Interview with Robert Muggah on Armed Conflict and Security

Robert Muggah is the Research Director of the Igarapé Institute, a principal of the SecDev Group, and a professor at the Institute of International Relations at the Pontifica Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro.

In this interview, Mr. Muggah discussed the global shift in the nature of armed conflict from interstate confrontations to intrastate conflicts and civil wars. “We need to start understanding trends on the subnational level, not just looking at essentially macro trends, in terms of whether 25 battle deaths or 1,000 battle deaths have been realized,” he said.

Just as he described a shift in patterns of conflict, Mr. Muggah said there is in fact relatively little agreement about what an armed conflict is. "I think the question of what is an armed conflict is probably one of the perennial questions of international-relations scholarship and conflict-studies scholarship," he said. "We often take it for granted of what an armed conflict is, when in fact we may need to rethink our mental categories."

Mr. Muggah also discussed how personal security relates to development, referring to his article in the Global Observatory. He said, “What we find also is that there’s a statistical correlation between those kinds of violent deaths and the achievement of MDGs, and the achievement of a range of human development aspirations.”

When asked how multilateral institutions such as the UN and the World Bank are responding to the changing nature of armed conflict, Mr. Muggah said that they are responding both normatively and practically.

Actors below the federal level are also evolving to address threats surrounding fragility, he explained. “Often you’ll see cities banning together and creating pacts. It’s almost a kind of 21st-century form of diplomacy, with cities becoming the primary actors, certainly across Latin America and the Caribbean, in dealing with these new forms of violence.”

However, he added, “There are some gaps. I think in Asia for example, we’re not seeing much of the development. In parts of Eastern Europe, you’re not seeing it. Why? Because I think violence and security are still highly sensitive issues; they’re issues of sovereignty.”

Mr. Muggah also addressed the challenges in building institutional capacities in fragile states. “We’re seeing a growing engagement with stabilizations of short-term interventions combining military and civilian components… I think this is suggestive of a growing trend, of a growing acceptance, and of a growing and progressive securitization space.”

Despite the many successes of stabilization innovations, Mr. Muggah warned, “I think we have to be careful and critical and calculating in how we understand and interpret their outcomes. But they are happening, and I think it’s a reality that development and security sectors have to confront.”

The interview was conducted by Francesco Mancini, IPI's Senior Director of Research.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):



Francesco Mancini:
We’re here today with Dr. Robert Muggah, who is the Research Director of the Igarapé Institute, a principal of the SecDev Group, and a professor at the Institute of International Relations at the Pontifica Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro. Thank you for being with us.

It is well known that the past Cold War era has been characterized by a shift from interstate confrontations to increasingly messy intrastate conflicts and civil wars. Rather than stopping or reversing, this trend seems to be gaining pace, and weak states are nowadays frequently threatened by organized crime. What is your assessment of this trend, and do you agree that to understand and address organized violence today, one has to increasingly apply a micro-level perspective?

Robert Muggah: Yes, I’d agree with the general proposition that we’re seeing a decline in both the intensity and the frequency of armed conflicts globally. This is a trend that we believe we’ve been seeing since around the 1950s, the middle of the 20th century–but we see it speeding up really from the 1990s onward, and so we’ve seen a decline in the overall number of conflicts from a height of in the high 30s and 40s in the middle of the 20th century down to the low twenties in the contemporary period.

But we’re also seeing that fewer people are dying in these conflicts, so they’re becoming less intense, less severe in terms of their human consequences. And along with that is, as you said, the shift from interstate to intrastate conflicts, and it’s really forcing us to rethink in the analytical categories of what is going on, what are these rolling, continuous, persistent forms of organized violence that seem to be somewhere between war and peace, for which there seems to be an inability of scholars and others to form an adequate definition.

I think that this forcing of a rethinking of armed conflict is something that we as social scientists, but also as a policy community, are still struggling to engage with. In fact, I think the question of what is an armed conflict is probably one of the perennial questions of international relations scholarship and conflict studies scholarship. We often take it for granted of what an armed conflict is, when in fact we may need to rethink our mental categories.

