Changing the lexicons in war-to-peace transitions by Eric Gutierrez

Social researchers at times apply certain terms without critically reflecting on their use. For example, the word ‘humanitarian’ is used to refer to specific crises, while responses to such crises may move beyond humanitarianism. This article details the problematic of the application of certain research terminology and calls for a changing of lexicons in war-to-peace transitions.

Over the last two decades, the ‘world’s worst humanitarian crises’ have come, one after another. There was eastern Congo, then Darfur, South Sudan, Libya, and Syria, now Yemen, and more are in between. These are indeed man-made disasters and emergencies, causing untold suffering. But in 2007, David Keen advised that care should be taken when applying the word “humanitarian” to these crises, because, first, it implies that the solution lies with humanitarian relief. Though humanitarian response may alleviate suffering, it will not solve problems. Second, the word ‘may prejudge the motives of interveners as altruistic, when they can be much more complicated’ (Keen, 2007: 1).

Other terms are increasingly less applicable these days. Take “civil war” or “internal war” – does it still apply to the growing number of conflicts today with no clear front lines, where protagonists are not internal to any single country, and with no clear beginnings and possibly no definite endings, too? A war is aimed at a political or military victory, or at gaining control of territory in the conventional sense. Yet many of today’s “wars” are different – in some, protagonists have even developed an interest in instability as they profit from the war economy. There are more cases today of peacebuilding efforts failing, but not because of the complex constraints faced by peacebuilders. Rather, certain powers want them to fail.

Battles today are fought not just by armies with chains of command, but also by all sorts of irregular militias, criminals, or armed civilians with little discipline or no structure at all. “Soldiers” today include children kidnapped from communities with disintegrating social networks or youngsters peer pressured to join armed gangs.

The “end” of civil wars did not necessarily mean an end to violence. Rather, it merely marked a shift from militarised to other forms of social violence, as disputes over land, resources, and local rule continued. Severine Autesserre, who documented the violence in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) after the peace agreement has been signed, is intensely critical of the widespread use of the term “post-conflict”, because it obscures the primacy of land and other micro-level issues causing violence and producing anguish that were kept invisible and never resolved by the peace talks. She unpacks the methodological shortcomings of peacebuilding in the DRC that led to serious policy failures (Autesserre, 2010: 2).

In Central America, the end of militarised conflict often meant the beginning of criminalised violence. Monitoring by local and international groups such as the Geneva Declaration on Armed Conflict and Violence suggest that two countries with UN-brokered peace agreements in the 1990s – El Salvador and Guatemala – have more people dying today from violent crime (homicide and murder) than those killed in combat or incidents related to fighting during these countries’ civil wars. “Post-conflict” El Salvador suffers more violent deaths today than conflict-affected Iraq. Guatemala has one of the highest homicide rates in the world for a country that is officially not at war.

In addition, over 10% of the violent deaths recorded each year around the world are also attributed to manslaughter – a figure that includes the thousands of refugees and migrants from post-conflict countries who drown or are killed in attempts (labelled “illegal”) to move across territories, or to escape the transitions that are supposed to make life better for them.

So perhaps a first step in better framing war-to-peace transitions is to improve the lexicon in use. Caution is necessary when applying the terms so far listed. But more importantly, assumptions need to be seriously questioned. The expression “senseless violence” for example is a misnomer that divorces acts of violence from its context and ignores the telling details. Violence makes sense to its perpetrators – it could bring reputation, status, and meaning, not just utility.

Mark Duffield once posited that more recent examples of violence could simply be new and innovative ways of projecting political power. As Keen pointed out, famine and hunger, too (not just wars), could be politically manufactured to serve political and economic ends. Hence, violence is anything but pointless. Keen also rejected defining large-scale violent conflict in terms of a “breakdown of authority”. Citing the 1994 Rwandan genocide, he pointed out that ‘the problem was not so much that authority had broken down; rather, it was being imposed with ruthless and vicious efficiency.’ Hence, he argues that to automatically claim that authority has broken down where large-scale violent conflicts take place could be extremely damaging because it risks endorsing the dubious alibi of governments that have cleverly manipulated and exacerbated ethnic tensions (2007: 2-3).

Changing lexicons is not just a matter of semantics. Dropping some terms and using new ones can help frame the problems, and the responses, differently. A report on “Challenges in the Sahel” by the development agency Christian Aid, published in late 2017, used the term “perfect storm” to refer to that extraordinary combination of poverty, violent conflict, corruption, criminality, and climate change that drive the crises in the region. This implies that stand-alone security interventions not coordinated with development actors or other state actors, and vice versa, may not deliver desired results, or can even cause inadvertent outcomes. Solutions need to be smarter.

Also introduced was the term “unusual actors”, to characterise politicians who are corrupt but nevertheless get genuinely elected, or smugglers hunted by the law that may be the only providers of employment in disintegrating local economies. They may also spoilers of the peace who are predators to some but are protectors to others. “Unusual”, because though they may be “bad guys”, they are somehow tolerated, or even considered “good guys” by others. It posits that dilemma – how should humanitarian and development agencies deal with “unusual actors”?

To conclude, working differently on war-to-peace transitions may require changing lexicons, or at least requires more circumspection in the application of certain terms. We need to become better at bracing for perfect storms, and in preparing for, or at least recognising, the presence of rather “unusual actors”. Finding more comprehensive solutions means laying all options out, including decisions to walk away at certain moments.

Image credit: ECHO/H. Veit

About the author:

Eric Gutierrez is a researcher at the ISS. 


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