My mother used to say that peace activists were kidding ourselves because there will never be an end to warfare. I replied that conflict will definitely exist forever, and it would be a boring world without it. But surely wars sometimes have been prevented. And if all we do is prevent one war at a time, that’s a worthy thing to do. This is the season when Christians celebrate the birth of the “prince of peace .” Instead of exchanging bottles of aftershave lotion, a better way of celebrating might be to pick one potential war and do something to try to prevent it. You may not succeed, but it sure beats wrapping presents.
If you’re not sure which potential war to pick, you might have a look at the recommendations of the International Crisis Group, a remarkable organization that has existed for ten years, investigating hot spots around the world and calling attention to the most dangerous ones. Right now, the area that is at the top of their list is Ethiopia/Eritrea, which fought a war in 1999-2000 and where there is a serious prospect of renewed fighting.
An international panel has decided that that recent war was started by Eritrea , which attacked Ethiopia under circumstances that did not amount to self-defence. They judge that it in fact violated international law and owes compensation to Ethiopia . That outcome seems highly unlikely. The fight occurred because the separatist movement in Eritrea declared independence from Ethiopia. The ceasefire acknowledged their independence but the possession of a border town, Badme, remained in dispute. It still does. Two months ago the boundary commission decided that Badme is Eritrean, but the Ethiopians have not conceded – at least without negotiations, which the Eritreans refuse. Indeed, a year ago, Ethiopia sent seven divisions of its armed forces into the area, where they remain now. For its part, Ethiopia has imposed limitations on the peacekeeping forces, asking the western members to leave the country; the ones remaining there are mostly African.
The head of the UN peacekeeping force in the area has warned that time is running out and tensions are rising around Badme. If the two states do not come to an agreement soon, the Security Council may have to reduce its presence.
According to the International Crisis Group, “Those who helped put together the Algiers peace accords in 2000 – the African Union, the UN, the U.S. and the EU – need to urgently put together a “3-Ds” strategy, involving concurrent de-escalation, demarcation and dialogue. The stakes could hardly be higher: neither side appears eager for a second war, but the situation is very fragile, and to dismiss current tensions as mere sabre rattling would be a serious mistake.”
The Crisis Group has sent out an e-mail alert, requesting that citizens press their governments to convene and develop such a strategy. The Security Council is scheduled to deal with the matter early in January. Political pressure within the member states may make a real difference. Send an e-mail or two, in addition to your usual holiday greetings.
Several crises in the Horn of Africa interact. A year ago, the rains had failed and it was expected that up to fourteen million people might die in a new famine. However, the international response to the food shortage has been magnificent — the most effective ever known in history — and the rains have returned. Nevertheless, some seven million people still require food assistance for survival. Poverty and lack of democracy are major factors exacerbating the chance of war.
In addition to this ad hoc way of preventing wars one by one, I prefer to approach the problem in a systemic way, paying attention to the general factors that typically result in wars and attempting to change the causal policies and structures. In this respect, the Ethiopia/Eritrea conflict is a perfect case study. It illustrates one of the most consistent causal dynamics: separatism.
When a country contains two or more ethnic populations that are concentrated in different regions, any conflict between the two groups is likely to prompt some resentful nationalist leader to argue that what his group needs is a separate state of their own. In many cases they convince their allies that life will become better for them as soon as they have control of the state. This is particularly true in a newly democratizing state where one of the groups is a minority, hence regularly outvoted in elections, though it is a majority in its own local region. Clearly, by breaking away from the larger state, they would constitute the majority population in the new, smaller state and would regularly win elections.
This is a logical argument, but it doesn’t work that way. The fight for an independent country exacerbates tensions that may have been managed fairly well before. If the breakaway state is able to establish itself by being recognized internationally, there are bound to be some minorities within it too, and they will likely feel downtrodden. Conflicts that had been internal before the partition now become international disputes, with the two countries now possessing their own armed forces. Families and trade and business relationships will be broken by the partition. Sizeable populations may flee from the new country where they feel they can never belong. All this is justified in terms of giving “a people” the right of self-determination – a notion that does have status in international law.
But where did the concept of self-determination arise? Answer: from the historical movements that sought to free countries from colonial rule. It was the European colonial masters who were supposed to be removed, so as to let the local populations determine their own political lives. The same goes for, say, the control of Tibet by China; it is a definite instance of invasion and subordination by an outside power. But it has usually been a mistake to try to apply the concept of self-determination as a justification for separating a country into distinct ethnic or nationalistic states. It is not just the war for independence that costs lives; it is the warfare that follows independence – often for several successive generations. The splitting of India and Pakistan was one notable catastrophe. To this day, the two countries are in conflict. That is what must be expected when separatist aspirations are achieved. With very few exceptions (e.g. Czechoslovakia) wars and strife follow the partitioning of states. If this were understood enough so that the international community would make it clear to separatists that their sovereignty will never be recognized, we would have overcome one of the most predictable causes of warfare.
Still, it is a hard argument to make. Nationalists feel a passionate desire for independence. You cannot easily reason with them. The only argument that makes sense is to point out that what they really need is an alternative mechanism for protecting the rights of their particular minority within the larger democratic state.
There are many ways in which such improvements can be made. What is important is the creation of forms of democracy that assure minorities that their strong needs and desires will not be overlooked or disregarded by the majority of voters. One way is through the provision of legal charters of rights and freedoms. No existing democracy is perfect. The world is on a wonderful path toward freedom, but even the best states have taken only a few steps down that path. The world needs great political innovations even more than we need technological innovations.
It’s too late to apply this insight to the prevention of war in Ethiopia and Eritrea, where the partition has already taken place. Now the only thing that can be done is to continue managing the conflict that will almost certainly continue for many years. But the world should learn from such cases, and prevent new partitions. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that we are learning.