Reflections on the Future of Violent Conflict
Violent conflict comes in many forms. It ranges from interpersonal tensions and disputes settled in violent ways to collective ambitions and grievances pursued by taking up arms. Perhaps originally a means to an end, conflict can be self-perpetuating as those involved lose sight of their original claims and aspirations. The notion of “violence entrepreneurs” speaks to the ways in which criminal and political violence are situated on a continuum along which the legality and legitimacy of resorting to violence and the use of force are difficult to disentangle.
Battle deaths and homicide rates are only one set of indicators of the extent to which violence is prevalent globally. All our societies are – to varying degrees – witnessing forms of chronic violence that cannot be measured in body bags alone. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation”. This is a definition worth keeping in mind, not least when trying to examine and address the gendered dynamics of violent conflict.
Conflict – broadly understood to denote differences of opinion, values and beliefs, as well as material interests – is arguably an intrinsic part of human interaction and a driver of change and innovation. Our challenge is thus not to prevent conflict per se, but to try to mitigate and prevent violent manifestations of conflict, while harnessing its positive potential. This, indeed, is the ultimate aim of peacebuilding: to establish and consolidate a set of societal institutions and mechanisms that allow people to settle their differences peacefully and interact in mutually constructive ways.
Just as violent conflict takes on many forms, so does the way in which we study it. “Armed conflict” is a well-established legal category, with a corpus of international humanitarian and human rights law at our disposal. Our challenge is thus not to prevent conflict per se, but to try to mitigate and prevent violent manifestations of conflict, while harnessing its positive potential. Yet, as the contributions to this dossier highlight, other perspectives are needed to make sense of the many ways in which violent conflict manifests itself in and across our states and societies – with anthropology, criminology, political science, psychology, public health and urban studies being just some of the academic fields contributing to this discussion.
Conflict studies are as old as humanity itself. Yet there continues to be a need for further reflection as the conditions under which violence manifests itself change over time. We close this dossier with a few observations to invite further debate.
- The commodification of security. Empirically, security is not the exclusive remit of the state, which theoretically obliges citizens to abide by its laws in return for providing security as a basic public good. Instead, private military and security personnel, having a vested interest in selling their product (and thus of convincing us of the gravity of the threats that surround us), have begun to outnumber those working for state security and public law enforcement.
- The rise of protracted crises. Many wars and settings of armed violence are chronic conditions that drag on for years, if not decades. In terms of international responses, the differentiation between humanitarian action during and in the immediate aftermath of violent conflict, (postconflict) peacebuilding, and long-term reconstruction and development becomes increasingly blurred. The linkages between violent conflict and sustaining peace require further clarification – and Goal 16 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development on peaceful, just and inclusive societies is an important vehicle in this regard.
- Technological innovation. As humanity continues its quest to understand the natural world and control our physical environment, the means at our disposal to engage in “biopolitics” are ever greater. Complex algorithms, robots and ultimately artificial intelligence have limitless potential to improve our lives and our societies, but the same technologies are also at the heart of new weapons systems and more sophisticated means of surveillance and coercion.
- Violent conflict in the city. With the human world urbanising at unprecedented rates, chances are that violent conflict will also increasingly be waged in cities. The many manifestations of urban conflict – and debates on how the built-up urban space itself is a catalyst for certain types of violence – require a fundamental rethink of our intervention strategies geared towards preventing and reducing rates of violence in all its forms.
- The gendered nature of violent conflict. The above-mentioned manifestations of violent conflict affect women, girls, men and boys differently. Addressing the challenges they pose necessitates an understanding of societal inequalities and power relations. We must make sure that policies, programmes and interventions aiming to address violent conflict are not simply sensitive to the safety and security needs of different communities, but that they work at transforming society towards greater inclusion and gender equality.
Map based on the data produced by the Small Arm Survey, and enriched by the Graduate Institute's Research Office in Geneva, in collaboration with whybe.ch.
State-Based Conflict since 1946
© ourworldindata.org / CC - Creative Commons
Source: Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP)
Variable description: Ongoing conflicts are represented in each year in which more than 25 deaths occurred.
Terminology Related to Violence and Conflict
The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.
The World Health Organization (WHO)
Derived from the Latin word conflictus, which means collision or clash. This term is understood as a disagreement between two or more parties through which the parties involved perceive a threat to their needs, interests or concerns. Source
A dispute involving the use of armed force between two or more parties, often referred to as war. Source
Militarised armed conflict between two or more states. Source
A conflict between a government and one or several non-governmental parties, often with interference or support from foreign actors.
The intentional use of illegitimate force (actual or threatened) with arms or explosives, against a person, group, community, or state that undermines people-centred security and/or sustainable development. Source
Violence that is directed against a person on the basis of gender or sex. It includes acts that inflict physical, mental, or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion, or other deprivations of liberty. While women, men, boys and girls can be victims of gender-based violence, because of their subordinate status, women and girls are the primary victims. Source
IHL distinguishes between Non-international armed conflict defined as "A conflict in which government forces are fighting with armed insurgents, or armed groups are fighting amongst themselves" and International armed conflict defined as "A war involving two or more States, regardless of whether a declaration of war has been made or whether the parties recognize that there is a state of war. Source
A criminal act or acts intended to inflict dramatic and deadly injury on civilians and to create an atmosphere of fear, generally in furtherance of a political or ideological (whether secular or religious) purpose. Terrorism is most often carried out by sub-national or transnational groups, but it has also been known to be practiced by rulers as an instrument of control. Source