The changing nature of war, forced displacement, and global disarmament

Sonal Marwah Forced Displacement and Migration

Academics and researchers have noted a marked change in the nature of wars since the 1990s; interstate or international wars have largely been replaced by intrastate or civil wars. Intrastate wars are often more intense and drag on for years—even decades. They involve a multiplicity of actors, including ever-evolving coalitions and splintering of non-state armed groups or irregular combatants with many different goals.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 39 Issue 1 Spring 2018 by Sonal Marwah

In modern intrastate wars, the forcible displacement of civilians is not only a by-product of conflict, but a tactic of war. The flight of war-affected populations from their homes is frequently orchestrated, directed, and sustained by armed actors (Lichtenheld 2014). A common technique is forcible removal of those with different identities and opinions or the expulsion of “the other,” often defined in terms of ethnicity, religion, tribal membership, or political affiliation (Sassen 2018). Such strategic displacement is also commonly used by undemocratic states in state-building. For example, the ongoing Muslim Rohingya humanitarian crisis is the result of decades of displacement tactics used by Myanmar’s military leaders.

At the end of 2016, 65.6 million people were forcibly displaced (UNHCR 2017). According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (2017), “the clear majority of these displacement crises were generated primarily by armed conflicts.” Ongoing conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan accounted for 55 per cent of all refugees.

Table 1: Top sources of refugees in 2016

1.     Syria
2.     Afghanistan
3.     South Sudan
4.     Somalia
5.     Sudan
6.     Democratic Republic of Congo
7.     Central African Republic
8.     Myanmar
9.     Eritrea
10.  Burundi

(UNHCR 2017, p. 17)

Peace and post-conflict resolution

Since 1987, Project Ploughshares has reported annually on armed conflicts through its Armed Conflicts Report (ACR). Such an accumulation of data allows for an in-depth analysis of different armed conflicts and their impacts.

Examining armed conflicts involves the study of not only the different stages of conflict, but the nature of the peace. Post-conflict societies face many difficult tasks, including disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of ex-combatants; reconstruction of destroyed physical infrastructure and institutions; and addressing human rights violations.

An important indicator of true peace is the successful reintegration of refugee returnees. Consider, for example, the case of Colombia, where a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the leftist FARC guerrillas was signed in November 2016. Just before the ultimate agreement was reached, the director of the government agency responsible for assisting war victims acknowledged that “for the displaced and others who bear the war’s worst scars, the peace deal is a beginning, not an end” (Miroff 2016).

lthough the rate of displacement has decreased since the signing of the peace agreement, violence continues to uproot civilians in Colombia and the safe return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has proven to be a complex challenge. Amnesty International (2018) has documented new cases of forced displacement in 2018 due to clashes between different armed groups. Real peace has yet to be achieved for these civilians.

According to the UNHCR (2017), by the end of 2016, 552,200 global refugees had returned to their homes—a very small percentage of the total displaced population of 65.6 million. Civilians did not return home because conditions there were not conducive to the resumption of a safe and healthy civilian life.

The role of weapons

Irresponsible arms deals and transfers directly and indirectly threaten women, men, girls, and boys. Weapons are used to kill and maim civilians, who live under the constant threat of armed repression and are often forced to flee their homes. Readily available arms assist repressive and authoritarian governments and militaries in terrorizing and abusing their own citizens. Selling arms to such governments raises questions about the complicity of the exporting (generally Western) countries, and the extent to which they are accountable for resulting humanitarian crises.

Project Ploughshares, a long-time advocate of disarmament research, has actively worked to promote the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) and to support its effective implementation. The ATT, which came into effect in December 2014, aims to regulate the international trade in conventional arms, including small arms, battle tanks, attack helicopters, combat aircraft, missiles, and warships. The ATT seeks to ensure that “arms transfers will not cause or contribute to genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and other grave human rights violations” (AI et al. 2017). Ploughshares and other civil society organizations are closely monitoring the current Canadian government’s commitment to join the ATT.

Looking ahead

Forced displacement is one of the main security issues currently faced by the international community. To better leverage the Canadian government’s interest in the refugee crisis, Ploughshares and other Canadian NGOs benefit from actively participating in related dialogues and innovative initiatives taking place around the world. In this political space, there is a unique opportunity for Ploughshares to explore more deeply the issues of armed violence and conflict that are the leading drivers of the involuntary uprooting of civilians. In this context, there is a need to closely analyze new and old arms deals and Canadian military transfers and exports, to determine the extent to which they may have affected armed conflicts that generate refugees.

The government’s new feminist international assistance policy constitutes a useful point of reference for Ploughshares programming going forward. A gender lens will be relevant when analyzing the impacts of weapons, military exports, and emerging military technologies on civilians in fragile states and in armed conflict. This analysis will be used to develop recommendations on how to build sustainable peace and curb the use of arms to better protect affected and displaced civilians.

In recent years, we have observed that states are more focused on preventing civilians from seeking asylum and forcing refugees to go back to their country of origin, even when conditions there are unsafe. Project Ploughshares is convinced that any long-term solution to the current refugee crisis must address the main drivers of forced migration: armed conflict and war. Additionally, significant investments are needed to support refugees, to end sexual and gender-based violence, to control arms, to institute security sector reform, and to establish and support human rights and the rule of law.

Ploughshares believes that its new program on forced displacement will help to bring the protection of civilians to the centre of disarmament debates and bring a human element to studies of armed conflict, as we learn more about the survivors of these conflicts.

Read more: One response to the changing nature of war: a new program


AI. 2018. Colombia: More than 1,000 people forcibly displaced in just four days. January 24.

AI et al. 2017. Bill C-47 and Canadian accession to the Arms Trade Treaty: Civil society concerns and recommendations. Submission by Canadian

civil society organizations to the House Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, October.

Lichtenheld, Adam. 2014. Forced migration as a weapon of war in Iraq and beyond. UN Dispatch, July 1.

Miroff, Nick. 2016. Colombia’s war has displaced 7 million. With peace, will they go home? The Washington Post, September 5.

Sassen, Saskia. 2018. Welcome to a new kind of war: The rise of endless urban conflict. The Guardian, January 30.

SIPRI. 2017. SIPRI Yearbook 2017 out now: Trends in nuclear disarmament, forced displacement and sustaining peace. September 21.

UNHCR. 2017. Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2016.


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