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Stefan Wolff: The path to ending ethnic conflicts

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Today I want to talk to you about ethnic conflict and civil war. These are not normally the most cheerful of topics, nor do they generally generate the kind of good news that this conference is about. Yet, not only is there at least some good news to be told about fewer such conflicts now than two decades ago, but what is perhaps more important is that we also have come to a much better understanding of what can be done to further reduce the number of ethnic conflicts and civil wars and the suffering that they inflict. Three things stand out: leadership, diplomacy and institutional design. What I will focus on in my talk is why they matter, how they matter, and what we can all do to make sure that they continue to matter in the right ways, that is, how all of us can contribute to developing and honing the skills of local and global leaders to make peace and to make it last. But let's start at the beginning.

Civil wars have made news headlines for many decades now, and ethnic conflicts in particular have been a near constant presence as a major international security threat. For nearly two decades now, the news has been bad and the images have been haunting. In Georgia, after years of stalemate, we saw a full-scale resurgence of violence in August, 2008. This quickly escalated into a five-day war between Russia and Georgia, leaving Georgia ever more divided. In Kenya, contested presidential elections in 2007 -- we just heard about them -- quickly led to high levels of inter-ethnic violence and the killing and displacement of thousands of people. In Sri Lanka, a decades-long civil war between the Tamil minority and the Sinhala majority led to a bloody climax in 2009, after perhaps as many as 100,000 people had been killed since 1983. In Kyrgyzstan, just over the last few weeks, unprecedented levels of violence occurred between ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks. Hundreds have been killed, and more than 100,000 displaced, including many ethnic Uzbeks who fled to neighboring Uzbekistan. In the Middle East, conflict between Israelis and Palestinians continues unabated, and it becomes ever more difficult to see how, just how a possible, sustainable solution can be achieved. Darfur may have slipped from the news headlines, but the killing and displacement there continues as well, and the sheer human misery that it creates is very hard to fathom. And in Iraq, finally, violence is on the rise again, and the country has yet to form a government four months after its last parliamentary elections.

But hang on, this talk is to be about the good news. So are these now the images of the past? Well, notwithstanding the gloomy pictures from the Middle East, Darfur, Iraq, elsewhere, there is a longer-term trend that does represent some good news. Over the past two decades, since the end of the Cold War, there has been an overall decline in the number of civil wars. Since the high in the early 1990s, with about 50 such civil wars ongoing, we now have 30 percent fewer such conflicts today. The number of people killed in civil wars also is much lower today than it was a decade ago or two. But this trend is less unambiguous. The highest level of deaths on the battlefield was recorded between 1998 and 2001, with about 80,000 soldiers, policemen and rebels killed every year. The lowest number of combatant casualties occurred in 2003, with just 20,000 killed. Despite the up and down since then, the overall trend -- and this is the important bit -- clearly points downward for the past two decades.

The news about civilian casualties is also less bad than it used to be. From over 12,000 civilians deliberately killed in civil wars in 1997 and 1998, a decade later, this figure stands at 4,000. This is a decrease by two-thirds. This decline would be even more obvious if we factored in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. But then 800,000 civilians were slaughtered in a matter of just a few months. This certainly is an accomplishment that must never be surpassed. What is also important is to note that these figures only tell part of the story. They exclude people that died as a consequence of civil war, from hunger or disease, for example. And they also do not properly account for civilian suffering more generally. Torture, rape and ethnic cleansing have become highly effective, if often non-lethal, weapons in civil war. To put it differently, for the civilians that suffer the consequences of ethnic conflict and civil war, there is no good war and there is no bad peace. Thus, even though every civilian killed, maimed, raped, or tortured is one too many, the fact that the number of civilian casualties is clearly lower today than it was a decade ago, is good news.

So, we have fewer conflicts today in which fewer people get killed. And the big question, of course, is why? In some cases, there is a military victory of one side. This is a solution of sorts, but rarely is it one that comes without human costs or humanitarian consequences. The defeat of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka is perhaps the most recent example of this, but we have seen similar so-called military solutions in the Balkans, in the South Caucasus and across most of Africa. At times, they are complimented by negotiated settlements, or at least cease-fire agreements, and peacekeepers are deployed. But hardly ever do they represent a resounding success -- Bosnia and Herzegovina perhaps more so than Georgia. But for many parts of Africa, a colleague of mine once put it this way, "The cease-fire on Tuesday night was reached just in time for the genocide to start on Wednesday morning."

But let's look at the good news again. If there's no solution on the battlefield, three factors can account for the prevention of ethnic conflict and civil war, or for sustainable peace afterwards: leadership, diplomacy and institutional design. Take the example of Northern Ireland. Despite centuries of animosity, decades of violence and thousands of people killed, 1998 saw the conclusion of an historic agreement. Its initial version was skillfully mediated by Senator George Mitchell. Crucially, for the long-term success of the peace process in Northern Ireland, he imposed very clear conditions for the participation and negotiations. Central among them, a commitment to exclusively peaceful means. Subsequent revisions of the agreement were facilitated by the British and Irish governments, who never wavered in their determination to bring peace and stability to Northern Ireland.

