Working Paper 94-2 February 1994(1)

By Paul Wehr

Sociology, University of Colorado - Boulder

(1) This paper is an edited transcript of a talk given by Paul Wehr for the Intractable Conflict/Constructive Confrontation Project on November 6, 1993. Funding for this Project was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the University of Colorado. All ideas presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Consortium, the University, or Hewlett Foundation. For more information, contact the Conflict Resolution Consortium, Campus Box 327, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0327. Phone: (303) 492- 1635, e-mail:

© 1994. Conflict Resolution Consortium. Do not reprint without permission.

I have a problem with the concept of intervention applied to civil conflicts. It implies that some in the world are going to involve themselves in someone else's problem and try to solve it. That approach has serious success limitations.

The debate about the efficacy of intervention is not new, but it is presented to us in new ways because of the tremendous number of weapons that have been distributed throughout the world in the last 20 or 30 years--by our country and others. The United States contributes greatly to the world-wide proliferation of weapons--providing 57 percent of developing nations arms imports in 1992. We are still the world's major arms supplier--both in selling and giving away weapons. We say that something has to be done about reducing the arms trade, yet we continue to increase that trade. Consequently, we end up intervening in areas such as Somalia or Haiti where civil violence uses the weapons we shipped there. It makes absolutely no sense to try to discuss intervention without first talking about weapons reduction and elimination.

It would also be more constructive if we could get away from talking about intervention per se and start thinking more along the lines of joint problem solving around violence. First, we must look at our own violence problems. Does Bosnia have internal problems with violence while the U.S. does not? Violence at home and on the streets in the U.S. is endemic. Look at the way we live. Look at the major issues in this country that are linked with violence.

Intervention should be more broadly conceived and involve cross-national violence reduction. When we, as citizens, start thinking about how to reduce violence in Bosnia or Haiti, for example, we should immediately ask, "How can the Bosnians or the Haitians help us address the problems of violence in our country? What could we do together to train ourselves for mutual intervention?"

In cases where direct citizen intervention might be appropriate, one needs to ask how one can reduce local resistance to that intervention. This resistance is partly territorial. Generally, people do not want others to come into their country to do something to them. Helpless victims of violence, such as the residents in Sarajevo, may be exceptions to this rule. But, generally, in a conflict situation, you will have some people who want direct intervention from the outside and just as many who do not. The threat posed to them by external intervention, will be in the minds of many people. Soon after the initial intervention, resistance will take the form of violence and counterviolence. Somalia provides a perfect example of such a reaction.

The experience with peacekeeping and peacemaking interventions over the last 20 or 30 years, mainly implemented through the United Nations, has usually involved the military. This approach has some inherent weaknesses. To begin with, soldiers are trained to fight. Even the best UN soldiers, who have been retrained to act in neutral ways and without weapons, have difficulty in such situations. Thus, training is a problem.

Also, the symbolism attached to military intervention implies coercion, even when a mission is humanitarian in its goals. The U.S. has a special problem in that respect. As a huge imperial power over the last century, we have intervened just about everywhere--often with selfish or coercive intentions. Therefore, we have a long history of imperial and self-serving intervention to live down.

As U.S. citizens, we should not be asking how our government can intervene militarily, or whom to give arms to so that they can protect themselves. We should be asking how we can simultaneously influence our government and prepare ourselves to help. We should look at a conflict and imagine what a broad spectrum, non-military, violence-reduction approach might be with respect to a particular country. Such an inquiry might consider mechanisms and approaches that have already been tried elsewhere. Which of those could be brought together with innovative ones in an effective, integrated way and be usefully applied in the situation being examined?

Non-military approaches also have their limitations. For example, sanctions, such as those we are applying in the former Yugoslavia and in Haiti, don't have a very good track record, historically. There are always nations, groups, or companies that can circumvent them. Also, sanctions often have to be enforced militarily. Warships are circling Haiti as we sit here. Though sanctions are often viewed as non-military intervention, they very often are in fact not.

Humanitarian approaches have major weakness as well. Groups in other countries trying to help are, themselves, at the mercy of the forces of violence where they intervene. Citizen diplomats and civilian peace activists from outside have tried to intervene in the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, and Haiti. But, it is debatable whether such groups can be useful in any major--or even minor--ways, once they arrive. Although groundwork has usually been done in their home countries in mobilizing people to go, usually very little preparation has been done in the target country. Local people are not generally prepared to receive such groups, or to use them when they arrive. The activists or citizen diplomats frequently find they have no local connections. What can they do except get killed or eat the food that the Bosnians, for example, should be eating? This is not yet a promising approach. We just haven't had enough experience with it to know how it could be useful.

Other violence reduction schemes should be mentioned when discussing intervention tactics. For example, Nicaragua, for several years, has attempted to retrieve some of the hundreds of thousands of weapons distributed by all sides during the 1980s, so the arms could be either controlled or destroyed. The United States even gave a grant to the Nicaraguan government to help it buy back those weapons. Once the weapons are reclaimed, the Nicaraguan government has held public weapon-destruction ceremonies. Since they have had some limited success with this program, it might be one portion of a broad-spectrum violence reduction strategy. Another strategy might be city-twinning where two cities in opposing nations get together and conduct joint training of their citizens. This should, of course, include violence-reduction preparation.

Citizens need imagination, inventiveness and innovation in conceiving intervention strategies and tactics. Each opponent in ethnic conflicts has a mix of power strategies that they use toward the other. When violence dominates a conflict, the threat element of their strategies is very heavy. But there are two other elements as well, those of exchange and integration. Intervention approaches should be directed at getting conflict parties to reduce the threat element, which usually takes the form of military force, and increase these other two elements in their interaction with each other.