Nov 9th 2013
How to stop the fighting, sometimes
Bringing an end to conflicts within states is vexatious. But history provides a guide to the ways that work best
WHEN Hussein el-Husseini moved into a modest flat with a sea view in Beirut in 1983, the surrounding streets were littered with the detritus of an eight-year-old civil war. When Mr Husseini became Speaker of the Lebanese parliament the following year, the war still had six years to run. By the time it ended it had claimed 150,000 lives.
Yet the solution, says Mr Husseini, was clear more or less from the beginning. The country’s various religious groups, each with its own militias, had to share power. Lebanon could not be conquered by one side, nor divided among all. Its people are too mixed; Mr Husseini’s prominent Shia Muslim family includes Christians and Sunnis, and that is par for the course. “But the militias were against it,” he says.
Attempts by Mr Husseini and others, notably the tycoon Rafik Hariri, to reach the obvious but fugitive solution took him to the outside powers sponsoring the militias: America, France, Iran, Israel, Syria and Saudi Arabia. He was repeatedly rebuffed until, in 1989, finally despairing of the war, the outsiders agreed to stop paying their proxies. Mr Husseini quickly convened representatives from the various communities and militias in Taif, a resort in Saudi Arabia. After a lot of haggling, they signed an accord that led to peace a year later.
Ending civil wars is hard. Hatreds within countries often run far deeper than between them. The fighting rarely sticks to battlefields, as it can do between states. Civilians are rarely spared. And there are no borders to fall back behind. A war between two states can end much where it began without the adversaries feeling in mortal danger. With nowhere safe to go home to, both sides in a civil war often feel they must carry on fighting if they are to escape slaughter. As those fighting in Syria know, defeat often looks like death, rather than retreat (see article).
Yet civil wars do end. Of 150 large intrastate wars since 1945 fewer than ten are ongoing. Angola, Chad, Sri Lanka and other places long known for bloodletting are now at peace, though hardly democratic.
And recently civil wars have been ending sooner. The rate at which they start is the same today as it has been for 60 years; they kick off every year in 1-2% of countries. But the number of medium-to-large civil wars under way—there are six in which more than 1,000 people died last year—is low by the standards of the period. This is because they are coming to an end a little sooner. The average length of civil wars dropped from 4.6 to 3.7 years after 1991, according to Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, a professor at the University of Essex.