The evils of war are obvious and undisputed. The consequences of war go well beyond the combatants on all sides of the armed conflict that are the deliberate targets, but also include non-combatants—innocent civilians—across all age ranges. As David Chan observes,
“Death, injury, sexual violence, malnutrition, illness, and disability are some of the most threatening physical consequences of war, while post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety are some of the emotional effects. The terror and horror spread by the violence of war disrupts lives and severs relationships and families, leaving individuals and communities emotionally distressed.”
And war generates refugees. Recent statistics from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) indicate that more than two-thirds of all refugees and Venezuelans displaced abroad came from only five countries: Syria (6.6 million); Venezuela (3.7 million); Afghanistan (2.7 million); South Sudan (2.3 million); and Myanmar (1 million). And 82 percent of all those persons displaced across borders came from only ten countries. Most notably, all of these ten countries, save Venezuela, have been wracked by protracted armed conflicts for years on end. The other critical statistic to note is that the number of those who have been forcibly displaced in the world has doubled over the last decade from 41.1 million in 2010 to over 79.5 million in 2019, and over 80 million today.
Perhaps what is most telling of all is the sobering statistic that nearly half of the world’s refugees are children below 18 years of age. What will be the futures of the approximately 34 million forcibly displaced children, many of whom will grow up without parental support and who have already been traumatized? Their childhood was wrenched from their very being. Will they end up as a ‘lost and miserable generation’? Their condition is a truly shameful commentary on the state of the world today.
This dire state of affairs, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has dramatically affected everyone’s lives, but most assuredly those who have been uprooted from their homes and happiness, has prompted Commissioner Grandi to state, “With forced displacement doubling in the last decade, the international community is failing to safeguard peace.” This is a most accurate and welcomed remark, while at the same time, quite an exceptional thing for a top UN official to say, given the principal responsibility of the UN is the maintenance of international peace and security. Grandi further stated that, “We are surpassing another bleak milestone that will continue to grow unless world leaders stop wars.” The UN High Commissioner for Refugees remarks clearly specify the central challenges and problems confronting the world today: the international community’s inability to end wars and safeguard peace.
The UNHCR states that people were being forced from their homes due to four principal causes: persecution, conflict, human rights violations, or events seriously disturbing the public order. However, it is also important to point out that “persecution,” per se, is the severest breach to a person’s human rights and human dignity. Hence, persecution is in itself a serious “human rights violation.” And clearly, “events seriously disturbing the public order” can be conflictual, if not violent, by their very nature. Indeed, there are only two main causes of forced migration, conflict and human rights violations. But conflicts rooted in war, seem inherently to violate fundamental human rights and dignity. This is most obvious with respect to the right to life, liberty, and security of the person. As Nobel Laureate and former US President, Jimmy Carter, stated, war is always an evil. War is not only intended to kill, maim, and destroy its opponents but it can unleash the most heinous crimes imaginable—genocide, torture, and other crimes against humanity. Thus, I believe, the primary cause of forced displacement is of human origins: the breach of fundamental human rights and human dignity whether in times of peace or, especially, in times of war.
In the 21st Century we are seeing new types of wars. Mary Kaldor is one of the leading proponents of the “new war thesis.” She has argued that wars in the post-Cold War period display the following characteristics:
These “new wars” blur the lines between inter-state/inter-group violence and crime, and involve large-scale human rights abuses.
They emerge in the context of dislocating globalization, and are affected by international, transnational, and diasporic influences. These “new wars” are more concerned than previous ones with identity politics, rather than with goals of an ideological or territorial kind.
These “new wars” are supposedly fought differently, with violence, including terrorism, being more deliberately directed against civilians. They are differently financed, in a less centralized and more criminalized manner, and they are characterized by the fragmentation of the state.
And, most importantly, that wars are protracted—seemingly endless—because it is in the interest of the opposing sides of the armed conflicts or wars not to resolve them but to continue them ad nauseam.
Moreover, Kaldor observes that forced displacement is employed deliberately by the warring factions as an instrument of warfare. It is not an incidental outcome of the armed conflict but is used, as Kelly Greenhill argues, as a “weapon of mass migration.” It is often a deliberate strategy in an armed conflict as a ‘weapon of war’ and a means to win victory.
If the principal cause of cross-border displacement is protracted armed conflict, as the evidence overwhelming indicates, then ending wars will also reduce the world’s seemingly ever-escalating refugee crisis. In fact, if we could end the protracted armed conflicts or civil wars in the nine countries noted above, then we will have resolved nearly 80 percent of the world’s cross-border forced displacement, and, if we could end the protracted armed conflicts or civil wars in four of these ten countries then we would have addressed close to two-thirds of the world refugee crisis. This seems eminently doable with a concerted effort of the United Nations focusing on the predominant characteristics and geopolitical dynamics of today’s wars. Twenty-first century peacemaking, peacebuilding, peacekeeping must be aligned with the conduct and execution of modern warfare and its various permutations.
But even more importantly, the citizens of the world, all peoples, must demand as much and insist that their governments end the wars. A broad based and wide ranging active ‘global peace movement’ is essential to making this happen.
James C. Simeon is Head of McLaughlin College, York University.