A civil war is a war between organized groups within the same nation state or republic, or, less commonly, between two countries created from a formerly united nation state. The aim of one side may be to take control of the country or a region, to achieve independence for a region, or to change government policies. Civil wars since the end of World War II have lasted on average just over four years, a dramatic rise from the one-and-a-half year average of the 1900-1944 period. While the rate of emergence of new civil wars has been relatively steady since the mid-19th century, the increasing length of those wars resulted in increasing numbers of wars ongoing at any one time.
For example, there were no more than five civil wars underway simultaneously in the first half of the 20th century, while over 20 concurrent civil wars were occurring at the end of the Cold War, before a significant decrease as conflicts strongly associated with the superpower rivalry came to an end. Since 1945, civil wars have resulted in the deaths of over 25 million people, as well as the forced displacement of millions more. Civil wars have further resulted in economic collapse; Somalia, Burma, Uganda and Angola are examples of nations that were considered to have promising futures before being engulfed in civil wars. Formal classification
James Fearon, a scholar of civil wars at Stanford University, defines a civil war as “a violent conflict within a country fought by organized groups that aim to take power at the center or in a region, or to change government policies”. The Correlates of War, a dataset widely used by scholars of conflict, classifies civil wars as having over 1000 war-related casualties per year of conflict. This rate is a small fraction of the millions killed in the Second Sudanese Civil War and Cambodian Civil War, for example, but excludes several highly publicized conflicts, such as The Troubles of Northern Ireland and the struggle of the African National Congress in Apartheid-era South Africa. That the Party in revolt against the de jure Government possesses an organized military force, an authority responsible for its acts, acting within a determinate territory and having the means of respecting and ensuring respect for the Convention.
That the legal Government is obliged to have recourse to the regular military forces against insurgents organized as military and in possession of a part of the national territory. That the de jure Government has recognized the insurgents as belligerents; or That it has claimed for itself the rights of a belligerent; or That it has accorded the insurgents recognition as belligerents for the purposes only of the present Convention; or That the dispute has been admitted to the agenda of the Security Council or the General Assembly of the United Nations as being a threat to international peace, a breach of the peace, or an act of aggression.
That the insurgents have an organization purporting to have the characteristics of a State.
That the insurgent civil authority exercises de facto authority over the population within a determinate portion of the national territory.
That the armed forces act under the direction of an organized authority and are prepared to observe the ordinary laws of war. That the insurgent civil authority agrees to be bound by the provisions of the Convention.
Causes of civil war in the Collier-Hoeffler Model
Scholars investigating the cause of civil war are attracted by two opposing theories, greed versus grievance. Roughly stated: are conflicts caused by who people are, whether that be defined in terms of ethnicity, religion or other social affiliation, or do conflicts begin because it is in the economic best interests of individuals and groups to start them? Scholarly analysis supports the conclusion that economic and structural factors are more important than those of identity in predicting occurrences of civil war. A comprehensive studies of civil war was carried out by a team from the World Bank in the early 21st century.
The study framework, which came to be called the Collier-Hoeffler Model, examined 78 five-year increments when civil war occurred from 1960 to 1999, as well as 1,167 five-year increments of “no civil war” for comparison, and subjected the data set to regression analysis to see the effect of various factors. The factors that were shown to have a statistically significant effect on the chance that a civil war would occur in any given five-year period were: Availability of finance
A high proportion of primary commodities in national exports significantly increases the risk of a conflict. A country at “peak danger”, with commodities comprising 32% of gross domestic product, has a 22% risk of falling into civil war in a given five-year period, while a country with no primary commodity exports has a 1% risk. When disaggregated, only petroleum and non-petroleum groupings showed different results: a country with relatively low levels of dependence on petroleum exports is at slightly less risk, while a high-level of dependence on oil as an export results in slightly more risk of a civil war than national dependence on another primary commodity.
The authors of the study interpreted this as being the result of the ease by which primary commodities may be extorted or captured compared to other forms of wealth, for example, it is easy to capture and control the output of a gold mine or oil field compared to a sector of garment manufacturing or hospitality services. A second source of finance is national diasporas, which can fund rebellions and insurgencies from abroad.