I mean, if we go back in time, the original definition of what is armed conflict or war was assembled by, for example, Clausewitz–this is the quintessential political philosopher. He described armed conflict as really sustained fighting between two or more organized groups. His most famous formulation is ‘war is a continuation of politics by other means.’ But I think scholars have struggled with what that actually means and have been putting empirical categories on it ever since. Most seek to distinguish war as the actual intentional or widespread acts of violence between political communities intended to compel an opponent to fill another’s will.

So we’ve had Realist theorists, Pacifist theorists, and Just War theorists who have been trying to struggle with, trying to pin down these empirical contours ever since. But there is in fact little agreement. So just as I described a shift in patterns of conflict, I think it’s important to recall there is in fact relatively little agreement about what an armed conflict is–both legally, but also in a social science sense.

So what do we seem to agree? We seem to agree that the extremes are clear. We know there’s a distinction between what might be described as interstate and civil type warfare and interpersonal violence. But everything in between continues to be muddled and grey. We also seem to increasingly agree that different kinds of violence are overlapping, so we may see different forms of political, economic, criminal, social, cultural, ethno-political violence all overlapping and often informing one another. But I think we’re struggling to understand what that means and when that tips over into what might be described as an armed conflict.

We also know that there are international legal implications when violence tips into a new threshold, into something that might be described as international or non-international armed conflict, but we don’t really know when that designation is made. And the dirty little secret of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is there is no definition of armed conflict. The laws of war actually lack a basic definition. So, I think there is clearly some kind of empirical shift, but we’re still struggling with empirically measuring what that is, which takes us to the point about really trying to get the subnational nature of the data.
We need to start understanding trends on the subnational level, not just looking at essentially macro trends, in terms of whether 25 battle deaths or a thousand battle deaths have been realized. We have to start beeping down and drilling down and understanding subnational trends to really understand the nature of 21st-century organized violence.

FM: Along the lines of what you were saying now, you have argued in a piece on the Global Observatory that personal security should become an essential part of the post-2015 global development agenda, and this seems quite consistent with what you just said. So what is the relation between personal security and development?

RM: First of all, let’s talk about security. Security is a loaded concept, and there is a lot of contestation within the UN and outside the UN about what security is, and although I think there is a general consensus amongst the players who are considering the post 2015 development framework that peace and security are important and warrant more attention.

When you start actually defining what security is, there seems to be a lot more division and disparity in opinion, because we can talk about national security, we can talk about collective security, we can talk about common security, or we can say human security, citizen security, personal security, and each of these constructs has a particular history and baggage associated with it, which we don’t have to go into for the purposes of this conversation, but I think are well known to your listeners.

So, one of the big challenges of defining what personal security is, and I define personal security in the context of a talk I gave at the high level panel as consisting of at least two dimensions, both real and perceived. On the one hand, we have security that is physically experienced–the loss of life, the kind of intensive injuries, psychological damage–but there’s also a perceived component: people’s own sense of fear, their threat, their inability to go out and harvest, or their inability to go to markets, or their desire to move from where they live because of a perceived sense of insecurity.

So I think it’s important to reflect on those two dimensions. That’s the first point, in terms of trying to drill down, and that’s how I defined it in a piece for the Global Observatory.

The second point to mention is that personal security I think is something that’s universal. It’s universally experienced, both personal insecurity and personal security. This isn’t something that’s confined only to fragile states or to a small number of conflict affected countries, as important as personal security and personal insecurity may be in those areas. This is an issue that confronts all of us, whether you live in New York, Geneva, London, or Oslo–whether you live in Rio, Ciudad Juárez, Port-au-Prince, or Bujumbura–it’s an issue that confronts us all, and so I think there’s a moral and an ethical imperative as much as there is, frankly, just a realistic imperative to engage with the realities that confront people on a day to day basis.  

