There has been an alarming upward trend in the number of deaths in war around the world since 2012.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute concludes that in the first decade of the 21st century, the total number of deaths from organised violence worldwide stabilised at around 35,000. But, by 2014, it had multiplied to 130,000. The small decline to 118,000 in 2015 didn’t reduce the severe global anxiety about armed conflict.
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 to 50, up from 41 in 2014. This is the second highest number since 1945, due almost entirely to IS’s expansion.
However, the Syrian and IS wars are not the causes of the violent conflicts in the 23 other countries. In 2015, war was causing more than 25 battle deaths a year in these countries. They 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. These include Burundi, Georgia, Israel and Palestine, Nigeria, Sudan, Western Sahara, and places where terrorists are active.
Neither do these include those situations where participants and observers consider there is a serious possibility of conflict erupting, and where efforts to ease conflict could be of great value. These include Bougainville, the East China Sea, the Korean Peninsula, Myanmar, the Solomon Islands, the South China Sea, and West Papua.
Violent conflict is causing explosive growth in numbers of forcibly displaced people worldwide, numbering 65.3 million in 2015. This is the largest number on record. Of these, 21 million are refugees, more than half of whom are under 18.
The SIPRI Yearbook 2016 argues:
… 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 in January this year to say:
… the priority of everything we do together [must be] preventing conflict and sustaining peace.
… we spend far more time and resources responding to crises rather than preventing them.
It has proved very difficult to persuade decision-makers at national and international level that prevention must be their priority.
Therefore, strengthening and professionalising capacity for peacemaking is vital.
In September 2015, Australia joined with every other member country in the UN General Assembly in adopting the Sustainable Development Goals. Goal Sixteen is that 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 implement more effective means of peaceful conflict resolution. The question is: how could Australia do that most effectively?
For the last year, the University of Melbourne’s Australian International Conflict Resolution Project has been studying how seven other countries prevent conflict and build peace. The countries studied have been Canada, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the UK and the US; the most detailed attention was given to Canada, Norway and the UK, because they focus substantial attention onto peace processes.
The conclusions focus on possible lessons and recommendations for Australia in how best to respond to conflicts and support peace processes.
Every conflict is different and requires carefully considered action. This might include:
the appointment of an expert committee of inquiry;
a political mission;
use of the good offices of the secretary-general;
reference to regional peacemaking agencies or to the UN Security Council;
reference to an international judicial tribunal.
More training in the range of conflict resolution skills such as mediation would be highly valuable.
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 fundamental 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.