Beyond Atrocity

Filed in Case Studies by on 24th Mar 2009

Conflict is like a debilitating disease that slowly invades the body politic. By the time the symptoms are recognised, the disease is often far advanced, leaving a country and its people in pain and trauma. Following the same analogy, conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction are the cure. Policymakers, like highly-trained surgeons, use a range of instruments or tools to help them first intervene with surgical precision to excise a cancerous tumour of violence, then as an aid in prescribing a treatment regimen to bring about healing. However, where doctors use scalpels, clamps, and forceps, policymakers use political, economic and military tools. Policymakers have a range of such tools at their disposition to aid in conflict resolution, and post-conflict reconstruction. These tools involve political instruments such as international agreements and alliances where states share their experience and military capabilities to help end a conflict. The various tools available to policymakers, whether of a political, economic or military nature, are all interconnected through a variety of international agreements which have developed over time under the auspices of such organisations as the United Nations, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, and others. It is through such organisations and their agreements that states help each other fulfill defence, economic and political obligations to rebuild post-conflict states to keep the international system healthy. This can involve the use of military advisors to help one side in a conflict defend itself better in the face of aggression. It can involve the creation of a local balance of power as in the 1995 Dayton accords in the Balkans. “Rather than deploy sufficient forces to uphold international standards of behaviour, the United States and its European allies created a balance of forces on the ground between the Muslim-Croat federation and the Serbs” (Crocker et al, 2003, p. 88).  It can also mean the deployment of military units to force a ceasefire, or end a conflict through coercive means.

A policymaker recognises that military force does not necessarily have to be used to be effective. In such a case military force backs up the political tools of negotiation and persuasion. A policymaker has to choose between using hard power which is the application of military force in violent conflict, and using a soft power approach. In some cases, the mere threat of using military force can be quite effective in preventing conflict. Another soft-power use of this political tool involves “exchange power, associated with bargaining and the compromising approach (‘do what I want and I will do what you want’), and ‘integrative power’, associated with persuasion and transformative long-term problem-solving (‘together we can do something that is better for both of us’)” (Ramsbotham et al, 2007, p. 20). Perhaps the best-known example of this tool being used effectively is the 1963 Cuban missile crisis when President John F. Kennedy threatened the Soviet Union with nuclear war if it did not withdraw its nuclear missiles from Cuba. “When Khrushchev indicated his willingness to withdraw his missiles from Cuba, he simultaneously stressed to Kennedy that ‘we are of sound mind and understand perfectly well’ that Russia could not launch a successful attack against the U.S., and therefore that there was no reason for the U.S. to contemplate a defensive, pre-emptive strike of its own” (Kaufman et al, 2004, p. 96). Sun Tzu, a Chinese military strategist said it best 2500 years ago, referring to the most effective use of this basic military tool with the phrase ‘the supreme art of war is to win without fighting’(Tzu, 1972, p. 7).

Economic tools constitute an important part of a policymaker’s toolkit and involve primarily foreign aid, development funds, discretionary lending authority and other financial incentives to help a people or State rebuild. These tools are used in post-conflict reconstruction to re-establish a functioning economy with such basic financial services as banking, business loans, everyday markets and the restoration of trade. This can also involve controls to prevent black markets and contraband from developing.

The application of such tools, whether political, military or economic, has become considerably more challenging since the end of the Cold War. One of the main reasons is that after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the idea of a single, international conflict that dominated international relations was no longer valid. “Instead, internal conflicts, ethnic conflicts, conflicts over secession and power struggles within countries became the norm in the 1990’s” (Ramsbotham et al, 2007, p. 4).  Another factor that makes it more difficult for policymakers to use their various tools is the growing complexity of conflict. This complexity became more evident after the end of the Cold War, although certain elements, like the symptoms of a disease, were suppressed but latent during the Cold War. These elements include rival ethnic groups, and groups belonging to different religions. The conflict between Bosnian-Serbs and Bosnian-Muslims in the early 1990’s contained both these elements. There is also added complexity from other factors such as the tendency for conflicts to be “concentrated in developing countries which are typically characterised by ‘rapid population growth and limited resource base’ and also have restricted ‘political capacity’ often linked to a colonial legacy of weak participatory institutions, a hierarchical tradition of imposed bureaucratic rule from metropolitan centres, and inherited instruments of political repression” (Ramsbotham et al, 2007, p. 87).

