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TEDGlobal 2010

Stefan Wolff: The path to ending ethnic conflicts

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Civil wars and ethnic conflicts have brought the world incredible suffering, but Stefan Wolff's figures show that, in the last 20 years, their number has steadily decreased. He extracts critical lessons from Northern Ireland, Liberia, Timor and more to show that leadership, diplomacy and institutional design are our three most effective weapons in waging peace.

- Ethnic conflicts scholar
Stefan Wolff studies contemporary conflicts, focusing on the prevention and settlement of ethnic conflicts and in postconflict reconstruction in deeply divided and war-torn societies. Full bio

Today I want to talk to you
00:15
about ethnic conflict
00:17
and civil war.
00:19
These are not normally the most cheerful of topics,
00:21
nor do they generally generate
00:24
the kind of good news
00:26
that this conference is about.
00:28
Yet, not only is there at least some good news
00:31
to be told about fewer such conflicts now
00:34
than two decades ago,
00:37
but what is perhaps more important
00:39
is that we also have come
00:41
to a much better understanding of what can be done
00:43
to further reduce the number
00:46
of ethnic conflicts and civil wars
00:48
and the suffering that they inflict.
00:51
Three things stand out:
00:54
leadership, diplomacy
00:56
and institutional design.
00:59
What I will focus on in my talk
01:02
is why they matter, how they matter,
01:04
and what we can all do
01:07
to make sure that they continue to matter
01:09
in the right ways,
01:11
that is, how all of us can contribute
01:13
to developing and honing the skills
01:16
of local and global leaders
01:19
to make peace
01:22
and to make it last.
01:24
But let's start at the beginning.
01:26
Civil wars have made news headlines
01:29
for many decades now,
01:31
and ethnic conflicts in particular
01:33
have been a near constant presence
01:35
as a major international security threat.
01:38
For nearly two decades now,
01:41
the news has been bad
01:44
and the images have been haunting.
01:46
In Georgia, after years of stalemate,
01:49
we saw a full-scale resurgence of violence
01:52
in August, 2008.
01:55
This quickly escalated into a five-day war
01:57
between Russia and Georgia,
02:00
leaving Georgia ever more divided.
02:02
In Kenya, contested presidential elections in 2007 --
02:05
we just heard about them --
02:08
quickly led to high levels
02:11
of inter-ethnic violence
02:13
and the killing and displacement
02:15
of thousands of people.
02:17
In Sri Lanka,
02:19
a decades-long civil war
02:21
between the Tamil minority
02:23
and the Sinhala majority
02:25
led to a bloody climax in 2009,
02:27
after perhaps as many as 100,000
02:30
people had been killed
02:32
since 1983.
02:34
In Kyrgyzstan, just over the last few weeks,
02:36
unprecedented levels of violence occurred
02:39
between ethnic Kyrgyz
02:42
and ethnic Uzbeks.
02:44
Hundreds have been killed,
02:46
and more than 100,000 displaced,
02:48
including many ethnic Uzbeks
02:51
who fled to neighboring Uzbekistan.
02:53
In the Middle East,
02:56
conflict between Israelis and Palestinians
02:58
continues unabated,
03:01
and it becomes ever more difficult
03:03
to see how, just how
03:05
a possible, sustainable solution
03:08
can be achieved.
03:10
Darfur may have slipped from the news headlines,
03:13
but the killing and displacement there
03:16
continues as well,
03:18
and the sheer human misery that it creates
03:20
is very hard to fathom.
03:23
And in Iraq, finally,
03:25
violence is on the rise again,
03:27
and the country has yet to form a government
03:30
four months after
03:33
its last parliamentary elections.
03:35
But hang on, this talk is to be about the good news.
03:40
So are these now the images of the past?
03:43
Well, notwithstanding the gloomy pictures
03:47
from the Middle East, Darfur,
03:50
Iraq, elsewhere,
03:52
there is a longer-term trend
03:54
that does represent some good news.
03:56
Over the past two decades, since the end of the Cold War,
03:59
there has been an overall decline
04:02
in the number of civil wars.
04:05
Since the high in the early 1990s,
04:07
with about 50 such civil wars ongoing,
04:10
we now have 30 percent fewer
04:13
such conflicts today.
04:15
The number of people killed in civil wars
04:17
also is much lower today
04:19
than it was a decade ago or two.
