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.)?

Violent conflicts during the year 2017

Source: partially based on the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research (HIIK), Conflict Barometer 2017,, accessed March 14, 2018.

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.

Involvement of children in violent conflicts, 2016

Sources: United Nations, Annual Report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict, A/72/361–S/2017/821, Treaty Collection, Chapter IV (Human Rights),, accessed May 11, 2018; Child Soldiers International,, accessed March 13, 2018.

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.

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