Daring to resolve conflicts without war

As the world experiences the second most number of state-based conflicts since 1945, Australia must make greater efforts to support international peace-building

Professor John Langmore, University of Melbourne

Published 6 June 2017

There has been an alarming upward trend in the number of deaths in war since 2012.

According to the authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) the total number of deaths from organised violence worldwide leapt to 130,000 in 2014 (dropping only slightly to 118,000 in 2015) from around 35,000 per year in between 2000 – 2010.

Half of this shocking increase was due to the war in Syria and much of the rest to the spread of Islamic State (IS). In 2015 the number of state-based conflicts increased steeply from 41 in 2014 to 50, the second highest number since 1945, due almost entirely to the expansion of IS.

Displaced Syrians who fled the Islamic State (IS) group stronghold of Raqa stand at a temporary camp in the northern Syrian village of Ain Issa on June 3, 2017. Picture: Getty Images

In a recently published report, we argue that Australia needs to greatly increase its expertise in conflict prevention and peace-building, in response to this new landscape and as part of fulfilling our international obligations under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Why are conflict deaths rising?

The Syrian and IS wars are not the only causes of the notable increase in conflict fatalities. In 2015 there were 23 other countries where war caused more than 25 battle deaths a year. These included Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Colombia, Congo, India, Kenya, Mali, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, Somalia, South Sudan, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine and Yemen.

Nor is IS the cause of conflicts in many areas where major violence has not yet erupted but where it occurs spasmodically or is threatened, such as Burundi, Georgia, Israel and Palestine, Nigeria, Sudan, Western Sahara and places where terrorists are active.

Neither do these include those situations where there is a serious possibility of conflict erupting and where efforts to ease conflict could be of great value including such places as Bougainville, the East China Sea, the Korean Peninsula, Myanmar, the Solomon Islands, the South China Sea and West Papua.

Violent conflict is also causing explosive growth in the numbers of forcibly displaced people worldwide, numbering 65.3 million in 2015. This is the largest number on record. Twenty-one million of these are refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.

The international community’s obligations

The SIPRI’s 2016 Yearbook argues that “peace is not being well served by national governments or the array of international institutions, forces and instruments that are currently devoted to enhancing security and international stability”.

This disastrous situation led the new UN Secretary-General António Guterres in his first address to the UN Security Council on 10 January 2017 to say that “the priority of everything we do together [must be] preventing conflict and sustaining peace”. He went on to say that “we spend far more time and resources responding to crises rather than preventing them”; and that “it has proved very difficult to persuade decision-makers at national and international level that prevention must be their priority”.

In this context, strengthening and professionalising capacity for peace-making is vital. On 28 September 2015 Australia joined with every other member state in the UN General Assembly in adopting the Sustainable Development Goals. In goal number 16 all UN members accepted responsibility for promoting “peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development” and for providing “access to justice for all…”. The first of the targets under this goal is to “significantly reduce all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere”.

Australia therefore shares in the global commitment to seeking and implementing more effective means of peaceful conflict resolution. The question is: how could we do that most effectively?

Our report

For the last year the Australian International Conflict Resolution Project in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne has been studying how seven other countries approach this responsibility.

Two destroyed tanks in front of a mosque in Azaz, Syria. The Syrian civil war has been raging since 2011. Picture: Wikimedia

The study was commissioned by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and the results are published in State Support for Peace Processes: A Multi-Country Review.

The report describes how Canada, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States are attempting to prevent conflict and build peace. The most detailed attention was given to Canada, Norway and the UK because they focus substantial attention on peace-processes.

Our principal recommendation is that the Cabinet security committee considers the range of peace-making procedures before automatically deciding on military intervention.

Every conflict is different and requires carefully considered action: from preventive diplomacy through to appointment of an expert committee of inquiry. Other options include a political mission, use of the good offices of the Secretary-General, reference to regional peace-making agencies or to the UN Security Council, negotiation, conciliation, mediation, arbitration or even reference to an international judicial tribunal.

More training for diplomats in the whole range of conflict resolution skills such as mediation would be highly valuable. Quite often NGOs can be effective unofficial agents in easing conflict – and they would benefit from public funding.

Action to resolve or prevent conflict at an early stage is far more cost effective than attempts to resolve, restore or repair once violent conflict has erupted. To maximise the long-term effectiveness of Australia’s foreign policies there would be great value in strengthening Australia’s conflict prevention and resolution capabilities.

Aiming to strengthen security is a foundational goal for the process of development. Australia cannot be secure unless the countries in our region also feel secure. It is essential for Australian security that we seek and support additional ways of contributing to the peace and justice in the region and globally.

Banner image: Smoke billows from buildings behind a banner reading in Arabic ‘Islamic police’ as Syrian pro-government forces advance taking control of the northern Syrian town of Maskanah from the Islamic State (IS) group on June 5, 2017.

Banner Image: Getty Images

Find out more about research in this faculty


Content Card Slider

Content Card Slider

Subscribe for your weekly email digest

By subscribing, you agree to our

Acknowledgement of country

We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the Traditional Owners of the unceded lands on which we work, learn and live. We pay respect to Elders past, present and future, and acknowledge the importance of Indigenous knowledge in the Academy.

Read about our Indigenous priorities
Phone: 13 MELB (13 6352) | International: +61 3 9035 5511The University of Melbourne ABN: 84 002 705 224CRICOS Provider Code: 00116K (visa information)