Ironically, the challenge facing policymakers in applying their tools is made more difficult by the growing popularity of conflict resolution. Conflict resolution became an area of interest to development and foreign aid workers as well as to regional organisations such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Organisation of African Unity (AU). This means more people for policymakers to contend with, resulting in “greater scrutiny and the development of searching critiques from different quarters” (Ramsbotham et al, 2007, p. 5). The challenge becomes even greater because of difficulties faced by policymakers in war zones. “A number of analysts pointed to the impact of globalisation on the weakening of vulnerable states, the provision of cheap weaponry suitable for ‘asymmetric war’, and the generation of shadow economies that made ‘new wars’ self perpetuating and profitable” (Ramsbotham et al, 2007, p. 5). The challenge faced by a policymaker in rebuilding an economy is enormous, especially since a post-conflict society does not necessarily mean that the entire country is conflict-free. If security forces are stretched thin, especially in areas outside metropolitan centres, conflict can re-ignite. This constitutes a considerable challenge to the application of post-conflict resolution tools. It is even more challenging when a peace agreement has yet to take hold, and rebels are benefiting from a war economy. A study entitled “The Economics of Civil War, Crime and Violence” by the World Bank suggests that “a significant element of the motivation for political violence does not come from a politics as grievance discourse (the assumption of much conflict research and of the Agenda for Peace), but from a dynamic where the economic motivation to pursue conflict becomes compelling” (Ramsbotham et al, 2004, p. 139). This was the case in Sierra Leone where rebels used diamonds to buy guns and military equipment while engaging in torture and subjugation of the civilian population. Basically, warlords were more interested in profits from conflict diamonds than in mediation and peace. In such a case, economic measures at the wrong time have little impact and even risk prolonging the conflict. “Targeted military action, on the other hand, is said to be much more likely to have the effect of foreshortening the conflict by persuading those losing ground to accept a settlement” (Ramsbotham et al, 2007, p. 6). Forces from the United Kingdom chose targeted military action which allowed other United Nations contingents to be more effective in their efforts to restore peace throughout the country, while, longer-term economic measures were applied. Like a treatment regimen of powerful drugs, the use of political, military and economic tools was co-ordinated for maximum effect.

A policymaker uses economic tools to prop up the regular economy while simultaneously dismantling the war economy that helps spoilers resist reconstruction. In the case of Sierra Leone, the United Nations Security Council embargoed the import and export of conflict diamonds and introduced an international diamond certification plan. Under the new system “only diamonds mined in government-controlled areas are actually certified” (paragraph 102). This restricted the illegal flow of diamonds, preventing rebel groups such as the Revolutionary United Front from using diamonds to pay for foods and military supplies. Another important use of economic tools is to ensure that the new economy will offer hope for the future and begin to “absorb enough of those previously employed in disbanded militia as will reduce disaffection to containable levels” (Ramsbotham et al, 2004, p. 207). This also involves the use of political tools to ensure that commitment to the idea of a revitalised economy remains strong across the various levels of society. This is especially true in a country not used to a more open economy.

Another usage of economic tools is setting up a system to allow a country’s institutions to remain accountable to the public they serve. Although an institution may have a built-in system of checks and balances, a policymaker must also use political tools to set up organisations representing the people to whom the institutions must be accountable. “Society organised into cohesive groups – whether in the form of parent-teacher associations (PTAs), watchdog groups, or advocacy organisations – is much more likely to demand and receive accountability than one consisting of disorganised individuals” (Fukuyama, 2004, p. 30). This requires political skills in bringing together the right mix and number of skilled people and organisations to help local residents set in place sound institutions such as banking, independent electoral commission, civil offices, schools, judiciary and correctional system needed to ensure that society can function properly and that the impunity associated with conflict is ended, allowing law and order to prevail. It also involves bringing in medical staff such as doctors and psychologists to help those traumatised by the atrocities of rape, torture and killing begin the long process of healing.

