In conflicts across the world, levels of displacement and hunger are increasing. The tactics used by leaders, governments and non-state armed groups have much to do with that misery.
Note: This strategy is currently being used in the USA to punish immigration and sanctuary seekers and gain political advantage by placing children in concentration camps separated from parents.
From Syria to Yemen, from South Sudan to Venezuela, war and political crisis are causing human anguish on a scale unseen in a generation.
That conflict and crisis take a high human toll is hardly new, of course. Yet the scope of suffering today is striking. The number of people displaced globally by conflict and persecution stood at 65.6 million at the end of 2016, the greatest number since World War II. Figures released earlier this month show that there were 11.8 million new internal displacements in 2017, nearly double the 6.9 million in 2016. The number of people facing acute hunger globally due largely to conflict and instability reached almost 74 million across eighteen countries in 2017. The trend is clear: war and crisis are destroying more lives and livelihoods, pushing more people toward starvation and driving more people from their homes.
So, what is happening?
First is simply that the last decade has seen an increase in conflict and political violence. While data and definitions vary, and data deficiencies and gaps exist, studies generally point to upward trends.
But deepening human misery comes not only from more war and violence. It also comes from the manner in which many actors – whether leaders, governments or non-state armed groups – are pursuing military and political objectives. Too often these actors gain from human deprivation. Sometimes they deliberately inflict pain on civilians, attacking, forcibly displacing or otherwise controlling populations, including by determining whether, where and how they get access to aid. At other times, they use heavy-handed military or political tactics without attention to the enormous suffering they are causing.
In wars, these patterns track broadly with violations of the fundamental principles, under international humanitarian law (IHL), of distinction between civilians and combatants, and of proportionality in carrying out attacks. Whether observance of IHL has in fact declined in recent years is difficult to measure and subject to debate. What is clear is that many of today’s conflicts – certainly major wars but also lower-intensity armed conflicts – have seen shocking and repeated violations of the rules that are meant to protect civilians in war.
This instrumentalisation or disregard of civilian harm is clearly in evidence in some of today’s worst conflicts, from Yemen to Syria to South Sudan. Such disregard is also a worrying feature of many political and socio-economic crises that fall short of armed conflict yet still produce large-scale humanitarian crises, like that of Venezuela.
A Higher Tolerance for Violence?
As these cases illustrate, the deliberate harm of civilians or the use of tactics with scant regard for human suffering are all too common across today’s landscape of war and crisis.
All the more disconcerting is that state parties and their allies almost certainly shoulder the lion’s share of blame.
It is difficult to generalise about reasons for this trend – in other words, to identify the geopolitical currents that underpin the widespread use of tactics that target or otherwise harm civilians. The conflicts are diverse as are the states involved. Indeed, it is debatable whether parties are more likely to resort to the use of such tactics today or whether their use is simply more prevalent because conflict has increased. Greater visibility of such tactics, given expanded media coverage, may also contribute. But a handful of factors appear to have helped create an international environment permissive of such abuse.
The first follows from the protracted nature of many conflicts. While today more wars tend to be intrastate, most involve outside powers and an array of non-state armed groups. It is hard to find a settlement that meets the interests of the warring parties – from the major or regional powers involved, to national actors, to local commanders that may have direct access to revenue streams and thus considerable autonomy. Violence often spreads across wide swathes of the country, leaving few areas unaffected and few safe havens for civilians. Warfare is increasingly urbanised, with non-state armed groups embedded in the general population, which also means fighting exacts a higher civilian cost.
In some cases, as wars drag on, growing hatred and resentment, the desire to avenge abuses and, in many instances, the wish to protect financial interests that instability sustains tend to increase incentives on all sides for more brutal forms of violence, or tactics that result in greater civilian harm. In wars characterised by mass atrocities from the beginning, the behaviour of belligerents rarely improves during the course of the conflict. Indeed, parties often point to excesses by their opponents to justify their own.
Second, mounting geopolitical tension, including among major powers, is likely to have contributed. Major powers tend to pull their punches on abuses by allies, while reserving the harshest criticisms for their enemies. Witness, for example, the disconnect in the UN Security Council on Syria and Yemen. Western powers regularly – and rightly – condemn mass violence by the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers. But their voices are considerably quieter on the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign in Yemen. Russia, meanwhile, has tried to shift the blame for chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime to rebels, exploiting the fact that ISIS has also used poison gas, and has protected Damascus from consequences – including by pulling the plug on the UN/Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Joint Investigative Mechanism, mandated to determine responsibility for chemical weapons attacks, after that body found the regime responsible for the April 2017 Khan Sheikhoun attack.
The pervasive use of tactics that cause such civilian suffering – whether deliberately or through calculated disregard – should be a cause for alarm. It is not just a moral concern.
Last, it is difficult to escape the fact that a decade and a half of post-9/11 Western counter-terrorism operations have played some role, albeit difficult to define precisely. Fairly or not – and undoubtedly in the service of self-interest in many cases – leaders across the world have interpreted these operations, and the militarisation of what tends to be a political problem, as a signal that draconian tactics are more permissible against their own enemies. Russian diplomats frequently cite the destruction of Mosul or Raqqa, for example, to deflect criticism of the Syrian regime’s brutal operations in eastern Aleppo or Eastern Ghouta.
Whatever the precise causes, the pervasive use of tactics that cause such civilian suffering – whether deliberately or through calculated disregard – should be a cause for alarm. It is not just a moral concern. While such tactics might serve the immediate interests of some leaders, governments or militias, the massive humanitarian crises they provoke can themselves be sources of instability and recurrent conflict. At a minimum, they inject further uncertainty into wars and crises that are already difficult to resolve. Without redoubled efforts to forge political solutions, today’s overwhelming levels of displacement, the destruction of cities, homes and infrastructure, and the hunger, destitution and trauma, likely will only grow.