The third point to mention is that globally every year roughly 526,000 people we estimate through the global burden of armed violence die as a result of violence and personal insecurity every year. The key point to mention is that roughly ten percent of those–so one in ten–are effectively people who die in warzones. The rest are dying in ostensibly low and middle-income countries where there isn’t ostensibly an armed conflict–keeping in mind the challenges of defining what is or is not an armed conflict.

So the key point to mention here is that this is an issue that isn’t confined to the preserve of a small number of countries, it’s an issue that’s actually widely experienced. What we find also is that there’s a statistical correlation between those kinds of violent deaths and the achievement of MDGs and the achievement of a range of human development aspirations. We’ve done a range of statistical studies looking at each of the eight MDGs that can be empirically measured, breaking down each of the indicators beneath them, and we found–not all of the MDGs, but for a number of them, particularly those in relation to poverty, inequality, maternal health, access to primary education, among others– they’re strong and real associative relationship between the presence of high and acute levels of violence and lowered achievement of MDGs.

This also applies in relation to employment indicators going both ways; it also applies in relation to income indicators and also gender? 9’30” equality indicators, so we know there’s a strong relation between the two. So I think the time has come to make a number of these issues more evident, and one of the many fora in which this might be done is in the context of a high level panel and also in relation to larger discussions in the UN about the future of the post 2015 development framework. So I think there’s a strong empirical case along with the ethical and moral case I just made to justify a wider treatment of the issue of personal security.

FM: What does all this mean for international institutions and the wider donor community? How do militaries, law enforcement, and multilateral institutions such as the UN and the World Bank, as well as bilateral aid agencies, need to adapt to address the growing complexity in armed violence around the world?

RM: I think in many ways, international institutions–both multilateral and bilateral–are already adapting, and they’re adapting both normatively and also practically in terms of their activities and operations on the ground. So from a normative perspective, you’ve seen major organizations like the World Bank and its sister banks–the IADB (the Inter-American Development Bank), the African Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank, alongside with the OECD (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), the DAC in particular, as well as a number of UN agencies, like UNDP and DPKO–many of these agencies have already started to establish protocols, or guidelines, or standards in which they ought to engage in various ways on dealing with these new kinds of violence, that violence that seems to be both below conflict threshold or slightly above it.

And the vernacular they use is the language of fragility, and so you’ll hear this expression perhaps less often inside the UN than outside of it, but you’ll see an increasing engagement with this issue, fragility, in which the social contract is not being realized, partly because the nature of violence which impedes an equilibrium between elites and citizens, which results in the decline of service delivery, etc.

So you’re seeing this kind of language emerging amongst many of these agencies. And this started about ten, fifteen years ago–I think you saw a creeping engagement in a way with issues of violence. And how did we see that expressed? Well, for example, in the early 2000s, the OECD launched a process around security sector reform, which led ultimately in 2007 to the production of a handbook on security sector reform, which set out seven or eight pillars around which donors, DAC donors–the thirty plus countries in the OECD–could legitimately invest development funding to deal with issues of insecurity–policing, justice, penal, intelligence, or other sectors.

In 2009, the OECD came up with the armed violence guidelines, which also set out a set of standards and situations and conditions in which the OECD countries could invest in those kinds of areas. In 2011, the World Bank comes out with the World Development Report, which sets out the wide spectrum mandate for development agencies, and whether you like them or not, the World Bank is a norm setter in many respects, and so people often will follow what’s set out in many of the prescriptions of the World Bank.

The IADB has been investing in issues of citizen security in Latin America since the mid-1990s, often at the substate level working with mayors. They’ve seen violence, in particular criminal violence, as being a major impediment of development for almost two decades.

So it’s not just those that are operating out of Paris, or Washington, or New York, or Geneva that are becoming seized with it, but it’s many actors throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as in parts of Africa who have been confronting these issues for some time.

So I think that on the normative level, you’re seeing it taking place. At the operational level, you ‘re seeing a large number of actors, particularly actors beneath the federal level–so actors at the state or city level, especially where urban institutions are strong–becoming more and more seized with dealing with organized violence. Often you’ll see cities banning together and creating pacts. It’s almost a kind of 21st-century form of diplomacy, with cities becoming the primary actors, certainly across Latin America and the Caribbean, in dealing with these new forms of violence. You’re seeing police becoming much more integrated in terms of their operations, both domestically, but also cross-border.