During a military conflict, one of the tools of policymakers is a well-equipped, well-trained military force. However, given the increased number of intrastate conflicts since the end of the Cold War, it is increasingly difficult to persuade states to send more military contingents. This calls for the use of political tools. This week, Canada’s Minister of Defence, Peter MacKay, visited Amsterdam and Washington in one of several efforts made within the NATO alliance this year to persuade members to contribute more military contingents to fight the Taliban inAfghanistan. American, British, Canadian and Dutch forces are deployed in combat roles in the southern part of the country while other NATO members such as Germany, Spain and Italy are deployed in the relatively calm north.  Repeated calls from NATO’s Secretary-General and British and Canadian political leaders over the past few months have failed to persuade other NATO members to contribute combat troops or redeploy their troops to the south. Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, has also been trying to shift public opinion in favour of the mission in Afghanistan. However, the opposition Liberals, New Democratic Party and Bloc Québécois all say that unless the Throne Speech for the new session of Parliament which begins on the 16th of October contains a clear commitment to withdraw Canadian forces fromAfghanistan by February 2008, they will vote down his minority government and force a federal election. A press conference in Kabul by Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, on Wednesday, implored Canadians to support the mission, saying that the country “risks a descent into chaos” (Globe and Mail, 19 September 2007, p. A1) if the troops withdraw. With the mounting death toll for Canadian soldiers, several high-level policymakers have clearly co-ordinated the use of political tools in the hope of persuading Canadian citizens to support the mission, as well as persuading other NATO members to live up to their responsibilities as members of the NATO alliance.

After a conflict has been resolved, or a cease-fire put in place, international policymakers must rely on other tools to ensure that law and order is maintained so peace-building can take place. The military is not really trained to maintain law and order so much as use coercion to force a ceasefire or end to a conflict. This calls for civilian peace-keeping tools such as a judiciary and penal system enforced by a police force or ‘blue force’.  This force would normally be deployed in an area before a cease-fire.  “From the time of the signing of the cease-fire agreement, the blue force would be responsible for public order, routine police work, the arrest of war criminals, security for refugees, and, most important, starting the process of vetting, restructuring, and training the local police. The majority of a nation’s military forces could start to withdraw as soon as the blue force was fully deployed.” (Day, 2001, p. 11).  A good example of a civilian police force is the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, whose members have been deployed to act in a temporary capacity as a civilian force, and to train local civilians to assume police duties in such trouble spots as Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan. In essence, a civilian police force becomes an increasingly important factor in a military exit strategy. Civilian police trainers generally deploy before a ceasefire and begin to establish a working police structure, along with judicial experts who set up an integrated judicial system. Civilian police and judicial experts, as well as other political, military and economic tools constitute an important part of the many tools in a policymaker’s toolbox. Given mankind’s propensity for conflict, a policymaker with the right tools, like a caring doctor, can offer formidable protection, acting at times like a vaccine against a disease, and at other times like a cure for a long painful illness.


Crocker C., Hampson F., & Aall, P. (2003) Turbulent peace, Washington, D.C.: United States Peace Institute.

Day, G. (2001, May 30). After war, send blue force. Christian Science Monitor, 93(129), 11. Retrieved September 16, 2007, from Academic Search Premier database.

Fukuyama, F. (2004). State-Building, Governance and World Order in the 21st Century. Cornell University Press, Sage House, 512 East State Street, Ithaca, New York 14850

Hamre, J., & Sullivan, G. (2002, Autumn). Toward Post-Conflict Reconstruction. Washington Quaterly, 25(4), 85-96. Retrieved August 30, 2007, from Academic Search Premier database.

Jervis, R. (2004). Cooperation under the security dilemma

In D.J. Kaufman, J.M. Parker, P.V. Howell & G.R. Doty (Eds.), Understanding international relations (pp. 301-327).Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Ramsbotham, O., Woodhouse, T., & Miall, H. (2007). Contemporary conflict resolution. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Report of the Panel of Experts Appointed Pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 1306 (2000), Paragraph 19 in relations to Sierra Leone, Retrieved September 20, 2007 from

Smith, G. (2007, September 19). Karzai pleads for Canadians to stay. The Globe and Mail, p. A1.

Tzu S., (1972). L’Art de la guerre. Paris, France: Champs-Flammarion.
(The quotation used in the text was translated from the French “L’art suprême de la guerre c’est soumettre l’ennemi sans combat”.)

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