This essay has two parts. In first part, it focuses on the changing nature of war in the contemporary arena and, in the second, it attempts to look into the debate of new humanitarianism and role played by the global civil society in evolving the fresh response to the contemporary war given its type and nature.

The changing nature of wars

It apparently seems that the war, in the Clausewitzean sense has ceased to occur. It is truer with reference to Europe, which doesn’t have a very good anti war record even in the century that has just passed, as it has been the birth place of two world wars. This however, is not the point of reference here. Focus, instead is on contemporary wars, which are also termed as new wars, internal wars or civil wars. Literature has even termed them as ‘fault line wars’1 too.

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The new wars are precisely a post cold war phenomenon as with the demise of the former Soviet Union, and the proceeding consequence of end of ideological bi-polarity that would rally the different poles against each other, in several countries the state lost its capacity of being the legitimised arbiter of organised violence. Resultantly, a new breed or wars has been took place of the old type of legalistic Clausewitzean Model2. It is ethno-nationalistic in character motivated predominantly by the ethnicity or ‘identity politics’.3

It is also much diverse in terms of its nature, actors involved, armoury being used, the type and the number of casualties occurred, and, in the terms of time and

Space.4 Many diverse factors have given rise to these New Wars in the recent history, especially, in the post-Cold War international arena and most significant of these are; the demise or failure of the state in the societies involved, and, the devastative role-played by ethnicity in shaping up of these crises.

Another essential feature these wars is that these normally take place, within rather than between, states with two most obvious consequences. Firstly, these result in huge growth in world total refugees and internally displaced, and secondly, these are very destructive particularly for civilians. As David Turton puts it, “these are waged not against an anonymous and invisible enemy but against neighbours, friends and even relatives and there are huge numbers of civilian killings and even genocide”5.

Normally, war would be seen as a phenomenon disrupting the economy and interrupting the benevolent progress there is another very peculiar characteristic of the contemporary wars, they also embody a rational calculation of economic interests by the warring parties. These wars definitely embody an essential element of ‘war economy’ and ‘the war is continuation of economics by other means’6 for the warring factions and in that they use the chaos of the war to further their economic interests.

The very nature of the new wars, which is very devastative also, has given rise to new international activism where the UN has increased its humanitarian aid and peace keep regime both in the terms of financial expenditure, and, troops being committed to the conflict zones. A new body of international humanitarian and human rights has been given shaped to at United Nations. Not only this, but, also the civil

society has played a very active role in conflict management and also, in bringing about the changing international norms and about the character of public debate.7

It is in this backdrop, that the differing characteristics of the new war as against the Clausewitzean model of wars need to be examined.

The Clausewitzean Model of War:

The Clausewitzean model perceived war as a rational act of hostility and presupposed the monopolization of power by an organised entity – the state. The process of monopolisation of power entailed the elimination of the private armies maintained by the monarchs in the pre-Clausewitzean wars, and the establishment of permanent navies and armies. It also embodied the process of the growth of the external war-making capacities of the state paralleled with internal pacification within the territory of state – the extension of rule of law rendering it more powerful, as against the earlier periods when the sovereignty was typically dispersed and fragmented. There developed organized and centralised war making capacities within the states, in Europe, which had developed more or less simultaneously. These states recognised the existence of each other, as none of them was strong enough to dominate others because of these external war-making capacities8.

Thus the modern states emerged as an embodiment of national identity in exchange for external protection. And among states there emerged a range of rules and mechanisms, such as diplomacy to regulate the international behaviour. As there was no ultimate arbiter, war was the mechanism used to re-establish order when rules

broke down. In other words war was the instrument of politics in the international arena and as ‘act of violence intended to compel the opponent to fulfil our will’.9

This classical Clausewitzean conception of war dates back to the emergence of modern state and it is basically relevant to period from the end of eighteenth century to 1945, and includes two World Wars.

The Contemporary Wars

The simplest possible explanation of the war, drawn from what has been said above is that it is a conflict between politically organized groups involving large scale violence. As regards the new wars a typical feature is the population displacement – ethnic cleansing, resulting in a very large number of refugees and forcible repatriation or colonization.10 This makes them much devastative for the ordinary civilians as these wars are not the armies fighting each other.

In 1995 the number of world total refugees rose to 16 million as compared to 2 million in 1970s. The war in Bosnia claimed 260,000 lives rendering 3.5 million people to leave their houses and become refugees. Same is the story with Rwanda, Liberia, Sudan, Zaire/Congo, Somalia, and, Sierra Leone etc.

