Organised crime and conflict: The new challenge for peacebuilding

Monday, 8 December 2014 19:23 GMT

Members of the National Cadet Corps march behind a partition during celebrations marking the 66th anniversary of the creation of the NCC in Kolkata November 16, 2014. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

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War, characterised by formal peace deals, is being replaced by insecurity caused by crime

Over the past few decades, the number of wars has been decreasing - there were approximately 30 armed conflicts in 2010 compared to 50 in 1990. Conflicts between state militaries are becoming less frequent, and there are now more peace agreements than ever. So isn’t peacebuilding winning?

Despite the decline in the number of wars in the world, the safety – and wellbeing – of ordinary people is not improving as markedly as these statistics would suggest. The World Bank Development Report 2011 revealed that 1.5 billion people (about one quarter of the world’s population) continue to live in fear of violence.

War, characterised by formal peace agreements and U.N. peacekeeping operations, is being replaced by insecurity caused by urban and cross-border crime, such as drugs, human trafficking and gun trade. According to the report, such violence poses one of the biggest threats to development in the 21st century. In addition, experts are warning of a new epidemic caused by a rise in the number of “fragile cities” in the world – spaces where violence is flourishing and creating humanitarian crises on par with war zones.

This presents a serious problem for those of us involved in building peace. Are we working in the right places? Are we tackling the right problems? Engaging the right actors?

Because of its changing face, much of today’s violence takes place in middle income countries that are not the traditional stomping ground of the peacebuilding sector (Mexico and Jamaica, for example). And in the “fragile states” more familiar to peacebuilding organisations (Mali, Colombia and Afghanistan, to name a few) the new cocktail of motivations for violence presents new challenges.

Colombia, for instance, now harbours the second largest internally displaced population in the world (about 5.7 million people), surpassed only by Syria. Though most people fled because of past guerrilla and paramilitary activity, criminal gang violence has more recently become the main cause of displacement. This illustrates how criminal agendas are increasingly interwoven with other motivations for violent conflict. Indeed, the prevalence and scale of such agendas in some countries has meant that the boundaries between “war” and other forms of violence have become increasingly blurred.

So what can be done? There has been some progress in the study of informal or “shadow” economies, unpacking the connections between the violence driven by politics with the relentless drive for money and the status that comes with it. However, naming the issue of violent crime remains fraught with difficulty. Those involved in criminal agendas are often those with power and beyond the reach of (weak) state institutions designed to keep them in check.

Furthermore, criminal violence is traditionally met with the violence of law enforcement. Violence on violence. The progress made in reducing the number of wars has in large part been down to the growing legitimacy of diplomacy, peace agreements and peace making approaches, as opposed to war making. Yet criminal violence continues to be met in the main with further violence and “softer” approaches are generally regarded as untenable.

But as criminal violence begins to percolate more into the peace zone characterised by peace agreements, our dominant violent response only serves to undo the good work achieved in reducing the number of wars. It should be no surprise then that the decline in the number of wars is now under question, with the low of 30 in 2010 spiking to 37 in 2011 before falling back to 32 in 2012 and 33 in 2013.

However, there are some important examples of peacebuilding approaches to organised crime that illustrate the potential for more creative responses. Community action to reduce gun crime in the Pailig community of the southern Philippines is one such case.  Here the approach was to develop responsible gun ownership at the community level by organising violent clans into livelihood groups to kick-start enterprise initiatives. Importantly there was a pragmatic acceptance that guns were part of life, but that their corrosive effects could be reduced. Such a view invites us to consider alternatives to hard security responses aimed at eradicating organised crime and begins to explore how communities themselves can reduce violence.

As International Alert’s recent publication Crime and Conflict: The Next Challenge for Peacebuilding highlights (and to be discussed in London on Dec. 9), violent conflict is an ever-changing dynamic, and framing it solely in terms of war and civil war restricts our ability to address it.  The three approaches central to a peacebuilding – conflict analysis, dialogue and civic empowerment – should be applied more broadly to address violent criminal agendas, whether this be in so called “fragile states” or in middle income countries.

If we have succeeded in finding creative ways to use dialogue and diplomacy in reducing the number of wars, then might not the same approach succeed in tackling organised crime? With the number of fatalities from criminal agendas and interpersonal violence outstripping those from armed conflict by more that 8 to 1, are we not duty bound to do so? Evidence from the Philippines and other contexts suggests a peacebuilding approach to tackling criminal agendas can work.

Phil Champain is head of emerging programmes at peacebuilding charity International Alert, @intalert