts also can be categorised according to intensity. A number of different methods have been devised by various academic and research institutions. One of the more useful is the one created by Interdisciplinary Research Programme on Causes of Human Rights Violations (PIOOM) at Leiden University in The Netherlands. The PIOOM, whose survey is global in scope, categorises interstate and intrastate conflicts as either:

High Intensity - defined as organised combat between groups or countries leading to mass killings - more than 1,000 deaths per year - and substantial population displacement, or

Low Intensity - characterised by armed fighting between factional groups, anti-regime insurgency and/or regime repression, with total deaths per year between 100 and 1,000.

PIOOM also utilises a third category:

Violent Political Conflict - which refers to situations in which governments and/or groups are using violent tactics for political ends but on a lesser scale than in Low Intensity scenarios, causing 100 deaths or less per year.

3.1 Following is a brief look, by region, of conflict in the world today. It is drawn from the latest PIOOM survey, which covers developments up to mid-2000, other surveys and assessments including a recent report by UNICEF on the impact of conflict on children around the world, various media sources and reports by SI member parties. It should not be considered in any way definitive or comprehensive, but is designed to provide a framework through which our International can enhance its ability to track, update, analyse and respond effectively to conflict situations.

 

4. Africa:

4.1 The only purely interstate conflict on the African continent in recent years has been the 1998-2000 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea caused by border and economic disputes. It was a high intensity conflict in which tens of thousands of soldiers were killed before the still relatively fragile ceasefire was signed in 2000.

4.2 At the same time, there are many African countries afflicted by intrastate conflict, with civilians often the principal casualties, and a number of subregions where intrastate conflict has spilled over and/or brought about the involvement of neighboring countries.

One of the most complex cases is that of the Great Lakes Region, where an estimated 60,000 troops of the Democratic Republic of Congo, backed by 20,000 more from Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia, have been fighting against 30,000 troops from Rwanda, 6,000 from Uganda and tens of thousands of Rwanda and Uganda backed insurgents in a high intensity conflict which has claimed an estimated three million lives, mostly civilians. There are signed accords, time-tables and a UN observer mission, but as yet there is no mechanism for enforcing peace.

4.3 High intensity intrastate and interstate conflicts have overlapped, as well, in Western Africa where internal conflicts, first in Liberia, then in Sierra Leone with Liberian involvement, have brought terror to civilian populations and spilled over into neighboring Guinea, which is now involved in an escalating border war with Liberia and Liberian-backed guerrillas from Sierra Leone. The UN has employed sanctions against Liberia and placed peacekeepers in Sierra Leone, but an agreed ceasefire in Sierra Leone has yet to be consolidated.

4.4 Intrastate conflicts in the form of civil wars continue in a number of African countries. In Angola, for example, the decades-long conflict is mainly political-military in nature, with ethnicity a secondary factor. It remains a generally high intensity conflict as a series of internationally sponsored peace accords have failed to take hold.

The ongoing high intensity civil war in Burundi is rooted in animosity between the ruling Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority. That is the same ethnic configuration as in neighboring Rwanda where Hutu extremists massacred Tutsis in the 1994 genocide that Rwanda is still struggling to overcome.

In the nearly two-decade civil war in Sudan the Sudan People’s Liberation Army continues to fight for greater autonomy for the mainly animist and Christian population in the south from the Islamist government in Khartoum in the north. This high intensity conflict has led to the death of an estimated two million people and the displacement of four million more. A series of peace talks sponsored by eastern African states has had little success.

4.5 The high intensity conflict in Algeria, involving an Islamic insurgency seeking to overthrow a military-backed regime and severe repression by government security forces, has taken an estimated 100,000 lives in nine years. The situation has recently been further complicated by violent protests in the Berber regions of the country which prompted a government crackdown.

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In Somalia, the first central government in a decade is struggling to gain legitimacy and exert authority amid heavy factional fighting in an extremely fragmented society, raising concerns that the country could again disintegrate into the high intensity, anarchic violence of the early 1990s.

With regard to Morocco and Western Sahara, the UN-brokered ceasefire of 1991 continues to hold, while prospects for a UN-sponsored referendum on self-determination remain uncertain.

4.6 There are many low intensity conflicts in Africa, too numerous to address in detail here. A number of them involve armed separatist movements in ethnically divided countries. Nigeria, for example, has traditionally been a battleground for such disputes, but the ongoing transition to democracy in that country holds out the best prospects in decades for establishing relative peace among the various groups which comprise Nigeria’s complex society.

4.7 There are also numerous places in Africa where violent political conflict is evident but simmering below the low intensity threshold. One country, though, in which the violence is rapidly increasing is Zimbabwe, where armed allies of the government continue to attack farms, businesses and anyone else suspected of supporting the political opposition.