04:22
But this trend is less unambiguous.
04:25
The highest level of deaths on the battlefield
04:28
was recorded between 1998 and 2001,
04:31
with about 80,000 soldiers, policemen and rebels
04:34
killed every year.
04:37
The lowest number of combatant casualties
04:39
occurred in 2003,
04:41
with just 20,000 killed.
04:44
Despite the up and down since then,
04:47
the overall trend --
04:50
and this is the important bit --
04:52
clearly points downward
04:54
for the past two decades.
04:56
The news about civilian casualties
04:59
is also less bad than it used to be.
05:01
From over 12,000 civilians
05:03
deliberately killed in civil wars
05:05
in 1997 and 1998,
05:07
a decade later,
05:10
this figure stands at 4,000.
05:12
This is a decrease by two-thirds.
05:15
This decline would be even more obvious
05:18
if we factored in the genocide in Rwanda
05:20
in 1994.
05:22
But then 800,000 civilians were slaughtered
05:24
in a matter of just a few months.
05:27
This certainly is an accomplishment
05:30
that must never be surpassed.
05:32
What is also important is to note
05:35
that these figures only tell part of the story.
05:37
They exclude people
05:40
that died as a consequence of civil war,
05:42
from hunger or disease, for example.
05:44
And they also do not properly account
05:46
for civilian suffering more generally.
05:48
Torture, rape and ethnic cleansing
05:52
have become highly effective,
05:55
if often non-lethal, weapons in civil war.
05:58
To put it differently,
06:02
for the civilians that suffer the consequences
06:04
of ethnic conflict and civil war,
06:07
there is no good war
06:10
and there is no bad peace.
06:13
Thus, even though every civilian killed,
06:17
maimed, raped, or tortured is one too many,
06:19
the fact that the number
06:22
of civilian casualties
06:24
is clearly lower today
06:26
than it was a decade ago,
06:28
is good news.
06:30
So, we have fewer conflicts today
06:33
in which fewer people get killed.
06:35
And the big question, of course,
06:38
is why?
06:40
In some cases,
06:42
there is a military victory of one side.
06:44
This is a solution of sorts,
06:46
but rarely is it one
06:48
that comes without human costs
06:50
or humanitarian consequences.
06:52
The defeat of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka
06:55
is perhaps the most recent example of this,
06:58
but we have seen similar
07:00
so-called military solutions
07:02
in the Balkans, in the South Caucasus
07:05
and across most of Africa.
07:07
At times, they are complimented
07:10
by negotiated settlements,
07:12
or at least cease-fire agreements,
07:14
and peacekeepers are deployed.
07:16
But hardly ever do they represent
07:18
a resounding success --
07:20
Bosnia and Herzegovina
07:22
perhaps more so than Georgia.
07:24
But for many parts of Africa,
07:26
a colleague of mine once put it this way,
07:28
"The cease-fire on Tuesday night
07:31
was reached just in time
07:34
for the genocide to start on Wednesday morning."
07:36
But let's look at the good news again.
07:41
If there's no solution on the battlefield,
07:43
three factors can account
07:45
for the prevention of ethnic conflict and civil war,
07:47
or for sustainable peace afterwards:
07:51
leadership, diplomacy
07:54
and institutional design.
07:56
Take the example of Northern Ireland.
07:59
Despite centuries of animosity,
08:02
decades of violence
08:04
and thousands of people killed,
08:06
1998 saw the conclusion
08:09
of an historic agreement.
08:11
Its initial version was skillfully mediated
08:14
by Senator George Mitchell.
08:17
Crucially, for the long-term success
08:19
of the peace process in Northern Ireland,
08:21
he imposed very clear conditions
08:24
for the participation and negotiations.
08:26
Central among them,
08:29
a commitment
08:31
to exclusively peaceful means.
08:33
Subsequent revisions of the agreement
08:36
were facilitated by the British and Irish governments,
08:38
who never wavered in their determination
08:41
to bring peace and stability to Northern Ireland.
08:44
The core institutions
08:47
that were put in place in 1998
08:49
and their modifications
08:51
in 2006 and 2008
08:53
were highly innovative
08:55
and allowed all conflict parties
08:57
to see their core concerns and demands addressed.
09:00
The agreement combines a power-sharing arrangement
09:04
in Northern Ireland
09:06
with cross-border institutions
09:08
that link Belfast and Dublin
09:10
and thus recognizes
09:12
