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Armed violence in non-conflict situations

Posted by Fondation Chirac on 17 December 2010

Recently the Fondation Chirac attended day long conference dedicated to armed violence: here are some of the points that were raised on the challenges of dealing with this issue. It is not an exhaustive analysis of the situation but hopefully will inspire some further reflections.

“Armed violence—both in crime and in conflict—claims an estimated 740,000 lives each year. The vast majority of these deaths (540,000) result from direct experience of violence. Nearly two-thirds (490,000) occur in non-conflict situations.” Small Arms Survey, 2010

Despite these high numbers, these deaths are often overlooked.

What to call it and how to define it:

It is difficult to define or categorize armed violence that takes place in non-conflict situations. Depending on the definition used, there are between 2 and 10 million people involved in gangs or armed groups in the world. Due to this lack of common definition, there is no existing international legal framework to help reduce it. For example, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), it falls into the “other situations” category. This difficulty in categorizing armed violence also means that little research is devoted to this area and thus even less time and money to its reduction.

Each case is distinct. Today words like “terrorist” and “vigilante” are used so frequently that one could almost believe that all “terrorist” groups came about in the same way and are motivated by the same reasons. Therefore, as much as possible, labels should not be used; instead the social, economic and political processes behind each militant group need to be examined.

There are different legal categories of armed violence: internal armed conflict, international armed conflict, both referring to a state of bellicose involving the State military. Lastly there are “other situations” that the (ICRC), has identified and divided up as follows: coups d’état, violence linked with maintaining public order, intercommunity violence, territorial gang violence and violence linked to transnational organizations.

While it is possible to create categories to describe the different types of armed violence, a group or a person rarely fits into just one category – creating a “hybrid” – or basically a new category that needs its own definition depending on the situation.

Underlying causes of armed violence:

While the causes are many and obviously differ on a case-by-case basis, for many experts the apparition of armed groups is a response to a lack of state presence. There’s a gap that needs to be filled and new actors step up to the plate.

In the case of urban violence, rapid urbanization is often blamed. While this may be part of the issue, it is particularly the absence of social and spatial networks that lends itself well to the creation of gangs.

Reducing the phenomenon:

Experts and governments are beginning to recognize that armed violence can no longer be dealt with through military action alone. Militaries are often given the mission of reducing armed violence because they are highly trained in dealing with external crises, and they can be quickly mobilized. But dealing with armed violence in non-conflict situations is a question of security, economic and social development, and governance and therefore involves a multiplicity of actors.

The World Health Organization takes the public health approach, which aims to prevent violence before it occurs, and is based on an ecological model, that reaches out to the individual, the family, the community, and the societal levels all at the same time. This system is not very well developed for the time being and requires a long-term commitment of 3 to 5 years.

Another important element in combating armed violence, is reconstructing the “illegitimacy of violence”. Studies have repeatedly shown that youth that have either witnessed or been victims of violence are the most likely perpetrators. For many, violence has become the norm – this cycle needs to be broken so that violence becomes, once again, an illigitmate reaction.

To sum up the day, each case is different, should be studied individually and called by its own name, and each solution needs to be individually tailored. The next step – how to mobilize the international community to fight against something that is still so difficult to grasp.

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