Radix - Violent Conflict and Disasters

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Early in RADIX's second year it is apparent that many of its core concerns cannot be fully explored without reference to violent conflict. These are the range of 'orphan issues' of disaster management discussed at the beginning of RADIX (see home page). Such issues include human rights; class and gender relations; the vulnerability and capability of children and youth, elderly people, minorities, people with disabilities; disaster's links with economic development, with human development, with sustainable development; ethical and professional standards of practice, and the application of existing knowledge.

The interwoven skein of linkages is complex:

  • Violent conflict is often one of the causes of social vulnerability.
  • Displacement of large numbers of people in war and other kinds of violent conflict can lead to new forms of vulnerability (exposure to disease risks, to hazards in new rural or urban environments).
  • Socially vulnerable groups in extreme natural events are often also vulnerable to abuse (injury, death, rape, forced labor) during violent conflict.
  • Violent conflict can interfere with the provision of relief and recovery assistance (see cases of Israel/Palestine; Goma, Congo; Afghanistan elsewhere in RADIX).
  • Participatory methods meant to empower and engage socially vulnerable groups may be difficult or impossible during violent conflicts.
  • Application of existing knowledge for mitigation of risk from extreme natural events is often difficult or impossible during violent conflict.
  • Violent conflict often diverts national and international financial and human resources that could be used for mitigation of risk from extreme natural events.
  • Violent conflict sometimes destroys infrastructure important to mitigation of natural hazards (e.g. irrigation systems, dams, levees) or compromises warnings and evacuations (e.g. land mines on roads).
  • Failure of sustainable development can result in conflict over resources that lead to violent confrontation.
  • Violent confrontations often wreck havoc on the vegetation, land, and water, undermining sustainable development.
  • Some economic development strategies and policies can lead to marginalization and exclusion, hence creation of social vulnerability to extreme natural events, and may simultaneously provoke expressions of social unrest such as food riots (J. Walton and D. Seddon, Free Markets & Food Riots, Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).

Conflict vs. Violent Conflict

There is a philosophical view of development that sees conflict as a necessary part of social change. Conflict is simply people confronting objective or subjectively perceived differences in their material interests. Such conflict most often does not become violent, nor should it (B. Wisner, Power and Need in Africa: Basic Human Needs and Development Policies, London: Earthscan, 1988, chapter 1).

Violence in Daily Life

However, it is also important to recognize that daily life is filled with violence that is chronic and not often the focus of international peace negotiations. Consider violence against women, the violence of land lords and land holders who use their own thugs to enforce their 'rights' against squatters or neighboring small holders, the violence of factory owners against employees who try to unionize, the violence against undocumented migrants often caught between exploitative 'guides' and brutal border guards.

These forms of violence, and fear of such violence, also have a role in creating and reproducing social vulnerability to harm in extreme natural events. For example, hundreds of Mexicans have died in extreme weather events in the high desert in winter and summer as they attempt to avoid capture on the US./ Mexican border.

Vulnerability and Structural Violence

Johan Galtung coined the term 'structural violence' thirty-three years ago to refer to the ways in which social, economic, and political systems can institutionalize harm (J. Galtung, 'Violence, Peace and Peace Research', Journal of Peace Research 3 (1969), pp. 167-192). In this sense, pervasive, institutionalized discrimination, inequities and injustices such as oppression of women, low wages paid to undocumented migrants, housing 'choices' for the poor limited to rental of fire-prone shacks or flood-prone river banks can all lead to harm, and would be considered 'structural violence'.

Users of and contributors to RADIX might find it useful to think about violence on a continuum from war at one end, through the forms of violence that can be endemic to daily life (including 'gang violence'), to the more taken-for-granted, hidden, or silent forms of structural violence.

Complex Humanitarian Emergencies

Finally, we should explain why this section of RADIX is not called 'complex humanitarian emergencies', using the term common in the United Nations. We might have done so since much of what appears on this page, or is cross referenced, would probably fall under that heading. However, there are some difficulties with the phrase:

  • First, according to the combined insight provided by the growing body of experience found on RADIX, all disasters are complex, not just those involving violent conflict, refugees, or displaced persons.
  • Secondly, as noted above, violence in one form or another, or threat/fear of violence is a common thread in human existence, especially among marginal and excluded groups in society. It therefore makes no sense, conceptually to isolate cases where drought, for example, is complicated by warfare.
  • Thirdly, for a large proportion of humanity, certainly the large part that lives on the equivalent of one U.S. Dollar per day, life is an emergency, a struggle. To call their lives a perpetual disaster would be hyperbole. However, the word emergency is not too strong to describe the chronic state of disequilibrium and crisis with which they attempt to cope.
  • Finally, one must ask if all disasters are not 'humanitarian' in the sense that they call out to survivors and those not directly affected for relief, compassion, and assistance with recovery.

We recognize, of course, that the term 'complex humanitarian emergency' has a bureaucratic and international political meaning and function. However, for the sake of consistence and clarity RADIX will use an alternative formulation, 'violent conflict and disaster'

Related Definitions

Of interest may also be a set of relevant definitions proposed by the World Health Organisation (http://www.who.int/disasters/hbp/working_definitions.html):

  • "WHO defines health as a state of complete physical, psychological and social well being. This is a broad definition and encompasses the conditions for an individual, community or society to achieve an acceptable state of health.
  • The definition of peace evolved from the mere absence of war to a concept encompassing as well the absence of structural violence within a society (positive peace - Johan Galtung) where structural violence is defined as when damage to an individual or groups occurs because of an unequal distribution of resources (or access to them) in a given society.
  • For our purpose we can define peace-building as any action directed at identifying and supporting structures and activities that tend to strengthen and solidify peace. The concept does not apply only to post conflict situations but must also be extended to measures and action that can prevent conflicts from occurring and to supporting measures during the conflict that could facilitate the peace process.
  • Conflict can be defined as a situation where parties pursue opposing goals, conflict may entail but need not be equal to violence. Our concern is where conflict takes the form of violent conflict specifically when parties pursue objectives through organised violence that can range from structural violence (p.e. apartheid regime in South Africa) to the classic inter-state war."

By Ben Wisner, April 2002

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