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Editorial
Last Updated: 12/31/2011
2011 in Peace and Conflict
Ross Ryan and Tara Ruttenberg

The Peace and Conflict Monitor digests some of 2011's most relevant events in peace and conflict.


2011 has been a full year of stories and events of remarkable social, economic, and political importance. These range from the tragedies of war and natural disaster to the inspiring outpouring of support for affected communities. 2011 can also be characterized as a year of socio-political unrest and protest against the status quo in many countries, provoking robust and challenging public debate, a revived sense of unity for the common good, and many examples of how technology influences the ways in which we inform ourselves and participate in social movements. This was also the year that women’s powerful contributions to politics and peacebuilding received the respect and attention they deserve by the Nobel Peace Prize selection committee.

The impacts of this year’s seasons of change will undoubtedly spill over into the years and decades to come: the dark days of natural disasters in Japan and Somalia; the rise of popular movements propelling the Arab Spring; political scandal and economic tensions heating up to the point of boiling; the implications of NATO’s involvement in Libya’s civil war, the “end” of the Iraq war, and worldwide protests reflecting global frustration with on-going economic and environmental crises.

The creation of South Sudan

The year began with a referendum in Sudan that eventually led to the creation of Africa’s newest country, the Republic of South Sudan. The referendum and declaration of independence were heavily supported by international organizations (especially the United Nations) in the hope that this new arrangement would fulfil the promise of the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement to finally end “the longest running conflict in Africa”. Unfortunately, many issues remain to be resolved, with persisting conflict in oil-rich areas along the new border (including Darfur), and on-going crises related to public health and displaced communities.

Arab Spring

Unrest, upheaval and revolution characterized the political milieu of much of the Arab world this year, with conflict and regime change representing the norm rather than the exception from Tunisia to Syria. Social-media fuelled mass resistance movements led to the toppling of governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, with similar events still unfolding in Syria and Bahrain. While it is a mistake to oversimplify the socio-political complexities at work in these distinct contexts, it is important to highlight that frustration with irresponsive governments combined with courageous popular demands for change are the common threads binding these events together.

Despite initial hopes for peaceful transitions toward democracy and freedom, particularly following the media’s heyday coverage of the Egyptian revolution, analysts and citizens of the Middle East are not surprised by the continued unrest, or by the region´s turn toward Islamism as opposed to liberalization in the aftermath of regime change. Some commentators, such as Shlomo Avineri, have argued that Islamism, as opposed to further calls for modernization and civil freedoms, has found resonance among the masses whose needs do not coincide with those of the bourgeoisie revolutionaries responsible for toppling their respective governments.

In addition, the Arab Spring has incited further Sunni-Shiite sectarianism with geostrategic implications for peace and conflict in the region. Identity politics rather than unity toward democracy is defining the Arab Spring, with Syria and Yemen particularly tipping the balance of power. Aside from the violence likely to ensue given deepened Sunni-Shiite friction, analysts worry that the possible ouster of Assad in Syria and an incoming Sunni regime would provoke Iran to become more involved in the region to support Shiite political power elsewhere.

Earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan

An extraordinarily powerful earthquake (magnitude 9.0) struck off the eastern coast of Japan in March, forming a devastating tsunami that flooded communities up to 10 kilometers inland. Among the many domino effects of the tsunami was to damage basic infrastructure, leading to shortages of electricity and water, and the ruin of roads, railways, and dams. Most significantly, the Fukushima I nuclear power plant complex was cut off from electrical power, interrupting cooling systems and causing three hydrogen explosions and a level 7 meltdown, which in turn exposed thousands of people to harmful radiation and contaminated the surrounding water and soil, thus impacting local agriculture and food systems.

The international response was one of unanimous compassion, with countries from Bolivia to Afghanistan and China, dozens of international organizations, and millions of individuals pledging aid and offering their support. Given the scale of the disaster, however, the situation continues to be distressing for those in and around the affected areas.

NATO intervention in Libya’s civil war

Quickly following the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, demonstrations were organized in major Libyan cities challenging the 41 year (mostly unofficial) rule of Muammar Gaddafi. These were viciously repressed by police and security forces, provoking a series of increasingly violent clashes involving demonstrators, an emerging rebel movement, and Gaddafi loyalists. Britain, France, and an initially reluctant United States purposed an intervention into the conflict – first presenting it as a humanitarian mission to protect civilians, and then, after UNSCR 1973 was passed (thanks to abstentions from China and Russia), implementing a much greater military intervention involving air strikes, naval bombardment, and supplying arms to rebel groups. An attempt to justify this broad interpretation of the Security Council resolution was published as an op-ed piece signed by the leaders of the three governments.[1]Although fighting continued deep into the year (the battle of Tripoli was in August, and Gaddafi’s killing in October), the rebels began exporting oil as early as April, primarily to European markets, calming the fears of speculators who had driven the price of oil up to “energy crisis” levels. An estimated 30,000 lives were lost[2] in the conflict, including Gaddafi’s. Incumbent ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has promised that there will be no impunity for those who committed war crimes during the conflict, regardless of which side they are on.

