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The age of the “war amongst the people”


The end of Second World War, welcomed with excitement and celebrated across the globe, did not usher in world peace as expected. The era of Cold War saw numerous conflicts, while its end was followed by external “interventions” aimed at bringing about peace. Humanitarian action was faced with various challenges, interventionism and peacekeeping operations gained pace, international law struggled in providing quick responses to new trends, all the while haunting images of civilian suffering lingered on.

Far from being a peaceful interlude as its name might suggest, the Cold War period that followed the Second World War witnessed a large number of new conflicts, which arose against the backdrop of decolonization and polarization. With few exceptions, such as the Korean War (1950–53) and the Iran–Iraq War (1980–88), the dominant model of conflict was no longer that of an “industrial war” between two opposing masses of troops, planes and tanks. It became mostly internal or between local armed groups against foreign powers. It had, in the words of the British general General Sir Rupert Smith General Sir Rupert Smith, British Army General Sir Rupert Smith served in the British Army in East and South Africa, Arabia, the Caribbean, Europe and Malaysia before commanding, as a majorgeneral, the British 1st Armoured Division during the Gulf War. , become a “war amongst the people”.

The ever-changing international environment and the evolution of warfare, especially after the end of the Cold War, saw an evolution of multinational operations. Today, these operations are deployed with complex, multidimensional mandates.

The guerrilla tactics used by anti-colonial and revolutionary communist movements to defeat better-armed and better-equipped conventional armies were not fundamentally different from those used by contemporary armed groups against local or multinational armed forces in what are now termed “asymmetric” conflicts.

The end of the Cold War did not see the fulfilment of the old dream of a Kantian peace.  It ushered in a new, violent period of reconfiguration along national and social lines and the reshaping of identity. This prompted a move towards more complex, multidimensional missions with the aim of maintaining international peace and security. The hope was that the peacekeeping system which had emerged from the Second World War would finally be able to function, on the model of the coalition of States that came together to liberate Kuwait after its invasion by Iraq in 1991 (the emblematic Operation Desert Storm). In the last two decades, external “interventions” have indeed proliferated as part of multinational operations designed to end internal conflicts.

However, far from being carried out systematically as part of a “new world order” or of the “responsibility to protect”, they have remained ad hoc actions. History has shown that these operations often run the risk of becoming quagmires, like the US intervention in Somalia in 1992. Nevertheless, if the international community ‒ having had its fingers burned by claims of sovereignty ‒ fails to act, this can be even more dangerous, as we saw during the genocide in Rwanda and the war in the former Yugoslavia. Since the 1990s, phases of military interventionism have alternated with phases of prudence and diplomacy on the part of States that are by turns internationalist and isolationist.

The 1990s were marked by a new impetus towards peacekeeping through multinational operations, in view of the many local conflicts that followed the end of the Cold War and that are continuing to date. The attacks of 11 September 2001, and the military and security operations carried out in response to those attacks, once again brought a spirit of polarization and unilateralism to the world and to war.

Your objective is to capture the population’s intentions, and the more you treat all the people as your enemy, the more all the people will be your enemy.

Sir Rupert Smith

Whether carried out “for peace” or “against terror”, these “new wars” have several characteristics in common. It is worth mentioning few here. The first characteristic is the predominance of conflicts involving both non-State armed groups and intervention by foreign States or coalitions of States (in support of either party to the conflict). Classifying situations in which one or more foreign actors are intervening is a complex endeavour, but an essential one as it is the first step in determining what the applicable law is and consequently what the scope of protection is afforded to victims. Due to its importance, Dr Tristan Ferraro Dr Tristan Ferraro, ICRC Dr Ferraro is Legal Adviser in the Legal Division of the International Committee of the Red Cross. gives a comprehensive overview and analysis of the ICRC’s legal position on conflicts involving foreign intervention, the applicable law thereof and a clarification on the terminology used with the aim of avoiding any misleading language. On the other hand, an important question today is what happens when IHL and European human rights law apply simultaneously, and how can they be reconciled? This conundrum, examined by Claire Landais Claire Landais, Ministry of Defence, France Ms Landais is Head of the Legal Affairs Department of the French Ministry of Defence. and Léa Bass Léa Bass, Ministry of Defence, France Ms Bass is Legal Adviser at the Law of Armed Conflicts Section of the French Ministry of Defence. who assert that these two branches of international law are different but not incompatible, has been referred to in the recent jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights in several cases concerning military operations by European States abroad.

Secondly, while external interventions have multiplied, Western governments have for years shown a reluctance to risk the lives of their soldiers, and their popular support, in societies that have become “post-heroic”. The carnage of 1914‒18 now seems very distant to us when we count, incredulously, the number of names inscribed on the monuments to the dead in the smallest French or German villages. Modern armies’ technology allows them to strike from a distance, whether from the air or through strong-arm actions by special forces. Nevertheless, war will still be conducted on the ground, by local combatants, in conflicts over issues that Westerners no longer understand and that often seem as if they are never going to end.

A third element that modern wars have in common is civilian suffering. Wars have not become “clean”, even with the use of so-called “surgical strikes” popularized during the first Gulf War. While we should rethink the notion that past wars only affected soldiers on the battlefield ‒ as we have seen, this is how the First World War is often perceived ‒ it may be going too far to say that 90% of those dying in current wars are civilians, which seems to be a widespread view in the post-Cold War period. Nonetheless, it is true that conflicts have certain characteristics which affect civilians in particularly harsh ways: their length, their urban character, the availability of light weapons, and the fact that they involve armed groups operating among the population. Among the sufferings endured by the civilian population portrayed by the media, watching those of the most vulnerable is also the most distressing. Heide Fehrenbach Heide Fehrenbach, Northern Illinois University, USA Ms Fehrenbach is a Board of Trustees Professor and Distinguished Research Professor at Northern Illinois University. She is currently researching the visual history of humanitarian advocacy. and Dr Davide Rodogno Dr Davide Rodogno, IHEID, Switzerland Dr Rodogno is head of the International History Department and Professor of International History at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. addressed the representation of children’s suffering throughout the century and the use of photography in informational and fundraising strategies of humanitarian organizations. One of the many examples nowadays is the photograph of little Alan Kurdi on a beach in Turkey, which in 2015 became the symbol of the “migrant crisis”. It is their conclusion that the figure of the dead or suffering child has been a centrepiece of humanitarian campaigns for over a century now.