Another feature of these wars is the number of civilian casualties; for instance, at the beginning of 20th Century, 90% of all war casualties were military, whereas, today about 90% are civilian. The civilian to military ratio is 8:1.11

Another way that the contemporary wars can be differentiated from Clausewitzean wars, as these are not about the consolidation of the state power; nor are these similar to those of the Cold War era that were motivated by the ideological

clash between the Super Powers. These wars arise out of the disintegration of the state structures and a loss of legitimacy of the political institutions.12

There is another very important feature of these wars, and, that is the identity politics – “the driving influence of ethnicity and the in-eradicable difference between them and us”.13 Another feature of the identity politics is that the new wars embodies many of the transnational links with Diaspora elements living in the neighbouring states or in the far off countries which provide them money, arms, volunteers and even technology. Very often international crime groups and mafias also support the warring parties establishing arm trade networks in these conflicts.14

Another essential difference that these wars have as against the Clausewitzean wars is that these more “decentralised and fragmented”15, and, their main aim is destabilisation rather that destruction of a clearly defined opponent. As regards the mechanisms that are applied, Mary Kaldor writes:

“Conspicuous atrocity, systematic rape, hostage-taking, forced starvation and siege, destruction of religious and historic monuments, the use of shells and rockets against the civilian targets, especially homes, hospitals or crowded places like markets or water sources, the use of land-mines to make large areas uninhabitable, to desecrate whatever has the social meaning”.16

The understanding of the contemporary wars will not be complete if these are not looked into in the context of war economy – a rational calculation of economic interest.

“When the formal economy is largely destroyed, the economy of the new war zones thrives on outside humanitarian assistance, remittances from abroad and the black market.”, writes David Keen.17

As the unemployment is widespread; joining a paramilitary group or becoming a criminal is the only way of gaining income. Similarly, controlling the state would mean the furtherance of economic aims. More conspicuously, the economic agendas would focus on pillage, protection money, arms trade, labour exploitation (as it forcible and cheap or free), capturing the land by forcible depopulation, stealing the aid supplies etc. As such in the new wars winning is not the ultimate aim, as was the case with older wars of Clausewitzean era.

The above-mentioned characteristics reflect how devastative the contemporary wars have been. Not only this, but these also make them quite contemporary, involving far reaching consequences, quite different from the old wars. Hence, there is a need to address them in a more realistic and objective manner. What, in fact, is required is a new cosmopolitan response to these wars and increased international peace-keeping aiming at controlling the violence and economic reconstruction of these war torn societies.

The New Humanitarianism.

The last two decades of the twentieth century have witnessed a shift in the norms governing the states and the international organisations. Throughout the Cold War period, the principle of non-intervention, expressed in the article-2 (4) of the UN Charter, was the dominant norm in the international affairs. The recent trends show that the things are changing now. The very concept of new humanitarian intervention entails an “intervention into a state, with or without approval of that state, to prevent genocide, large-scale violations of human rights (including mass starvation), or grave violations of international humanitarian law (the laws of war)”.18 The establishment of safe heaven in northern Iraq in 1991 and the NATO air strikes in Yugoslavia in 1999 have enunciated an era that presumes that there is a right to use armed force for humanitarian objectives. In early 1990s there were only eight UN peacekeeping

operations, whereas, by the end of year 2000, there were fifteen UN operations involving some 38,000 troops and the percentage of ODA allocated to emergencies rose from 2% in 1990 to a peak of 8% in 1994.19

Similarly a number of regional organisations were involved in various conflict resolution missions, for example, NATO deployments in Yugoslavia, Russian peacekeeping missions under the umbrella of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Tajikistan, Transdnestr, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Similarly, European Union has three missions and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has some eleven missions all of which involve military personnel. In Africa, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been actively involved in Sierra Leone and has conducted operations in Liberia and Guinea-Bissau. The Organisation of African Unity also has three mainly civilian missions in Burundi, Comoros and Congo.20

The above mentioned corollary of peace-keeping and humanitarian missions reflect the growing acceptance of the use of military force for humanitarian purposes and the evolution of humanitarian norm, and, its supremacy over the sovereignty of the states.

The Global Civil Society and the New Humanitarianism

The global civil society has played a very important role in bringing about the change in the international norms. The role of proliferating NGOs, social movements, think tanks, commissions, and, particularly media – radio, television, print and websites; cannot be overlooked in bringing about the recent changes.