So you’re already seeing I think operationally a large number of organizations, in some cases getting grants or loans from the major development banks, to go ahead and start promoting more proactive approaches to violence prevention and violence reduction globally.

There are some gaps. I think in Asia for example, we’re not seeing much of the development. In parts of Eastern Europe, you’re not seeing it. Why? Because I think violence and security are still highly sensitive issues, they’re issues of sovereignty. So you’re still seeing some states resisting this agenda. And this speaks to a wider agenda, which I think a lot of development and humanitarian actors have raised, which is what they would see as a progressive and inexorable securitization of the development space, and so some of the resistance to the development of these guidelines within the OECD DAC or the World Bank from some actors, including some states.

By the way, this represents a growing form of interventionism, a growing engagement on some of the most sensitive organs of the state, and this, as a side argument, might also take away funds that might ostensibly be organized towards public health or education or other primary development needs into a sector that some states and organizations feel shouldn’t warrant that kind of attention.

So I think that there’s a good and–let’s call it–a darker side of this growing engagement with security and violence, and I think one that we ought to be very attentive to.

FM: And to continue along these lines, stabilizing conflict-affected and fragile countries, above all, requires their domestic institutions to be strengthened so that eventually international efforts can be scaled back. Can you share with us some examples from your experience of what works and what maybe doesn’t really work in building institutional capacity in fragile states?

RM: It’s a very interesting and challenging question. I think it’s probably one of the defining challenges right now for many of the military and development agencies around the world. First of all, we should pat ourselves a little bit on the back as a development and security community in the sense that, in no period in history can we say that people have lived longer and safer lives in most parts of the world. In no point of history have we seen the kinds of reduction in poverty that we’ve seen in the last decades. Is this because of the development and security communities? Perhaps, perhaps not. I think there’s a lot to be said about foreign direct investment and other forms of development that are taking place in spite, frankly, of the UN. 

But the reality is, we’re living in a safer moment than we’ve probably ever lived in our short moment on this planet. Now, having said that, a lot of militaries and development institutions around the world are becoming increasingly seized by the issue of fragility and fragile states, in spite of the fact that there is a lack of definitional parameters around what is or isn’t fragile. But I think there is a consensus that there’s between 40 or 60 fragile states at any given moment. Many of these are concentrated low-income settings, but not exclusively. There’s a recognition that fragility can also be subnational. In other words, you can have a relatively stable state, but you can have very fragile areas within those areas.

The United States is a case in point where you can say parts of Detroit and Chicago are fragile, and the same way that I live in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil–Rio de Janeiro is a very safe city, but some parts of it have an HDI equivalent to Geneva, but other parts look a little bit more like Mogadishu. So you can have fragility within states, and I think this concern is certainly being picked up within the military and development establishments globally.

So you’re seeing these 40 or 60 countries becoming much more a source of consternation and anxiety in development security circles.  You’re seeing a concentration of aid increasingly going to these countries. In 2008 it was about 34 billion. In the last report from the OECD I think it’s gone up to about 50 billion dollars, which is a significant proportion of overall DAC assistance to many of these parts of the world.

So I think you’re seeing this engagement. So, the first point is that this has been recognized, and since 2001 with Afghanistan and 2003 in Iraq, you’ve seen an acceleration of engagement on issues of what they call stabilization or stability operations. And these typically follow, in a way, a counter-insurgency logic with a clear shape, hold and build philosophy.

There is an effort to try to enable the political contracts and the political settlements in communities. They tend to be short-term, just a couple of years in duration. They tend to be integrated, having a civil and military component. I would say the most obvious example of a stabilization operation are the PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) in Afghanistan. Stabilization as a model has got a certain appetite within the OECD. Most countries within the OECD have set up stabilization units. Most of them are seeking to enhance their civilian capacity to deploy to these areas. And most of them draw frankly from citizens of OECD countries who ultimately will be deployed in another foreign country, for a short period of time, to try to bring some degree of stability. And a set of doctrine and practice and guidance emerged around this.

