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TEDGlobal: Stefan Wolff and learning lessons to stop ethnic conflict

Stefan Wolff is a scholar of ethnic conflicts and civil war. He tells us that, while there’s seldom good news when we talk about these topics, there are reasons for hope. Specifically, he’s hopeful about three factors: leadership, diplomacy and institutional design.

There are certainly reasons to worry about ongoing civil war. Wolff reminds us of recent civil conflicts in Georgia, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Israel and Palestine, Darfur and Iraq. But there’s good news as well. In the long term, there’s an overall decline in the number of civil wars, and we’re seeing roughly half as many as there were in the 1990s, with fifty civil wars. Death rates are lower from combat casualties, though the trend is less unambiguous. And there’s a decrease of 2/3rds in civilian casualties, which is great, but those statistics don’t consider the tragically common other effects of conflict on civilians – torture, rape and maiming.

So why is the situation getting better? Sometimes there’s a military victory, like with the victory of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. But these rarely show up as resounding successes. Wolff tells us an African colleague once told him, “The ceasefire on Tuesday night was reached just in time for the genocide to start on Wednesday morning.”

Looking at success stories might help us. The Northern Ireland peace process mediated by Senator Mitchell was a resounding success and has led to lasting peace in Northern Ireland. There were very clear conditions for participation in negotiation – a firm commitment to exclusively peaceful means. Agreements were innovative and let all parties see their core concerns addressed. People built cross-border institutions that link Belfast and Dublin and acknowledge Irish dimension of the conflict. There was an acknowledgement of rights of individuals and groups, and local leaders rose to the challenge of compromise.

This isn’t the only success – stopping the civil war in Liberia, preventing civil war in Macedonia, and ending the conflict in Aceh – in each case, institutions have stood up to the promise of making peace instead of sustaining conflict.

Why didn’t Oslo work as a process for peace in Israel and Palestine? The process didn’t include enough of the issues – instead, it left them to local leaders, who soon disengaged, became distracted. The Southern Sudan peace process wasn’t comprehensive enough, and may lead to resumption of conflict.

In Kosovo, failure of a negotiated solution led to de facto partition. Here we should probably blame the intransigence of local leaders, and the failure to settle for less than full demands. Western support for Kosovar independents probably didn’t help either, and the failure to build institutions to address concerns of Serbs and Albanians alike contributed.

Even when situations less than optimal, Wolff tells us, leaders have a choice and can make a difference for the better. A cold peace is better than a hot war for everyone involved. But these sorts of solutions don’t happen automatically. Leadership has to be capable, determined, visionary. Leaders need to connect to each other and to followers, so they can bring them along on a long and arduous journey.

Diplomacy must be well resourced, sustained, and a use a mix of pressures. It needs to push for equitable compromise, and involve a broad coalition of local, regional and international supporters.

Institutional design should focus on issues, innovative thinking, and be supported by well-funded implementation.

Parties involved need to move away from maximum demands, towards compromise. And we all need to invest in developing leaders who have the skills, vision, determination to make peace so that “the child soldiers of today can become the children of tomorrow.”

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