Fiche de notion Dossier : Nonviolent conflict interventions in the panorama of work on conflicts

Bruxelles, novembre 2007

Categorisation of violent (social) conflicts

There are many definitions of social conflict, and this study is not the place to investigate the theory of conflict in depth. Friedrich Glasl’s definition has been chosen because it has the advantage of being broad and neutral enough to allow an all-encompassing view of social conflict. Friedrich Glasl’s (1994) handbook on conflict resolution will play a role again later on when talking about conflict stages. He says :

“Social conflict is an interaction between actors (individuals, groups, organisations and so on), where at least one actor sees incompatibilities in the thinking/ imagination/ perception, and/ or feeling, and/or wanting with another actor (other actors) in a way, that in the realisation there is impairment by another actor (the other actors).” (1)

Conflicts may be categorised (2) according to :

  • Different objects (e.g. strategic conflicts, issue conflicts). For the international field, Kumar Rupesinghe distinguishes resource-based conflicts, conflicts over governance and authority, ideological conflicts and identity conflicts (3).

  • Visibility (latent-manifest conflicts).

  • Characteristics of the conflict parties, their position and relationship to each other (e.g. individuals-groups, rulers-ruled).

  • Level of escalation (see below).

  • Means used to carry the conflict out.

Violent conflicts

Conflicts become a special issue for attention when and if they are carried out by violent means. Peace researchers have reserved the term “war” for violent conflicts that fulfil certain criteria. Usually there has to be a minimum number of casualties (1000 per year or per conflict), and some kind of regular army and central organisation on one side of the conflict at least (4). Violent conflicts that do not fulfil these criteria are called armed conflicts.

Since World War II there have been about 200 wars. The number of wars taking place each year has increased every year to a total of 51 wars in 1992. The decline in the following years to 29 wars in 1997 has again been reversed, and the number of wars has risen to 34 in 1999. Almost 75 % of them have taken place in Africa : 14 and Asia : 11. Others were in the Middle East : 6, Latin America : 2 and Europe : 1. In 1999 alone seven new wars started. (5)

Today the majority of wars are internal wars (6) - the number of international wars has been falling drastically to almost zero in recent years. (In 1999 AKUF counted 3, with three more wars with a strong international component (7).) But while this is certainly reason enough to concentrate on internal wars when dealing with the issue of conflict intervention, it would be too soon to conclude that the danger of new major international wars has been eliminated (8). There are many different ways to categorise armed conflicts (9). For the purpose of this study it is sufficient to find categories that are meaningful for conflict intervention. As a working conflict typology, the one proposed by Miall et. al. (1999) (10) will be freely combined with the one used by AKUF. If in the course of the research, further distinction will prove useful, the typology might be refined (11).

It is based on a combination of actors and issues :

  • 1.International/interstate conflicts

    • 2. Internal conflicts

      • 2.1. Anti-regime (Miall et al : “revolution/ideology”) conflicts/wars.

      • 2.2. autonomy and secession (Miall et al: “identity/secession”) conflicts.

      • 2.3. factional conflicts (AKUF: “other internal wars” or “unrests” depending on if there is central organisation of the fighting on both sides, regular forces at least on one side involved, and some continuity of the fighting). (12)

      • 2.4. decolonising wars. (13)

Further distinctive categories are :

  • 1. If at least on one side the fighting is done by regular forces (military, police, paramilitary units) of the government (14) or not (distinction probably only relevant in internal conflicts.

  • 2. If there is violence carried out only by one side, and the other side is using only nonviolent means (15) (distinction at least theoretical both applicable for international and internal conflicts),

  • 3. If there is direct military involvement by an external party (military intervention)

The fact that civil wars are the predominant kind of organised violence today has had a significant impact on the problems faced by those who deal with them. Often there are many actors, and just as often across the boundaries of one state - with very different interests. Recently, the category of those who profit from the continuation of a war has gained special attention (the recent UN report on peacekeeping (16) calls them simply “spoilers”); Mary Anderson distinguishes “thugs”, “irreconcilables”, “arms merchants and other profiteers” (17). The wars are highly privatised, fought with small weapons, and civilians easily might become part-time warriors, extinguishing the clear distinction between combatants and non-combatants. International Humanitarian Law is heeded less and less. Civilians and those trying to help have often been made the target of violent attacks, as are civilian installations such as hospitals, schools, refugee centres and cultural sites (18).

Notes :

  • (1) : “Sozialer Konflikt ist eine Interaktion zwischen Aktoren (Individuen, Gruppen, Organisationen usw.), wobei mindestens ein Aktor Unvereinbarkeiten im Denken/Vorstellen/Wahrnehmen und/oder Fühlen und/oder wollen mit dem anderen Aktor (anderen Aktoren) in der Art erlebt, dass im Realisieren eine Beeinträchtigung durch einen anderen Aktor (die anderen Aktoren) erfolge.” (Glasl 1994:14 f)

  • (2) : For the first three see Glasl 1994

  • (3) : Rupesinghe 1998:33 pp.

  • (4) : See Miall et al 1999:23 for an overview of different categorisations. Major organisations carrying out annual statistics include the PIOOM program at the University of Leiden/Netherlands, Wallensteen et. al. at Uppsala University, the “Military Balance” of the International Institute of Strategic Studies and the German AKUF based in Hamburg.

  • (5) : According to the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Kriegsursachenforschung AKUF 2000:9 pp. In 1998 and 1997 ten new wars started.

There are other organisations coming to similar if not identical figures depending on the categories used to define war.

  • (6) : The disastrous conditions created by these conflicts have become labelled as ‘complex emergencies’- meaning a major humanitarian crisis of a multi-causal nature that requires a system-wide response. (Adams/Bradbury 1995:9)

  • (7) : AKUF 2000:17. Smith (2000) considers ten armed conflicts between 1990 and 1999 as inter-state conflicts, five as ‘wars of independence’, and 100 as ‘internal conflicts’.

  • (8) : Mitchell 1995:25. For example, the recent war between in Kashmir with a clear involvement of Pakistani troops has special potential for escalation because of the nuclear arsenal of both countries involved. (AKUF 2000:46f)

  • (9) : See Miall et al 1999:31, AKUF 2000:60

  • (10) : Their typology is mainly based on Singer (1996) and Holsti (1996)

  • (11) : Miall et al do this in spite of the comment: “There are as many typologies as analysts, and the criteria employed not only vary, but are often mutually incompatible.” (2000:29)

  • (12) : These are the criteria with which AKUF distinguishes ‘“war” from other kinds of “armed conflicts” (2000:59)

  • (13) : This category is put in brackets by AKUF because this kind of war is considered more or less extinct.

  • (14) : This is part of the definition of war as given by AKUF 2000:60

  • (15) : This is a category I have not found in the literature on war typologies. The only related case considered are cases when “violence doesn’t meet with organised resistance” (AKUF 60)

  • (16) : Brahimi-Report 2000

  • (17) : Anderson 1996. She names “aid workers’ as a fourth category of those profiting from war.

  • (18) : Such description may be found in almost all books on conflict and conflict resolution produced in the last five years. For an example, see Miall et al 1999:128 f