the so-called Irish dimension of the conflict.
09:14
And significantly,
09:17
there's also a clear focus
09:19
on both the rights of individuals
09:21
and the rights of communities.
09:23
The provisions in the agreement may be complex,
09:27
but so is the underlying conflict.
09:30
Perhaps most importantly,
09:34
local leaders repeatedly rose to the challenge of compromise,
09:36
not always fast
09:40
and not always enthusiastically,
09:42
but rise in the end they did.
09:45
Who ever could have imagined
09:47
Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness
09:50
jointly governing Northern Ireland
09:53
as First and Deputy First Minister?
09:55
But then, is Northern Ireland a unique example,
09:58
or does this kind of explanation
10:01
only hold more generally
10:03
in democratic and developed countries?
10:05
By no means.
10:08
The ending of Liberia's long-lasting civil war
10:10
in 2003
10:13
illustrates the importance
10:15
of leadership, diplomacy
10:17
and institutional design
10:19
as much as the successful prevention
10:21
of a full-scale civil war
10:23
in Macedonia in 2001,
10:25
or the successful ending
10:28
of the conflict in Aceh in Indonesia in 2005.
10:30
In all three cases,
10:34
local leaders were willing and able
10:36
to make peace,
10:38
the international community stood ready
10:40
to help them negotiate and implement an agreement,
10:43
and the institutions have lived up
10:46
to the promise that they held
10:49
on the day they were agreed.
10:51
Focusing on leadership, diplomacy
10:53
and institutional design
10:55
also helps explain failures to achieve peace,
10:57
or to make it last.
11:00
The hopes that were vested in the Oslo Accords
11:02
did not lead to an end
11:04
of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
11:06
Not all the issues that needed to be resolved
11:08
were actually covered in the agreements.
11:11
Rather, local leaders committed
11:13
to revisiting them later on.
11:16
Yet instead of grasping this opportunity,
11:19
local and international leaders
11:21
soon disengaged
11:23
and became distracted
11:25
by the second Intifada, the events of 9/11
11:27
and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
11:30
The comprehensive peace agreement for Sudan
11:34
signed in 2005
11:36
turned out to be less comprehensive than envisaged,
11:38
and its provisions may yet bear the seeds
11:41
of a full-scale return to war
11:44
between north and south.
11:46
Changes and shortcomings in leadership,
11:48
more off than on international diplomacy
11:51
and institutional failures
11:54
account for this
11:56
in almost equal measure.
11:58
Unresolved boundary issues, squabbles over oil revenues,
12:00
the ongoing conflict in Darfur,
12:03
escalating tribal violence in the south
12:05
and generally weak state capacity
12:08
across all of Sudan
12:10
complete a very depressing picture
12:12
of the state of affairs
12:15
in Africa's largest country.
12:17
A final example: Kosovo.
12:19
The failure to achieve
12:21
a negotiated solution for Kosovo
12:23
and the violence, tension
12:25
and de facto partition that resulted from it
12:27
have their reasons
12:30
in many, many different factors.
12:32
Central among them are three.
12:35
First, the intransigence of local leaders
12:38
to settle for nothing less
12:41
than their maximum demands.
12:43
Second, an international diplomatic effort
12:46
that was hampered from the beginning
12:49
by Western support for Kosovo's independence.
12:52
And third, a lack of imagination
12:56
when it came to designing institutions
12:59
that could have addressed the concerns
13:02
of Serbs and Albanians alike.
13:04
By the same token --
13:07
and here we have some good news again --
13:09
the very fact that there is a high-level,
13:11
well-resourced international presence
13:14
in Kosovo
13:16
and the Balkans region more generally
13:18
and the fact that local leaders on both sides
13:21
have showed relative restraint,
13:23
explains why things have not been worse
13:25
over the past two years since 2008.
13:28
So even in situations
13:31
where outcomes are less than optimal,
13:33
local leaders
13:36
and international leaders have a choice,
13:38
and they can make a difference for the better.
13:41
A cold war
13:44
is not as good
13:46
as a cold peace,
13:48
but a cold peace
13:50
is still better than a hot war.
13:52
Good news is also about learning the right lesson.
13:56
So what then distinguishes