The study found that statistically switching the size of a country’s diaspora from the smallest found in the study to the largest resulted in a sixfold increase in the chance of a civil war. Low per capita income has been proposed as a cause for grievance, prompting armed rebellion. However, for this to be true, one would expect economic inequality to also be a significant factor in rebellions, which it is not. The study therefore concluded that the economic model of opportunity cost better explained the findings. Population size
The various factors contributing to the risk of civil war rise increase with population size. The risk of a civil war rises approximately proportionately with the size of a country’s population. Gleditsch et al. did not find a relationship between ethnic groups with polygyny and increased frequency of civil wars but nations having legal polygamy may have more civil wars. They argued that misogyny is a better explanation than polygyny. They found that increased women’s rights were are associated with less civil wars and that legal polygamy had no effect after women’s rights were controlled for. Duration of civil wars
Ann Hironaka, author of Neverending Wars, divides the modern history of civil wars into the pre-19th century, 19th century to early 20th century, and late 20th century. In 19th-century Europe, the length of civil wars fell significantly, largely due to the nature of the conflicts as battles for the power center of the state, the strength of centralized governments, and the normally quick and decisive intervention by other states to support the government. Following World War II the duration of civil wars grew past the norm of the pre-19th century, largely due to weakness of the many postcolonial states and the intervention by major powers on both sides of conflict. The most obvious commonality to civil wars are that they occur in fragile states. Civil wars in the 19th and early 20th centuries
Civil wars through the 19th century to early 20th century tended to be short; the average length of a civil war between 1900 and 1944 was one and half years. The state itself was the obvious center of authority in the majority of cases, and the civil wars were thus fought for control of the state. This meant that whoever had control of the capital and the military could normally crush resistance. If a rebellion failed to quickly seize the capital and control of the military for itself, it was normally doomed to a quick destruction.
For example, the fighting associated with the 1871 Paris Commune occurred almost entirely in Paris, and ended quickly once the military sided with the government. The power of non-state actors resulted in a lower value placed on sovereignty in the 18th and 19th centuries, which further reduced the number of civil wars. For example, the pirates of the Barbary Coast were recognized as de facto states because of their military power. The Barbary pirates thus had no need to rebel against the Ottoman Empire, who were their nominal state government, to gain recognition for their sovereignty. Conversely, states such as Virginia and Massachusetts in the United States of America did not have sovereign status, but had significant political and economic independence coupled with weak federal control, reducing the incentive to secede.
The two major global ideologies, monarchism and democracy, led to several civil wars. However, a bi-polar world, divided between the two ideologies, did not develop, largely due the dominance of monarchists through most of the period. The monarchists would thus normally intervene in other countries to stop democratic movements taking control and forming democratic governments, which were seen by monarchists as being both dangerous and unpredictable. The Great Powers, defined in the 1815 Congress of Vienna as the United Kingdom, Habsburg Austria, Prussia, France, and Russia, would frequently coordinate interventions in other nations’ civil wars, nearly always on the side of the incumbent government. Given the military strength of the Great Powers, these interventions were nearly always decisive and quickly ended the civil wars. There were several exceptions from the general rule of quick civil wars during this period.
The American Civil War was unusual for at least two reasons: it was fought around regional identities, rather than political ideologies, and it was ended through a war of attrition, rather than over a decisive battle over control of the capital, as was the norm. The Spanish Civil War was exceptional because both sides of the war received support from intervening great powers: Germany, Italy, and Portugal supported opposition leader Francisco Franco, while France and the Soviet Union supported the government . Civil wars since 1945
In the 1990s, about twenty civil wars were occurring concurrently during an average year, a rate about ten times the historical average since the 19th century. However, the rate of new civil wars had not increased appreciably; the drastic rise in the number of ongoing wars after World War II was a result of the tripling of the average duration of civil wars to over four years. This increase was a result of the increased number of states, the fragility of states formed after 1945, the decline in interstate war, and the Cold War rivalry. Following World War II, the major European powers divested themselves of their colonies at an increasing rate: the number of ex-colonial states jumped from about 30 to almost 120 after the war. The rate of state formation leveled off in the 1980s, at which point few colonies remained. More states also meant more states in which to have long civil wars.
