The end of war - and peace

Conflict between nations is replaced by vicious civil strife that lasts for decades
Click to follow
There were fewer wars last year than at any time since the end of the Cold War in 1989, according to the authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The institute's latest yearbook notes some intriguing trends underlying the apparently chaotic conflicts. None of last year's wars was between nations. All 30 were civil wars fought within "weak" or "failed states", apparently signalling a further shift away from the pattern of inter- state wars which has characterised the modern era.

Yet as the institute, Sipri, makes clear, the new age of warfare has brought its own terrible price. Internal conflicts can be as bloody, or worse, than international clashes, and can bubble away for years, even decades.

The United Nations Charter is not designed to deal with civil war, and there is still no consensus as to when other states are entitled to intervene. And the main military powers are increasingly called upon to commit themselves as peace-keepers or peace-enforcers, without wartime mobilisation, straining their resources.

The distinction between "wartime" and "peacetime" is breaking down: in that sense, the world is witnessing the end of "war" and "peace".

The number of wars is in "very slow but steady decline", according to Sipri, and it is expected to decline more sharply in the future as conflicts which were suppressed during the Cold War and have since erupted play themselves out.

Last year there were 30 conflicts in 25 different regions of the world, compared with 32 in 28 regions in 1994. There has been a slow but continuous fall since 1989, when there were 36 conflicts in 32 regions. However, wars last longer, and in intensity can fluctuate wildly.

More of the internal conflicts are being fought over territory than over government control. Instead of "winner takes all" struggles to secure control of a state, civil wars increasingly involve attempts by local or ethnic groups to break away, or to struggle for control of resources.

Two new major conflicts began in 1995: the Russian operation in Chechnya, which overwhelmed all other conflicts in its intensity and in the number of people killed, and the civil war in Sierra Leone between the government and the Revolutionary United Front. But two conflicts - in Yemen and Rwanda - ended, and in another four - Azerbaijan, the Croat-Muslim conflict in Bosnia, Georgia and Northern Ireland - there were cease-fires of varying longevity and durability.

"Major armed conflict" is defined as that which kills more than 1,000 people a year. The worst last year, by far, was Chechnya, estimated to have killed 10,000 to 40,000 people. But, according to Trevor Findlay, the Sipri project leader for peace-keeping and regional security, many other conflicts go unnoticed. "East Timor, Bougainville (Papua New Guinea), the Muslim secession in the South Philippines, the Chittagong Hill Tracts (Bangladesh) - they've been going on for years but they're not big enough yet."

Dr Findlay thought the number of conflicts would decrease further as the end of the Cold War had enabled a number of disputes that had been bubbling under the surface of former Communist states, such as the former Yugoslavia - and on the edges of the former Soviet Union, to break out. "They will sooner or later be worked through," he said.

"But Africa is different. It's not Cold-War related and is connected with resources. It is also hard to see the UN intervening on a large scale fashion in any of these conflicts."

He said conflicts in Namibia, Angola and Mozambique had been resolved successfully, but in future the UN might stay out. Conflict is increasingly expected to break out over scarce supplies of food and water, as population increases. In the longer term, global warming will also be a factor.

The Sipri report highlights the changed nature of international security problems and the pressures on the UN, especially in Bosnia, where it was outflanked.

"While the UN in its 50th anniversary year played a role in almost every conflict situation the new emphasis was on conflict prevention ... diplomatically, the UN was marginalised by the Dayton process. It was not even represented at the talks."

The 50-year old UN Charter concentrates on the need to preserve "international peace and security", and contains few direct provisions for dealing with internal conflicts. There has to be a risk to international security - such as large numbers of refugees spilling over borders - before the UN's authority can be invoked.

"The original framers of the charter didn't have internal conflicts in mind", said Dr Findlay. "It seems to me internal conflict is intrinsically more difficult to deal with. It's very difficult to get a handle on."

The involvement of the big powers has shifted from active support of one side against the other to attempts to minimise and contain conflicts - like the UN and Nato intervention in Bosnia. But the need for the major powers like Britain, France and the US to be continually involved in other people's wars in what is still called "peacetime", has placed their armed forces under considerable strain.

No longer can they expect to mobilise reserves and large chunks of the national life to back those forces up. This week, the House of Commons Defence Committee said that "either a prolonged peace-keeping mission like I-For [in Bosnia] is too large a task ,or the Army is too small."

It is a circle that many governments will find harder and harder to square.