As of September 21, the 33rd International Day of Peace, there were approximately 33 armed conflicts raging around the world, according to the Uppsala Conflict Data Programme. Thirty-three armed conflicts, $1,765 billion of annual global military expenditure, 875 million small arms in circulation and the dormant presence of 20,500 nuclear warheads. The world is heavily invested in war and the measures needed to defend against it. To put $1,765 billion in perspective, the UN’s regular budget for peace, security, human rights, humanitarian affairs and international law is $2.7 billion.
Armed violence is fuelled by a complex ecosystem of history, vested interests, strategic motives, economics, resources and political power. Not only are all armed conflicts differently constructed, it is difficult to draw accurate lessons from one civil war for another. But what if each constituted a larger global problem we could collectively respond to? What if a simple economic model could be used to deal with the industry of war? Think of any industry — hybrid cars, soap, cereal. An industry flourishes when it is able to provide its consumers something they want. The only way to destroy an industry is by doing three things: destroying demand, eliminating supply and providing alternatives.
The demand for war is a factor of group and individual interests and potential reward. Conflict is often generated on the assumption of future benefit. Leaders of violent groups create and sustain the demand for war by making enemies out of other groups. People clamour for war when they consider men and women who don’t look like them, don’t speak the same language, don’t worship the same gods to be natural enemies. Destroying demand requires focused effort on facilitating communication, building systems of education geared towards imparting skills that enable children to be more accepting of differences and include an active dispelling of prejudice, and nurturing free and responsible journalism.
The demand for war also occurs when there is a sense of being wronged — for instance, conflicts over resources, political marginalisation and livelihoods. The demand for this sort of armed conflict will be destroyed by changing the way we talk about development. Development must concern itself not only with dignified livelihoods and equity but also with aspirations. Armed conflict should not be a means of opportunity but something that threatens it.
How do you destroy supply? The supply of war lies in its ammunition, and the way to address it is to strengthen international dialogue on disarmament. According to the UN, the majority of small arms in circulation are under the control of private actors, not governments. Approximately seven to eight million small arms are produced every year and used in inter-group, civil, ethnic and intra-state conflicts. The international protocols and programmes addressing their production and transfer require more attention and commitment. Even the most heated conflict of ideas and interests cannot descend into war without access to weapons.
Finally, alternatives have to be created. We have a historic opportunity as the inheritors of a world that is constructed of states that have built systems of global governance with which to wage peace, like the UN.
When the demand for war escalates, either in the event of perceived injustice or due to competing claims over resources, powers and rights, those involved must have alternatives to armed conflict to address their differences. Democracy, alternative conflict resolution and dispute arbitration mechanisms for communities at local levels, stronger judicial systems for swift and rights-based implementation of law — these invite our combined efforts.
We also need to strengthen and use responsibly the norm of Responsibility to Protect. If the only way out for two sides in a civil war is to keep fighting, then strong peacekeeping forces, which are trusted by both sides, could be effective in keeping the peace. The norm of the Responsibility to Protect mandates that when all other options have been exhausted and where a government cannot protect its citizens from mass violence and genocide, it is the responsibility of the international community, within the mandate of the UN Security Council, to keep the peace.
And when we have destroyed demand and supply and created strong, stable and effective alternative methods to deal with conflict, we will have taken a step closer to downing the shutters on the business of war. War used to be fought primarily in uniform, on battlefields, by soldiers of national armies, a generation ago. Today, wars are waged by and target non-state actors and civilians. We have spent far too long trying to make peace. It is now time to declare war on war.
The writer is an associate executive officer with the UN. Views are personal