13:59
the Israeli/Palestinian conflict
14:01
from that in Northern Ireland,
14:03
or the civil war in Sudan
14:06
from that in Liberia?
14:08
Both successes and failures
14:10
teach us several critically important things
14:13
that we need to bear in mind
14:16
if we want the good news to continue.
14:18
First, leadership.
14:20
In the same way in which ethnic conflict and civil war
14:23
are not natural
14:27
but man-made disasters,
14:29
their prevention and settlement
14:31
does not happen automatically either.
14:33
Leadership needs to be capable,
14:37
determined and visionary
14:40
in its commitment to peace.
14:42
Leaders need to connect to each other
14:44
and to their followers,
14:47
and they need to bring them along
14:49
on what is an often arduous journey
14:51
into a peaceful future.
14:54
Second, diplomacy.
14:56
Diplomacy needs to be well resourced,
14:59
sustained,
15:02
and apply the right mix of incentives and pressures
15:04
on leaders and followers.
15:06
It needs to help them reach an equitable compromise,
15:08
and it needs to ensure
15:11
that a broad coalition
15:13
of local, regional
15:15
and international supporters
15:17
help them implement their agreement.
15:19
Third, institutional design.
15:22
Institutional design requires
15:25
a keen focus on issues,
15:27
innovative thinking
15:29
and flexible and well-funded implementation.
15:31
Conflict parties need to move away
15:35
from maximum demands
15:38
and towards a compromise
15:40
that recognizes each other's needs.
15:42
And they need to think
15:45
about the substance of their agreement
15:47
much more than about
15:49
the labels they want to attach to them.
15:51
Conflict parties also need to be prepared
15:53
to return to the negotiation table
15:55
if the agreement implementation stalls.
15:58
For me personally,
16:02
the most critical lesson of all is this:
16:04
Local commitment to peace
16:07
is all-important,
16:09
but it is often not enough
16:11
to prevent or end violence.
16:14
Yet, no amount of diplomacy
16:17
or institutional design
16:20
can make up for local failures
16:22
and the consequences that they have.
16:25
Therefore, we must invest
16:28
in developing leaders,
16:31
leaders that have the skills,
16:34
vision and determination
16:37
to make peace.
16:39
Leaders, in other words,
16:41
that people will trust
16:43
and that they will want to follow
16:45
even if that means
16:48
making hard choices.
16:50
A final thought:
16:53
Ending civil wars
16:55
is a process that is fraught with dangers,
16:57
frustrations and setbacks.
17:00
It often takes a generation to accomplish,
17:03
but it also requires us, today's generation,
17:06
to take responsibility
17:09
and to learn the right lessons
17:11
about leadership, diplomacy
17:13
and institutional design,
17:16
so that the child soldiers of today
17:19
can become the children of tomorrow.
17:22
Thank you.
17:24
(Applause)
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About the Speaker:

Stefan Wolff - Ethnic conflicts scholar
Stefan Wolff studies contemporary conflicts, focusing on the prevention and settlement of ethnic conflicts and in postconflict reconstruction in deeply divided and war-torn societies.

Why you should listen

German political scientist Stefan Wolff is professor of international security at the University of Birmingham, England, and one of the world's leading experts on ethnic conflicts. He consults with governments and international organizations on issues such as the development and stability of post-conflict areas, the institutional design of solutions for self-determination conflicts, and ethnopolitics and minority questions. Bridging the divide between academia and policy-making, he has been involved in various phases of conflict settlement processes in Sudan, Moldova, Sri Lanka and Kosovo. He has also worked on a wide range of conflicts in places such as Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and Asia. He is currently advising on the settlement of the status of Kirkuk, Iraq, and Transnistria, Moldova. He's written a dozen books, including Ethnic Conflict: A Global Perspective, the first major treatment of the subject aimed at a broad general audience. He's the founding editor of Ethnopolitics, a quarterly, peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the study of ethnic conflicts and their management around the globe.

More profile about the speaker
Stefan Wolff | Speaker | TED.com