While inter-state wars have become rare, contemporary conflicts result mainly from the collapse of countries’ institutional structures and the accompanying breakdown of the social contract. The exacerbated violence affects civilian populations most of all. Despite the setting up of certain safeguards such as the International Penal Court (IPC), the international community very often seems powerless in the face of these new conflicts. Making peace has become more difficult, because it requires the rebuilding of state institutions and a capacity for peaceful coexistence.
Conflicts between states have become exceptional, partly thanks to international institutions like the UN, that have been capable of developing a body of law to deter states from embarking on military confrontations that prove costly in human, material and political terms.
Yet the violence of war has not disappeared – it has become dispersed. Since the Second World War, wars have shifted toward the South, with or without the intervention of the major powers. By contrast, the North – epicenter of the bloodiest conflicts of the past (13 million deaths in the First World War, 60 million in the Second) – is now at peace, even if terrorist groups (local or international) can still strike there.
Contemporary conflicts are deadlier, longer-lasting and more complex to decipher: power is no longer the dominant explanatory factor. Diversity – of causes, actors, and intensity of violence – makes enumerating and typologizing these wars a risky enterprise. Is Mexico, where battles between drug dealers and the army have caused more than 200,000 deaths in ten years, “at war”? How many conflicts should be counted in Afghanistan since the 1970s? One single war extending over the whole period – or a number of wars in response to external interventions (USSR, NATO, etc.)?
Comment: This map is based on an HIIK report. This think tank calculates an overall index of conflict which considers intensity (weapons used, number of combatants, people killed, refugees/displaced persons and destruction wreaked). The map shows the type of “space” of the conflict (delimited zone, which extends beyond borders, localized or diffuse) and the demands of armed groups (contesting the powers in place or breaking away). On the basis of this typology, in 2017 the main centers of conflict were: Syria and Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the central strip of Africa (from Darfur to the DRC, via the Central African Republic and South Sudan), Libya, Yemen, Colombia and Mexico; other centers are more localized (Donbass, the Niger Delta, Myanmar, the Philippines, Salvador, etc.).
Breakdown of the social contract
The classic distinction between inter-state and civil wars has become inoperative. What would once have been categorized as civil wars are persisting, as latent wars, over years, even decades, before becoming internationalized (Afghanistan, RDC, Central African Republic, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, etc.). Characterized by the presence of non-state conflict actors and by non-observance of the rules supposedly governing conflicts between states, these wars primarily affect states where institutional structures have lost legitimacy because they no longer deliver effective control of the territory, in administrative and security terms, and no longer hold a monopoly of legitimate violence. The breakdown of the social contract here creates acute social crises, mostly in contexts where there is competition between traditional systems of allegiance (national identity) and alternative systems (regional, ethnic, religious, etc.). Such systems are generally promoted by identity entrepreneurs, and within which the patrimonial nature of power consolidates the authoritarian and repressive tendencies of the regimes in place.
Conflicts of this kind impact civil populations in the first place – they are forcibly recruited, victims of organized famine, massacres, sexual violence, forced displacements, etc. Warlords exploit ethnic, religious or social differences, obfuscating any understanding of of the conflict’s causes and the distinction between military and civilian personnel. In some cases, the violence becomes so depoliticized it shades into organized crime, allowing invisible but highly present traffickers in all kinds of goods (weapons, drugs, diamonds, precious woods, etc.) to prosper. The use of light weapons (kalashnikovs, rocket launchers and machine guns mounted on pickups, machetes, etc.) evades traditional regulatory instruments such as arms embargoes, making these ineffective. More or less organized government forces, rebel groups – which might be formed on an ethnic or religious basis or around economic interests – foreign mercenaries, combatants from neighboring countries, transnational jihadis, multilateral intervention forces and humanitarian actors are all present on the ground, their paths interweaving.
Widespread, perennial violence
The share of civilian casualties in conflicts is steadily increasing: they represented 5% of victims in the First World War, 50% in the Second World War, and now account for up to 90% of casualties in most cases. In consequence, these conflicts lead to massive flows of displaced people and refugees. The recruitment of child soldiers (there are some 250,000 worldwide, 40% of them female), at once victims and unwilling actors of war, is growing.
Comment: Data on children in conflicts are rare and fragmentary. This map shows the commitment of states to ratifying the optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Thirty countries had still not ratified it by 2018; among them Iran, Lebanon, Myanmar, the United Arab Emirates, North Korea, Somalia, and South Sudan. The map also gives some rough estimates of the numbers of children recruited who were victims (injured or killed) of conflicts in 2016. These estimates were produced by the UN Secretariat and the NGO Child Soldiers. These two sets of data side by side show that even long-standing ratification of the Protocol does not stop children becoming involved in conflicts (Afghanistan, Syria, DRC, Yemen, and Nigeria).