Global resistance and protest against ongoing economic and environmental crises

Time Magazine named ‘the protester’ as 2011’s Person of the Year. Across the globe, resistance in the form of popular protest has occupied hundreds of cities, as well as media airtime, as never before. While chronologically following in the wake of the Arab Spring, the Indignados and the Occupy Movement may not necessarily be seeking regime change through revolution against dictatorship, but they are coming forward to express anger and frustration with the ongoing global economic crisis, rightly blaming the leaders of banks, financial institutions and irresponsive governments whose power and policies have damaged the socioeconomic position of the vast majority of people, to the benefit of a very small group.

The Indignados in Spain led this wave of protest, as their country’s soaring unemployment rate (more than one-third of Spaniards are jobless) and dismal economic prospects continue to paint a gloomy picture for Spain’s foreseeable future. East along the Mediterranean, the Greek Aganaktismenoi (Outraged) movement came out strongly against the IMF policies, neoliberal domination, and political corruption they blame for Greece’s economic nightmare. And West across the Atlantic, the influence of Occupy Wall Street shocked reporters, government, and citizens alike, where protest in the US has long been considered a thing of the past. Championing the cause of the 99%, the Occupy Movement attracted educated, talented, passionate and angry Americans to protest corruption and corporatism. These distinct yet connected movements share the principles of leaderless, horizontal organization, anti-capitalist rhetoric, successful experiments in consensus decision-making, and practices of direct democracy in action.[3]

Protests also landed in Durban, South Africa at the COP17 Climate Change Summit, where environmental activists “occupied” the building to call for a just and legally binding agreement on emissions cuts. Demanding the most powerful nations to make serious commitments on climate change, COP17 protestors took notes from their fellow Indignados, Aganaktismenoi, and Occupiers elsewhere on the globe, exercising their right to civil disobedience against the unacceptable status quo dictated by neoliberal politics to the overwhelming detriment of peoples and natural habitats worldwide.

Russia was another site of popular protest, with the largest demonstrations since the 1990s appearing in Moscow in December. Protestors drew attention to corruption in the country, especially electoral fraud, and the entrenchment of political power in Vladimir Putin’s party United Russia, and continue to demand the release of political prisoners.

East African drought and Kenyan invasion of Somalia

According to UN estimates, tens of thousands of people (mostly young children) died as a result of famine in the Horn of Africa, while many more were displaced to camps where they were exposed to further threats to their personal security, including disease, gender-based violence, and armed conflict. The drought was compounded by what some have described as “wilful negligence” on the part of regional governments and the wider international community, all of whom failed to respond to early warnings, or to deliver an adequate or appropriate level of aid to affected communities. An already fragile socio-political situation was exacerbated by the crisis, with skirmishes reported among cattle herders over scarce water resources, and growing tensions between al-Shabaab and foreign relief organizations, with both accusing the other of using the crisis and relief supplies for political and religious purposes.

The US and other members of the UN Security Council supported a Kenyan invasion into Somalia, ostensibly to replace al-Shabaab with a more cooperative government to foreign interests. According to a recent report from Daniel Howden, however, the military action has led to increased local support for al-Shabaab and provoked Ethiopia’s army to enter into Somalia as well. The Kenyan allies in Somalia are themselves unreliable and unappealing to the local population, and in any case, the military conflict has only complicated and delayed the resettlement of displaced communities and recovery from the famine – one of the worst we’ve faced in living memory.

Women in politics and peacebuilding

Women in government and peacebuilding took center stage this year, most prominently with a number of women assuming positions as Heads of State, plus the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to three women’s rights activists from Africa and the Middle East. President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, Switzerland President of the Consideration Micheline Calmy-Rey, and Thailand’s first woman Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra joined their fellow women Heads of State from all continents with the exception of North America. Currently, women hold state leadership positions in 27 countries, including three Queens (Denmark, Netherlands, United Kingdom), 10 Presidents (Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Finland, India, Ireland, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Lithuania, Switzerland) and 12 Prime Ministers (Australia, Bangladesh, Croatia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, San Marino, Slovenia, Trinidad and Tobago).[4] Notably, while not a Head of State, yet arguably equally powerful if not more-so, Christine Lagarde (France) assumed the chief position as the first woman Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund.