Now, in the last few years, there’s been a bit of reaction, resistance to this stabilization model. There’s been some sense that in fact maybe engineering this kind of change and rapidly, governance in a box, as once famously said, may not be as effective as we had all hoped. There’s certainly a backlash occurring within the humanitarian community, who see this as a form of cooptation. Certainly those agencies that are more “dunonest?” 19’30” in orientation, that are more conservative in orientation like the ICRC and the MSF I think have some legitimate and I think evidence based claims against the stabilization agenda.

However, alongside this growing engagement with investing in fragile settings and mobilizing militaries and civilian institutions to strengthen state institutions to regain territory and reconstitute the social contract has been a parallel evolution indigenously or endogenously within many fragile contexts, with governments themselves starting up their own stabilization programs.

The most prominent examples of these I think are frankly in parts of South Asia, but also in parts of Latin America, where we’ve seen relatively strong governments–in countries like Colombia, in countries like Brazil, in parts of Central America, certainly in Jamaica, essentially beginning and launching very intensive stabilization operations, often described slightly differently.

In Colombia it’s described as consolidation, in Brazil it’s described as pacification, in parts of Jamaica it’s described as crime control, but they tend to involve a combination of military actors with policing actors. They tend to involve a combination of co-opting or bringing in local leaders to try to reconstitute social contracts, they tend to have a peacebuilding component, in terms of building up local peace processes.

I think Haiti is also a very good example, where there are multiple overlapping stabilization interventions taking place, both by internationals, but also by domestic authorities. They tend to involve a short, sharp element at the beginning, involving a recapture of territory, followed by an installation of social services, including the police, and they tend to have mixed results. Similar could be said about operations in Sri Lanka in 2009, as well as in Pakistan in the wake of earthquakes–there were a number of stabilization efforts that were launched, as well as in the Philippines and frankly in many parts of the world.

So we’re seeing a growing engagement with stabilizations of short-term interventions combining military and civilian components, not just being advanced by international institutions, but increasingly by local and national governments themselves, which might have been considered to be either fragile or at least in the verge, or having fragile areas within their territory. And I think this is suggestive of a growing trend, of a growing acceptance, and of a growing and progressive securitization space.

I don’t want to be completely critical, because in some cases, we’ve seen some really remarkable outcomes. In Brazil, for example, the pacification program that was set up in 2008 in a city of six million people in Rio de Janeiro. There were one and a half million people, 1.2 million people living in favelas, and in many of these favelas, you have homicide rates that are well above the national average.

Pacification programs that involve 14 thousand newly trained police who are being moved into these areas followed extensively by social services to try to resurrect and reclaim territory that had never effectively been organized or managed by the state.

As a social scientist, I want to be skeptical. I want to challenge this. I want to find the errors in their ways. But the fact is, we’re seeing remarkable gains in violence reduction, we’re seeing reductions in homicide, in various forms of assault, in car robbery. We are seeing negative outcomes as well, in terms of displacement of poverty, in terms of new forms of command and control that are emerging within the police force. They’re essentially supplanting the role of the dawn, and not always benevolently.

However, we are seeing overall a dramatic reduction that’s actually having an influence not just in Rio but across the entire country, similar in parts of Colombia with the policing program, similar also with this extraordinary intervention in El Salvador involving the troops with various gangs, perhaps less success in a place like Sri Lanka, or Pakistan, where I think we saw extraordinary civilian casualties at the expense of stabilizations, in spite of the fact that Sri Lankans want to export this model to the world.

So I do think it’s not a function of just simply saying these are great, wonderful innovations. I think we have to be careful and critical and calculating in how we understand and interpret their outcomes. But they are happening, and I think it’s a reality that development and security sectors have to confront, and I think frankly the UN has been relatively slow to confront.

FM: Terrific. Thank you very much, Rob, for sharing your thoughts with the Global Observatory today.    

RM: My pleasure. 



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