In devastated areas where institutions have collapsed, where widespread violence has undermined basic systems and the social contract, war becomes an economic opportunity and an opportunity for social advancement. Peacemaking proves to be a challenging task. Confined by its traditional tools (embargoes, interventions, etc.), which are ill-suited to the nature of contemporary conflicts, the international community seems powerless. International law, originally conceived to regulate military action by states, is struggling to achieve this aim and applies poorly to non-state armed groups. Since 2002, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has offered one route for bringing warlords to justice, yet despite dozens of trials and investigations since its creation (some directed at incumbent heads of state), the deterrent, peace-promoting effects of these processes are proving slow to materialize.
Conflict today rarely begins with a declaration of war, and rarely concludes with a treaty that halts the violence from one day to the next. Making peace is a long-term endeavor, requiring the reconstitution of the social fabric and the rebuilding of the state: it involves re-establishing public institutions, re-inventing the ability to live together.
London, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
- The state is a political system that is centralized (unlike the feudal system), differentiated (from civil society, public/private space), institutionalized (institutions are depersonalized), territorialized (a territory whose borders mark the absolute limit of its jurisdiction), that claims sovereignty (holding ultimate power) and that bears responsibility for ensuring its population’s security. In public international law, the state is defined as a population living on a territory defined by borders subject to a political authority (the national territorial state).
- Violent confrontation between armed groups over values, status, power or scarce resources, in which the aim of each party is to neutralize, weaken or eliminate their adversaries. This organized, collective, armed violence can be undertaken by states (via their national armies) or by non-state groups; it can bring several states into opposition (interstate war) or occur within a single state (civil war). The former, progressively codified within a legal framework, have become rare, while the latter, today primarily caused by state institutional failure, are tending to become more international in scope, to last over time (sometimes decades) and to be extremely devastating, especially for civilian populations.
- For James Rosenau, intervention is a break with the conventional mode of relations which aims to affect the political authority of the target actor. For Hedley Bull, it refers to the coercive interference, by an external actor, in the affairs of a political entity. Pascal Vennesson draws on both sources when he sees international intervention as a coercive action undertaken by one international actor which affects the political authority of another. International interventions can be direct or indirect, overt or clandestine, and can involve armed force or other types of force (economic sanctions). Interference is a specific case of intervention without the consent of the authorities on whose territory the interference occurs.
- A method of violent action inspiring fear (terror) and generally used in an asymmetrical relationship (the weak attack the strong). Unlike an act of war or political assassination, where violence is aimed directly at the target (the enemy), the victims of terrorism are instrumental, the terrorists’ goal being to publicize their violence in the media in order to create a climate of fear and insecurity among those who witness it, and so to generate social, legal and political chaos that will weaken the targeted states or societies. In the absence of any unanimous definition of terrorism, the term is frequently used to delegitimize the actions of opponents who do not refer to themselves as terrorists.
- Ability of political actors to impose their will on others. Comparable to the notion of authority within a nation, power is never absolute but has its existence in a relationship, since power relations are a matter of each actor’s perception of the other. Power is key to the realist approach to international relations, where it is understood in geostrategic terms (hard power is based on force and coercion, especially of a military nature). The transnationalist approach offers a more diversified vision including factors of influence (Joseph Nye’s soft power exerted in economic, cultural and other terms) and emphasizing the importance of controlling different orders of power, from hard to soft (Susan Strange’s “structural power”).
- Surface area occupied by a human group. This term has different meanings in different social science disciplines. For geographers it is a socialized, constructed space in which distance is continuous, with more or less defined borders, such as, but not confined to, states. For sociologists and political scientists, a territory is a socially constructed space confined by borders which provide the structuring principle for a political community and enable a state to impose its authority and control on the population. It is linked to the context, history and actors of its construction. For Max Weber, the modern, rational and legal state is closely linked to territoriality.
- A set of representations and strategies developed by an individual or collectivity to reduce the threats to which they feel exposed. At the international level, security may consist of: 1) an unstable, precarious balance between the security of different nations, underpinned by their degree of power; 2) the concerted organization of this balance (international security); 3) the establishment of a security regime imposed on all states that have signed up to it (collective security). Above and beyond any tangible threat, the language of security tends to represent objects or groups of people as dangers for the security of states, notably in order to justify particular security policies (state of emergency, military action, closing of borders, etc.).
- social contract
- The social contract was an idea invented in the West during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It describes the agreement by which humans decide to abandon their supposedly original state of nature to form a political community. The contract marks a break with the theological concept of power and its legitimacy which had held sway since the Early Middle Ages. Henceforth it was the people, and no longer divine power, who were the source of civil power, and the power of rulers depended on the consent of those being ruled (Grotius, Pufendorf, Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes). In the eighteenth century, the theory of the social contract galvanized liberal and democratic ambitions to limit power in the name of the general will. In the twentieth century, it inspired philosophers’ thinking about justice (John Rawls) and deliberative democracy.
