Conflict Trends 1999/1

Civil Wars, Civil Peace: An Introduction to Conflict Resolution

Book Review

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As the dawn of a new millennium approaches, serious questions need to be raised regarding the nature of ‘civilised’ humanity and human beings’ capacity to harm each other in ways as systematic as they are vile. This raises a deeper, existential question: ‘Does man’s capacity to hate have no limits and will the conflagration ignited by such hatred not threaten the very existence of the human species?’

The birth of the bloody twentieth century began with the slaughter of innocents on the plains of Armenia and in the orgy of blood-letting that followed Nazi Germany’s Auschwitz and Daschau to the Soviet Gulags to Pol Pot’s Cambodia – humanity sunk to new levels of depravity. As this century draws to a close the killing fields of Rwanda and the cries of widows and orphans in the Democratic Republic of the Congo bear sad testimony to humanity’s propensity to self-destruction.

But this raises further questions. How does war occur within communities at peace within themselves and with each other? How do the forces of barbarism with their concomitant culture of violence so quickly overturn civilised norms? Under what conditions does violence replace reason in the discourse between individuals, communities and states? In looking at strategies to diffuse conflict and to build the edifice for sustainable peace, the authors of this book go a long way to answering these questions.

Between the pages of this highly informative book, the authors explore the different dimensions of violent internal conflict: from definitions and categories of armed conflict to root causes and effects of such conflicts. Moreover, obstacles to the peaceful resolution of such conflicts are also identified and explained.

But this publication is not yet another academic treatise – rather it can be effectively utilised as a guide for action. This is especially true of the latter chapters that discuss the importance of an early warning system to identify potential crises, and strategies for war termination which include making the perpetrators of war more accountable to the international community.

A crucial point raised by the book is the participation of non-state actors and citizen groups in the processes of conflict transformation. One reason for their focus is obviously the growing power of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). For instance, the authors estimate that in 1996 ‘…an estimated 3 000 development NGOs from OECD countries controlled and dispersed up to US $ 5.7bn per year in assistance to developing countries. They work in partnership with an estimated 10 000-20 000 ‘southern’ NGOs, which in turn assist up to 100 million people per year’ (p109).

But NGOs also possess other unique characteristics that, according to the authors, place them in a strong position to ensure sustainable peace. These are:

  1. NGOs do not have wider political affiliations to any state parties
  2. They take advantage of their relative anonymity to work more discreetly and as a result are not under pressure to secure a ‘quick-fix’ solution to the conflict
  3. As they do not have the eyes of the world focused on them, they can be more flexible in their approach
  4. Often such organisations have a long-term commitment to peace-making efforts
  5. ‘They are better able to gain access to rebel or insurgency movements by virtue of living among them and, once in contact, can build relationships based on mutual trust and understanding’ (pp110-111).

The trick, the authors note, is to harness the advantages NGOs enjoy in conjunction with the United Nations and other intergovernmental organisations. This is also imperative to ensure the success of any intervention: that third parties are not working against each other. A coordinated approach also ensures a holistic approach to peace making and peace-building.

If there is any criticism to be levelled against the book, it is that the authors introduce certain important ideas and then leave them hanging, pursuing another track. Thus on page 2 the idea of human security is introduced with no attempt to analyse it further. For instance, how does human security relate to state security? Are these two concepts in natural opposition to each other, or can a bridge be built between the concerns of the state and its citizens through good governance?

Likewise, on page 11 the authors note that one of the major causes of internal conflict is poverty. Once again, however, this is not fully developed. For instance, the nexus between security and development and its implications for policy makers at national, regional and international levels are not explored. Consider the following: if poverty is one of the factors leading to war, then obviously a country’s national security policy can no longer be developed solely by the people in uniform. Other government departments from Finance to Trade and Industry to Agriculture also need to be involved. In this way, too, the shift from military to human security is practically realised.

However, such criticism may be unduly harsh as the book simply aims to be an introductory reader to conflict resolution. In this, it succeeds magnificently and I have no qualms in recommending the book to policy-maker, academic or student.