Hironaka statistically measures the impact of the increased number of ex-colonial states as increasing the post-WWII incidence of civil wars by +165% over the pre-1945 number. While the new ex-colonial states appeared to follow the blueprint of the idealized state – centralized government, territory enclosed by defined borders, and citizenry with defined rights -, as well as accessories such as a national flag, an anthem, a seat at the United Nations and an official economic policy, they were in actuality far weaker than the Western states they were modeled after. In Western states, the structure of governments closely matched states’ actual capabilities, which had been arduously developed over centuries. The development of strong administrative structures, in particular those related to extraction of taxes, is closely associated with the intense warfare between predatory European states in the 17th and 18th centuries, or in Charles Tilly’s famous formulation: “War made the state and the state made war”.
For example, the formation of the modern states of Germany and Italy in the 19th century is closely associated with the wars of expansion and consolidation led by Prussia and Sardinia, respectively. Such states are considered “weak” or “fragile”. The “strong”-“weak” categorization is not the same as “Western”-“non-Western”, as some Latin American states like Argentina and Brazil and Middle Eastern states like Egypt and Israel are considered to have “strong” administrative structures and economic infrastructure. Historically, the international community would have targeted weak states for territorial absorption or colonial domination or, alternatively, such states would fragment into pieces small enough to be effectively administered and secured by a local power. However, international norms towards sovereignty changed in the wake of WWII in ways that support and maintain the existence of weak states.
Weak states are given de jure sovereignty equal to that of other states, even when they do not have de facto sovereignty or control of their own territory, including the privileges of international diplomatic recognition and an equal vote in the United Nations. Further, the international community offers development aid to weak states, which helps maintain the facade of a functioning modern state by giving the appearance that the state is capable of fulfilling its implied responsibilities of control and order. The formation of a strong international law regime and norms against territorial aggression is strongly associated with the dramatic drop in the number of interstate wars, though it has also been attributed to the effect of the Cold War or to the changing nature of economic development.
Consequently, military aggression that results in territorial annexation became increasingly likely to prompt international condemnation, diplomatic censure, a reduction in international aid or the introduction of economic sanction, or, as in the case of 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, international military intervention to reverse the territorial aggression. Similarly, the international community has
largely refused to recognize secessionist regions, while keeping some secessionist self-declared states such as Taiwan in diplomatic recognition limbo. While there is not a large body of academic work examining the relationship, Hironaka’s statistical study found a correlation that suggests that every major international anti-secessionist declaration increased the number of ongoing civil wars by +10%, or a total +114% from 1945 to 1997. The diplomatic and legal protection given by the international community, as well as economic support to weak governments and discouragement of secession, thus had the unintended effect of encouraging civil wars.
There has been an enormous amount of international intervention in civil wars since 1945 that served to extend wars. While intervention has been practiced since the international system has existed, its nature changed substantially. It became common for both the state and opposition group to receive foreign support, allowing wars to continue well past the point when domestic resources had been exhausted. Superpowers, such as the European great powers, had always felt no compunction in intervening in civil wars that affected their interests, while distant regional powers such as the United States could declare the interventionist Monroe Doctrine of 1821 for events in its Central American “backyard”.
However, the large population of weak states after 1945 allowed intervention by former colonial powers, regional powers and neighboring states who themselves often had scarce resources. On average, a civil war with interstate intervention was 300% longer than those without. When disaggregated, a civil war with intervention on only one side is 156% longer, while intervention on both sides lengthens the average civil war by an addition 92%. If one of the intervening states was a superpower, a civil war is extended a further 72%; a conflict such as the Angolan Civil War, in which there is two-sided foreign intervention, including by a superpower, would be 538% longer on average than a civil war without any international intervention. Effect of the Cold War
The Cold War provided a global network of material and ideological support that perpetuated civil wars, which were mainly fought in weak ex-colonial states, rather than the relatively strong states that were aligned with the Warsaw Pact and North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
In some cases, superpowers would superimpose Cold War ideology onto local conflicts, while in others local actors using Cold War ideology would attract the attention of a superpower to obtain support. Using a separate statistical evaluation than used above for interventions, civil wars that included pro- or anti-communist forces lasted 141% longer than the average non-Cold War conflict, while a Cold War civil war that attracted superpower intervention resulted in wars typically lasting over three times as long as other civil wars. Conversely, the end of the Cold War marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 resulted in a reduction in the duration of Cold War civil wars of 92% or, phrased another way, a roughly ten-fold increase in the rate of resolution of Cold War civil wars. Lengthy Cold War-associated civil conflicts that ground to a halt include the wars of Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua . See also
The Logic of Violence in Civil War
War of Independence
Wars of national liberation
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