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Deadly cost of the new global warfare

Civil wars, civilian bloodshed and Western inaction - these are the hallmarks of a 21st century conflict

Richard Norton-Taylor and Owen Bowcott

There is a deadly new pattern to the world's armed struggles, in which civil wars are escalating into regional conflicts while the international community is increasingly reluctant to intervene, according to an authoritative military survey released last week. While the United States and Europe are preoccupied with Iraq and Kosovo, the poorer economies of the world are being destroyed by proliferating conflicts that are exacerbated by the growing weapons trade. The trend is particularly noticeable in sub-Saharan Africa. At least 110,000 people were killed last year in armed conflicts around the globe, the latest edition of The Military Balance estimates. The report's authors at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London believe this marks an upward trend, although they have not produced tallies for recent years.

In the 12 months to August 1, 1999, 10 international wars and 25 civil wars were being fought. "There may be slightly fewer internal conflicts but they have become more intense," said Digby Waller, a defence economist at the IISS.

"These conflicts have been allowed to burn away. International peacekeepers can't take on more than one or two at a time. They have been dealing with Iraq for years, for example, which has not been a minor operation. There is increasingly a pattern of weak states and strong states." Eleven of the civil wars running out of control last year were in sub-Saharan Africa, including renewed violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo - formerly Zaire - which broke the fragile 1997 ceasefire.

Ethiopia and Eritrea also fought each other to a standstill as their border dispute escalated into first world war-style trench warfare between massed military formations.

Around 60% of the deaths from armed conflict also occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. These included an estimated 15,000 in Ethiopia and Eritrea, 9,000 in Congo, and 9,000 in Sierra Leone. This annual figure was, however, lower than the global average for the period of the cold war.

Arms exports to the region nearly doubled over the year as different factions fought not only over territory but also for valuable mineral resources. Three-quarters of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa are engaged in armed conflict or confronted by a significant threat from armed groups, the IISS says.

But the conflict is concentrated in the swath of territory stretching from the Horn of Africa in the east to Angola in the west. Military expenditure in the region totalled nearly $11bn last year, if military assistance and funding of opposition groups and mercenaries are taken into account.

Excluding South Africa, spending on arms in sub-Saharan Africa increased by about 14% at a time when the region's economic growth rose by less than 1% in real terms.

International aid organisations have repeatedly raised the alarm about the human cost of such wars, particularly the price paid by civilians. One recent Swedish study estimated that 15% of casualties during the first world war were non-combatants; by the second world war that proportion was 65%. In several recent conflicts, up to 84% of the dead are believed to have been civilians.

"There have been a lot more conflicts in the 1990s, and civilians are not necessarily being killed by guns but by the destruction of infrastructure," said Ian Bray of Oxfam. "In Sudan, for example, they were made to leave their villages and taken away from their crops. That was what killed them - not guns or machetes."

Unlike Kosovo and East Timor, where Nato and the United Nations intervened, conflicts in Africa have been largely ignored by the West. According to John Chipman, an IISS director: "Nato's intervention in Serbia increased the perception that, at least within Europe, a form of regional international law is emerging where the normal protection against intervention is suspended when leaders allow atrocities to be committed against their own citizens."

"The difficulty with such attempts has always been that since the pre-conditions for intervention normally include the existence of some national interest . . . and the probability of success at acceptable cost, political doctrines defending the right to military intervention appear to many to involve a legal ratification of a realpolitik consideration." Dr Chipman pointed to another apparent paradox. The capacity of powerful states to prevent regional conflicts is strikingly low. Gone are the days when strong states could, by the threat of military force or their prestige alone, prevent weaker states from pursuing strategic objectives.

"In the past the US and other powerful states were clear about what they would do, and ambiguous about what they wouldn't do . . . the management of the conflict in Kosovo and the general attitude of the US towards much regional conflict means that now the US tends to be clear about what it won't do and ambiguous about what it would do. That attitude invites others to call the US's bluff."

He criticised the US Congress for its failure to ratify the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty this month: "It has deepened the sense . . . that the US seeks one set of rules for the world, and another for itself," he said.

The US remains the world's largest arms exporter, accounting for almost half of all arms sold. The international arms trade was worth $55.8bn in 1988. Saudi Arabia was by far the single largest purchaser, importing more than $10bn, followed by Taiwan.

The pattern of disintegration in multi-ethnic states such as Yugoslavia and Indonesia has meant that an increasing number of the 2m deaths in conflicts since 1945 have been caused by small arms, rather than weapons of mass destruction.

Yet while international negotiations and intelligence agencies have concentrated on the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, the devastating effect of assault rifles and submachine guns in killing and maiming, in creating a culture of violence and in militarising civil society, has been largely ignored. "There is a serious gap between talk about the need to respect human rights and the international community's response to conflicts," said Eugenia Piza-Lopez of the charity International Alert, which monitors and attempts to prevent wars around the world.

"Too often the response is still short-term, and closely linked to strategic interest. The trend is one of disengagement by the international community from areas in which they do not have an immediate economic interest. But there's an increasing resort to violence - even now by private companies pursuing their own interests."

The Guardian Weekly 28-10-1999, page 3

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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