The humanitarian NGOs like ICRC, SAVE the Children, CARE, Oxfam, MSF, and human rights NGOs like Anti Slavery Society, Amnesty International, Human Rights

Watch have played a very important role in troubled spots. Similarly, the conflict resolutions NGOs like International Alert and Conciliation Resources, the Vatican Groups, San Egidio and Carter Centre have a long history of conflict resolution effort.

Other than the NGOs, numerous social movements get activated focused on human rights, humanitarian intervention and humanitarian assistance. These are also supported by the Diaspora groups that have played a very important role in influencing the character of the nationalist movements and their impact on international community.

Similarly, the think tanks like International Crisis Group, Institute of War and Peace Reporting have played a very significant role in shaping up the new humanitarian response to the conflict zones. In addition the commissions set up both independent or under the auspices of the UN, like The Brandt, Palme, Brundtland, Carnegie etc have also played major role in increasing the transparency and public accountability of international institutions.21

Another very important element is the role played by media in drawing the attention to the far-off places. Though media has remained to be a tool, especially at the hands of NGOs and social movements, instead of being an independent actor, its contribution cannot be underestimated.22 To sum up, the evolution of the humanitarian intervention owes a lot to the contribution of the different elements of civil society.

The United Nations:

Any discussion of wars would not be complete if it doesn’t take into the account the role and contribution of UN. It was discussed earlier that the there has been increased commitment of the UN in the conflict resolution especially in 1990s yet, it has been historically observed that the UN’s has generally played a subordinate role in relief operations and majority of the UN resolutions have a more of watershed

effect than a binding commitment for the international actors.23 The UN is an organisation of member states, which pursue their own foreign policy and economic interests. This is important with regard to the five permanent members of the Security Council, especially United States that owes more than $ 1 billion to UN. This puts numerous limitations on its peacekeeping role in era of growing complex emergencies. Without US backing UN has little clout. In mid-1994 the total failure of UN in relation to Rwanda was mainly because of the unwillingness of the United States to become involved.24 Nevertheless, the limitations and the double standards adopted by the member states in dealing with the international crises, it must be acknowledged, that UN has improved upon its previous record in the recent years.


The contemporary war is quite different from the older notions of war in terms of its scale, actors, and time and time and space involved. As its contemporary and new it requires a reassessment of the relevance and utility of the old conflict resolution regime at international level. The advent of Global Civil Society networks have played a very significant role in terms the conflict management and in enhancing the international law regime enable to evolve a more cohesive appraisal of the nature of contemporary conflict and its resolution. In terms of the UN record on dealing with the contemporary conflicts; in spite of the scepticism regarding the notion of state sovereignty and the reluctant attitude of the major states, it has improved on it.


1 Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilisations and the remaking of World Order, 1996.

2 Mary Kaldor, Ch.1, Introduction, in Kaldor M. ; Washee B. eds. New Wars, 1997

3 David Turton, ‘War and Ethnicity: Global Connections and Local Violence in North East Africa and Former Yugoslavia’, Oxford Development Studies, Vol 25, No.1, 1997.

4 Mary Kaldor, 1997

5 David Turton, 1997

6 David Keen, The Economic Functions of Violence in Civil Wars, Adelphi Paper 320, Oxford University Press/International Institute for Strategic Studies. 1998

7 Mary Kaldor, ‘A Decade of Humanitarian Intervention, Ch.5, Global Civil Society Yearbook 2001, LSE

8 Mary Kaldor, 1997

9 ibid.

10 ibid.

11 Mary Kaldor, 1997

12 Tim Allen, ‘Perceiving the Contemporary War’ in Allen T & Seaton J eds, The Media of Conflict: War Reporting and Representations of Ethnic Violence, Zed Press, London. 1999

13 David Turton, ibid.

14 Mary Kaldor, 2001

15 ibid, 1997.

16 Ibid.

17 David Keen, ibid.

18 Mary Kaldor, 1997, ch. 6

19 Allen. T and Styan. D, ‘A Right to interfere? Bernard Kouchner and the New Humanitarianism’, Journal of International Development, Vol.12, No.6, August 2000.

20 As quoted by Kaldor, 2001

21 Mary Kaldor, 2001

22 Tim Allen, 2000

23 Falk, R. Ch;5, ‘The UN, the Rule of Law and Humanitarian Intervention’, in Kaldor, New Wars, 1997

24 John Seaman, Ch.1, ‘The International System of Humanitarian Relief in the New World Order, in John Harris eds, The Politics of Humanitarian Intervention, Pinter, 1995


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