The core institutions that were put in place in 1998 and their modifications in 2006 and 2008 were highly innovative and allowed all conflict parties to see their core concerns and demands addressed. The agreement combines a power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland with cross-border institutions that link Belfast and Dublin and thus recognizes the so-called Irish dimension of the conflict. And significantly, there's also a clear focus on both the rights of individuals and the rights of communities. The provisions in the agreement may be complex, but so is the underlying conflict. Perhaps most importantly, local leaders repeatedly rose to the challenge of compromise, not always fast and not always enthusiastically, but rise in the end they did. Who ever could have imagined Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness jointly governing Northern Ireland as First and Deputy First Minister?

But then, is Northern Ireland a unique example, or does this kind of explanation only hold more generally in democratic and developed countries? By no means. The ending of Liberia's long-lasting civil war in 2003 illustrates the importance of leadership, diplomacy and institutional design as much as the successful prevention of a full-scale civil war in Macedonia in 2001, or the successful ending of the conflict in Aceh in Indonesia in 2005. In all three cases, local leaders were willing and able to make peace, the international community stood ready to help them negotiate and implement an agreement, and the institutions have lived up to the promise that they held on the day they were agreed.

Focusing on leadership, diplomacy and institutional design also helps explain failures to achieve peace, or to make it last. The hopes that were vested in the Oslo Accords did not lead to an end of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Not all the issues that needed to be resolved were actually covered in the agreements. Rather, local leaders committed to revisiting them later on. Yet instead of grasping this opportunity, local and international leaders soon disengaged and became distracted by the second Intifada, the events of 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The comprehensive peace agreement for Sudan signed in 2005 turned out to be less comprehensive than envisaged, and its provisions may yet bear the seeds of a full-scale return to war between north and south. Changes and shortcomings in leadership, more off than on international diplomacy and institutional failures account for this in almost equal measure. Unresolved boundary issues, squabbles over oil revenues, the ongoing conflict in Darfur, escalating tribal violence in the south and generally weak state capacity across all of Sudan complete a very depressing picture of the state of affairs in Africa's largest country.

A final example: Kosovo. The failure to achieve a negotiated solution for Kosovo and the violence, tension and de facto partition that resulted from it have their reasons in many, many different factors. Central among them are three. First, the intransigence of local leaders to settle for nothing less than their maximum demands. Second, an international diplomatic effort that was hampered from the beginning by Western support for Kosovo's independence. And third, a lack of imagination when it came to designing institutions that could have addressed the concerns of Serbs and Albanians alike. By the same token -- and here we have some good news again -- the very fact that there is a high-level, well-resourced international presence in Kosovo and the Balkans region more generally and the fact that local leaders on both sides have showed relative restraint, explains why things have not been worse over the past two years since 2008.

So even in situations where outcomes are less than optimal, local leaders and international leaders have a choice, and they can make a difference for the better. A cold war is not as good as a cold peace, but a cold peace is still better than a hot war. Good news is also about learning the right lesson. So what then distinguishes the Israeli/Palestinian conflict from that in Northern Ireland, or the civil war in Sudan from that in Liberia? Both successes and failures teach us several critically important things that we need to bear in mind if we want the good news to continue. First, leadership. In the same way in which ethnic conflict and civil war are not natural but man-made disasters, their prevention and settlement does not happen automatically either. Leadership needs to be capable, determined and visionary in its commitment to peace. Leaders need to connect to each other and to their followers, and they need to bring them along on what is an often arduous journey into a peaceful future.

Second, diplomacy. Diplomacy needs to be well resourced, sustained, and apply the right mix of incentives and pressures on leaders and followers. It needs to help them reach an equitable compromise, and it needs to ensure that a broad coalition of local, regional and international supporters help them implement their agreement.

Third, institutional design. Institutional design requires a keen focus on issues, innovative thinking and flexible and well-funded implementation. Conflict parties need to move away from maximum demands and towards a compromise that recognizes each other's needs. And they need to think about the substance of their agreement much more than about the labels they want to attach to them. Conflict parties also need to be prepared to return to the negotiation table if the agreement implementation stalls.

For me personally, the most critical lesson of all is this: Local commitment to peace is all-important, but it is often not enough to prevent or end violence. Yet, no amount of diplomacy or institutional design can make up for local failures and the consequences that they have. Therefore, we must invest in developing leaders, leaders that have the skills, vision and determination to make peace. Leaders, in other words, that people will trust and that they will want to follow even if that means making hard choices.

A final thought: Ending civil wars is a process that is fraught with dangers, frustrations and setbacks. It often takes a generation to accomplish, but it also requires us, today's generation, to take responsibility and to learn the right lessons about leadership, diplomacy and institutional design, so that the child soldiers of today can become the children of tomorrow.

Thank you.


Video Details

Duration: 17 minutes and 15 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 244
Posted by: tedtalks on Nov 5, 2010

Civil wars and ethnic conflicts have brought the world incredible suffering, but Stefan Wolff's figures show that, in the last 20 years, their number has steadily decreased. He extracts critical lessons from Northern Ireland, Liberia, Timor and more to show that leadership, diplomacy and institutional design are our three most effective weapons in waging peace.

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