 

5. Asia and the Pacific:

5.1 Violent conflict is predominantly of an intrastate nature in Asia and the Pacific where some countries, especially India and Indonesia, are afflicted by multiple conflicts, of both high and low intensity, which are often linked to ethnic and religious differences.

5.2 India has proven itself better able to address and contain such violence because of the relative strength of its democratic institutions. The exception is in Jammu and Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state, where most of the nearly dozen Muslim guerrilla groups fighting Indian rule recently rejected an Indian ceasefire. More than 30,000 people have been killed since this high intensity conflict broke out in 1990.

The Jammu-Kashmir conflict is complicated by allegations that Pakistan is supporting the Muslim separatists, fueling further the interstate rivalry between India and Pakistan which is made all the more ominous by nuclear weapon capability on both sides. Meanwhile, Pakistan, which is still under authoritarian rule, continues itself to endure a number of ethnic and religiously based internal conflicts.

5.3 Sections of the border between India and Bangladesh have remained in dispute since the founding of Bangladesh in 1971. Tensions recently flared into violence in the Indian state of Assam where the Hindu majority is reacting against a large-scale migration of Muslims from Bangladesh, and where a skirmish between Indian and Bangladeshi border guards left sixteen Indian soldiers dead. The two generally friendly countries have set up a committee to forestall further violence and to resolve the border question.

5.4 Indonesia, in turn, where the transition to democracy remains extremely fragile after decades of dictatorship, shows few signs of being able to resolve the numerous ethnically based conflicts ongoing within its borders. The long simmering struggle in Aceh, for example, appears to be escalating into a high intensity conflict between secessionists and government security forces, with civilians the principal victims. The conflict in Aceh, in turn, seems to be heightening ethnic and separatist violence in other parts of the Indonesia including Borneo and the Indonesian half of New Guinea island.

5.5 East Timor continues to move toward full independence from Indonesia by the end of 2001. However, an estimated 50,000 East Timorese people remain in the camps controlled by militias linked to the Indonesian military in the Indonesia territory of West Timor, and militia fighters continue to cross the border into East Timor to attack UN peacekeepers and civilians.

5.6 Intrastate conflicts in the form of civil wars continue in a number of countries, including the high intensity conflict in Sri Lanka where separatist Tamil guerrillas have been fighting for nearly two decades against the government in this Sinhalese majority country. An estimated 64,000 people have been killed in the ethnic fighting. Recent efforts by Norway brought the sides somewhat closer together but a number of issues blocking peace talks, particularly the demand by the Tamil guerrillas for legal recognition, remain unresolved.

The protracted, high intensity civil conflict in Afghanistan continues between the ruling, radical Islamic Taliban movement and an opposition alliance of Uzbek, Tajik and other ethnic groups in the northern part of the country. The Pashtun-based Taliban controls about 95 percent of the national territory and recently rejected a UN proposal for a ceasefire to allow aid agencies to tackle the ongoing humanitarian crisis caused by the war and the worst drought in three decades.

5.7 In Nepal, a Maoist insurgency reminiscent of the Peruvian Shining Path, now controls five of the country’s 75 districts and is active in up to 50 more. The estimated 5,000 guerrillas of the Communist Party of Nepal have thus far avoided the capital, Katmandu, but the five year conflict has now reached the low intensity level and is expanding. The guerrillas have said they are open to dialogue, but refuse to deal with the current government, the sixth since 1996, and have demanded meetings with all Nepali political groups.

In the Philippines, the separatist Muslim Abu Sayyaf group continues to operate on Jolo island where it has gained attention mostly through kidnapping foreigners. The Philippine government recently resumed military operations against the Sayyaf group, but has moved toward peace talks with another Muslim separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

In Papua New Guinea, the main fighting forces in a decade-long secessionist war recently agreed to lay down arms in a process overseen by the UN, paving the way for formal talks on autonomy between the government and separatists on the island of Bougainville. The conflict resulted in thousands of deaths and there is still a high level of mistrust on all sides to be overcome.

5.8 There are a number of countries in the region where violent political conflict is evident but at a level below the low intensity threshold. In Fiji, for example, tensions between indigenous Fijians and Fijians of East Indian descent are still high following last year’s violent coup against the Indo-Fijian led coalition government. Many perpetrators of coup-related violent crimes have escaped justice and prospects for a return to democratic, constitutional rule remain uncertain.

In Bangladesh, opposition political forces have carried out nearly 90 days of nationwide strikes in the last five years, resulting in at least fifty people killed and hundreds wounded in violence related to the strikes. Recently, the main opposition group said it would not call any strikes in the run-up to the general elections due in October 2001.

5.9 Tensions have recently mounted along the border between Thailand and Burma. For years, clashes between forces of the Burmese military regime and ethnic separatist groups have spilled over into Thailand, and now pro-Burma ethnic militias have reportedly crossed the border to attack civilians and Thai security forces. The escalating dispute is compounded by the status of the Golden Triangle at the intersection of Thailand, Burma and Laos as a major heroin producing center.