- national identity
- The concept of identity is ambiguous, multifaceted, subjective, and frequently exploited and manipulated. No identity is foreordained or natural – so it is better to talk of identity construction, or of the processes of constructing self-representations developed by an individual or group. These constructions are neither stable nor permanent, defining the individual or group from multiple perspectives: on its own terms, in relation or opposition to others, and by others. The way individuals and groups use identity varies according to their interests and the constraints inherent in their specific situation: identity, therefore, is a construct based on interaction. This combination of affiliations, allegiances and internal and external recognition is a complex process, involving various degrees of awareness and contradiction, constantly being amalgamated and reconfigured.
- Ethnicity is a descriptive category that appeared at the end of the 19th century, constructed by anthropologists and disseminated by colonial administrations. Unlike “race” it does not reference biological criteria but designates a group of individuals with the same origin, the same cultural tradition, whose unity is based on language, history, territory, beliefs and the awareness of belonging to an ethnic group. Ethnicity, which some have claimed to be a natural phenomenon, is in fact a social construct, externally imposed or claimed, at once arbitrary and evolving. Proposed as an exclusive identity, it becomes all the more powerful as an instrument of political mobilization when the state is in difficulty. Ethnocentrism consists in understanding the world exclusively through the lens of one’s own culture and seeking to impose this interpretation.
- There is no universal understanding of the notion of religion, nor is there any clear distinction between a religion and a sect. Generally speaking, a religion is a system of beliefs that makes a distinction between the sacred and the profane, manifested in a set of ritual actions that give reality to this distinction. Individuals may be described as religious if they practice or claim to belong to a religion, or if they have made religion their profession and devoted their lives to it.
- identity entrepreneurs
- An entrepreneur, as defined by Max Weber, manages an organized group that has an administrative management and pursues a specific goal. An identity or religious entrepreneur, then, is an actor who mobilizes symbols of identity or religion for the benefit of their political, social or economic capital.
- A relationship is transnational when it forms at the global level, whether intentionally or in practice, and exists outside the national context and at least partly beyond the control or influence of national governments (Bertrand Badie, 1999). Transnationalism is an interpretation of international relations that emphasizes the role of non-state actors and cross-border flows. It has developed since the 1970s around authors such as Joseph Nye, Robert Keohane and James Rosenau, in reaction to the dominance of realist and neorealist analyses.
- To see multilateralism as international cooperation involving at least three states reduces it to a mere technique. In fact, it also has a qualitative, normative aspect which has been evident since the time of the League of Nations. According to Franck Petiteville, this makes multilateralism a form of international collective action which aims to produce “norms and rules seeking to establish a cooperative international order governing international interdependencies.” The adjective “multilateral” first appeared in the late 1940s which is when awareness of the concept began to emerge.
- A status applying to persons living outside their country of origin, who have been recognized by their host country as refugees according to definition set out in the Geneva Convention of 1951. This convention grants the protection and assistance of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (HCR) to anyone who, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” The term refugee should not be confused with that of asylum seeker, which applies to people who have fled their country and have submitted a request for asylum to their host country or to the HCR in order to benefit from refugee status. A refugee has been an asylum seeker, but not all asylum seekers have their request accepted (those who have been rejected must then leave the country).
- international community
- According to the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936), community (Gemeinschaft) is the opposite of society (Gesellschaft) and denotes any form of social organization in which individuals are linked by natural or spontaneous solidarity, and driven by common goals. According to current usage, it applies to any social grouping that appears to be united, whatever its mode of integration (international community, European or Andean Community, or adherents of a religion). The ambiguous term of international community describes an ill-defined set of political actors (states, international organizations, NGOs, individuals, etc.) based on the idea of that humanity is united by common objectives and values or an allegiance to central political institutions, which is far from being the case.
- International law
- The set of legal rules governing relations between states or private persons in an international context. International law is traditionally made up of two branches: public international law, pertaining to rules between states and/or international organizations, whether these rules are explicit in international agreements or treaties or remain unwritten (customary law); and private international law, which refers to the rules applicable between private persons of different nationality, serving in particular to settle disputes where there are conflicts of jurisdiction. However, this distinction is tending to disappear with the increase in cross-border rights, in environmental matters for example.
- International Criminal Court
- The Rome Statute, adopted on July 17, 1998, was the treaty establishing the ICC. The Court has the power to judge war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and, since 2010, aggression committed after the Statute entered into force on July 1, 2002. Crimes can be referred by the Security Council, the public prosecutor, or a state party, and the court function according to the principle of complementarity (i.e. it does not replace national legal systems and only intervenes in cases where the latter are unable or unwilling to act). The ICC has been bypassed (particularly by the United States), criticized (for its inefficiency, or because of the high number of African cases), and has received notifications of withdrawal. By spring 2018, only Burundi had left (withdrawal of the Philippines comes into effect in March 2019).