In peacebuilding, the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Tawakkol Karman (Yemen), peace activist Leymah Gbowee (Liberia), and current Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf for their roles in championing women's rights in regions characterized by the oppression of women’s rights, as well as supporting other women peacebuilders. Additionally, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was awarded the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Awards for International Understanding, officially announced in May 2011.

While significant strides must still be made in recognizing women’s leadership roles in high-level politics and peacebuilding around the world, these events have contributed to a recognition of women’s power in our historically – yet decreasingly– male-dominated global politics.

Global armament

2011 was another busy year for those who manufacture and distribute weaponry. According to GlobalSecurity.org, the combined military spending of the international community totalled $2,157,172,000,000 USD this year, with the US continuing to lead, but with China, India, and Russia all investing in military spending at an alarming rate. Perhaps the largest single transfer of arms of 2011 was the 2.7 billion dollar “iron mountain” of weapons and military vehicles provided to the government of Afghanistan by the US and NATO allies – but this was by no means the only major transfer of military hardware, ensuring that governments and rebel groups of various ideologies will be well-stocked for future armed conflicts in 2012 and beyond.

International political scandals

The mid-November resignation of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Burlusconi following his loss of a political majority in parliamentreflected a Mediterranean domino-effect after Greece’s political reshuffle into a coalition government as a result of the European economic crisis. While Burlosconi was referred to as the “latest victim of the euro debt crisis,”[5] many among Italy’s politically polarized populace also chastised the former leader for alleged Mafioso-style corruption and questionable morals following previous allegations that he held parties with underage women.

On the international economic front, Mohammad Yunus, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate heralded for his contributions to international development, grandfather of micro-finance to the poor, and Founder of the Bangladesh-based Grameen Bank, was investigated by the Norwegian government on charges that he was stealing from the poor, diverting upwards of US$100 million from international donors to his own companies’ bank accounts. Following the controversial legal case, 70-year-old Yunus was ousted as head of Grameen Bank by the Bangladesh government on a technicality that he was working past the legal retirement age of 60. Yunus argued that his ouster was a political move by the government to take over the bank and quash his suspected political aspirations that would threaten the current administration’s power.[6]

Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s aspirations of French presidential candidacy were derailed following criminal investigations into allegations of rape and sexual assault of a hotel housekeeper.While the cases were dismissed, Strauss-Kahn’s image was irreparably tarnished and he was replaced as IMF Managing Director by Christine Lagarde, also French. Speculation continues regarding the possible motivations behind the allegations against Strauss-Kahn and the negative publicity he received, especially given his political ambitions and high-profile criticism of the financial sector’s role in the US and European economic crises.

The “end” of the Iraq war

After nine years of full-scale war, justified first by the false claim of Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction, and later by an argument that the country should be democratic, US combat troops have officially withdrawn from the country. US president Barak Obama, during a speech at Fort Bragg, declared the mission to be successful. The very premise of this story has been challenged by many commentators who point out that the US will maintain a disproportionately large presence in Iraq through their embassy (which employs a staff of 15,000, and is roughly the size of Vatican city), the Iraqi military (which they trained and armed), the fact that many troops have now been concentrated in Kuwait, and the continued US control over Iraqi airspace. Even in a best-case scenario, if we assume that this is a genuine “end” of the war from the US side, and that further civil war does not ensue within the country, the profound impacts of nearly a decade of war will ensure that the war will continue to be felt for many years to come by those in Iraq and the surrounding region.



[1]http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/04/14/joint-op-ed-president-obama-prime-minister-cameron-and-president-sarkozy

[2]http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/08/libya-war-died_n_953456.html

[3]Lee Warden. (October 31, 2011). Mathematics of Direct Democracy. Rocket Hub. Retrieved December 16, 2011 from: http://www.rockethub.com/projects/3773-mathematics-of-direct-democracy. With research underway into quantitative models and simulations of consensus decision-making processes, the Rocket Hub seeks to contribute mathematically to these social movements’ consensus-based approach to decision-making.

[4] Guide to Women Leaders. (2011). Worldwide Guide to Women in Leadership. Retrieved December 15, 2011 from http://www.guide2womenleaders.com/

[5]Henry Ridgewell. (November 12, 2011). Berlusconi Resigns, Ending Scandal-Plagued Era Voice of America. http://www.voanews.com/english/news/europe/Berlusconi-to-Resign-Ending-Scandal-Plagued-Era-133739293.html

[6]Serajul Islam Quadir. (March 2, 2011). Bangladesh removes Nobel winner Yunus as Grameen Bank.Reuters. Retrieved December 16, 2011 from: http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/02/us-bangladesh-yunus-idUSTRE7212V620110302


Ross Ryan and Tara Ruttenberg edit the Peace and Conflict Monitor.
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