 

6. Europe:

6.1 Over the last decade the Balkan region has endured a series of both high and low intensity conflicts that have terribly affected hundreds of thousands of people. In Bosnia and Kosovo, the international community has brought about a modicum of stability but peace between the various ethnic groups hinges on sustained international support and the success of the democratic transition in Serbia.

Meanwhile, conflict has now broken out in Macedonia where an ethnic Albanian insurgency has squared off against the predominantly Slavic security forces. The grievances of the Albanian minority in Macedonia have fueled this still relatively low intensity conflict, and the ability of the government to address them in a democratic way will in significant part determine whether peace can be achieved.

6.2 There continues to be a number of conflict situations in Russia, with the most serious being the protracted high intensity conflict in Muslim-dominant Chechnya which declared independence in 1991. Russian forces withdrew following the 1994-1996 war, but returned in 1999 to engage Chechnyan guerrillas in a struggle that has cost the lives of about three thousand Russian soldiers and untold thousands of Chechnyans. Russia’s control of the territory remains shaky, both sides appear intransigent and a peaceful resolution seems distant.

Sporadic violence continues in Georgia, although on a small scale. Most recently, separatists have been active in South Ossetia, a breakaway region near Russia’s own breakaway region of Chechnya, whose conflict occasionally spills over into Georgia.

 

6.3 Under domestic and international pressure, the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan seem to have gotten closer to a peace agreement which would end the 13-year conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, the majority ethnic Armenian pocket in Azerbaijan. After nearly 30,000 deaths, a truce was signed in 1994 and has largely held through a long series of negotiations mediated by the United States, France and Russia. Still, dozens of people continue to be killed annually in border skirmishes, and the peace talks remain fragile.

6.4 An uneasy truce has held for three years in Northern Ireland since the Irish Republican Army (IRA) called off a violent 30-year struggle against British rule. But the ceasefire has been rejected by the Real IRA, a splinter group which has continued a campaign of bombing in Northern Ireland and, most recently, in London.

In Spain, the separatist Basque guerrilla group ETA has been blamed for more than thirty killings since ending a ceasefire in December 1999 and renewing its demand for an autonomous state in northern Spain and southwestern France. Moderate Basque groups have proposed all-party talks similar to those in Northern Ireland as a way to bring an end to the violence.

 

7. Latin America and the Caribbean:

7.1 The only high intensity conflict in Latin America and the Caribbean is in Colombia. It is an intrastate struggle for territorial, political, social and economic control, involving two left-wing guerrilla groups and a right-wing paramilitary organisation with links to the Colombian military. Civilians continue to be the primary victims. The conflict is exacerbated by Colombia’s role as a major drug producing and transshipment center. Peace negotiations between the government and guerrilla groups have been inconclusive and the conflict threatens escalate further and spill over into neighboring countries.

7.2 In Mexico, the ceasefire in the low lntensity conflict involving the indigenous-based Zapatista group of Chiapas has held since 1994, but tensions have increased in the wake of the recent breakdown in negotiations between the Zapatistas and the government of President Vicente Fox. Occasional clashes between groups sympathetic to the Zapatistas and Mexican security forces continue in the neighboring Mexican states of Guerrero and Oaxaca.

In Peru, remnants of the Maoist Shining Path guerrilla groups still carry out sporadic armed actions, but not nearly at a level to qualify as a low intensity conflict.

7.3 Violent political conflict below the low intensity threshold is also evident in Haiti where institutions remain weak or dysfunctional; in Guatemala and Ecuador where the status of large indigenous populations remains a point of contention; and in Guyana where fragile democratic institutions continue to be tested in a society sharply divided between people of East Indian and African descent.

7.4 The last interstate conflict in Latin America or the Caribbean was the brief 1995 border war between Peru and Ecuador over a disputed section of the Amazon River basin. Ongoing border disputes between Guatemala and Belize, and Venezuela and Guyana and, most recently, between Nicaragua and Honduras, continue to simmer at relatively low levels.

 

8. Middle East:

8.1 The Middle East remains one of the most difficult and complicated issues of the last half-century. The recent deterioration in relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, with new thresholds of violence being crossed yet again, underlines the cyclical nature of this conflict which involves the quest for political, territorial and economic control and is complicated by religious and cultural differences. Prior experience suggests that negotiations will eventually resume, but the outlook for securing a lasting peace remains clouded at best.

8.2 At the same time, no real and lasting peace in the region can be expected without addressing the question of the Kurdish people, which requires profound democratic reforms by the governments concerned to provide a basis for negotiated solutions which would guarantee the minority rights of the Kurds in the countries where they reside.

 

 

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