Ethnic Civil Wars: Securing the Post-Conflict Peace

By Collier, Paul | Harvard International Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Ethnic Civil Wars: Securing the Post-Conflict Peace

Collier, Paul, Harvard International Review

Present discourse on ethnic conflict is grounded in common sense and advocacy that together form a received wisdom with which everybody is familiar. The task of analytic and quantitative research is to bring us beyond this received wisdom: to discover whether there are counterintuitive behavioral relationships that might be helpful for developing policy.


The phrase "ethnic conflict" hovers between description and explanation. As a description of the large scale organized violence that besets many low-income countries, it is unexceptional. As an explanation, it is radically inadequate. Most societies are ethnically diverse. Where conditions are ripe for internal violence, conflicts are indeed likely to be organized along ethnic lines. During a conflict, ethnicity is often used as a propaganda tool. Indeed, whether or not ethnic divisions are a cause of conflict, they are quite likely to be a consequence of it. After such disputes, societies are often trapped in the ethnic organizations and categories that the conflict determined.

As a literal objective, "ending ethnic conflict" cannot be taken seriously. Political conflict is endemic, and intra-ethnic affinity may form a cost-effective basis for political organization. Political contests between ethnic groups are therefore common in ethnically diverse democracies. What can, and indeed should, be ended is large scale, organized violence. This kind of violence generally takes three variants: communal violence, pogroms, and rebellion. Of these three, rebellion is by far the most deadly, since it results in full-scale civil war. Communal violence, in contrast, is generally the least deadly because it lacks large scale organization.

The prevention of pogroms, in which a government systematically kills the members of some ethnic group, is straightforward in one sense: pogroms can be prevented by enforcing international norms. The difficulty in preventing pogroms thus comes down to a dispute over the limits on state sovereignty. The prevention of civil war, by contrast, requires a substantially different agenda. Civil war is, by definition, a conflict that involves at least one private, non-governmental actor. This is not, of course, to lay the blame for civil wars at the door of the rebels. Rather, every government attempts to maintain a monopoly over the organized violence within its borders. Where it loses this monopoly due to the emergence of a rebel group, a civil war is virtually inevitable. Reducing the global incidence of civil wars is indeed feasible. Pogroms and communal violence are different and equally important variants of ethnic conflict; however, my discussion here will not apply to them.

To "end" ethnic civil war, there are three possible points of intervention. We can attempt to prevent such conflicts from starting, we can attempt to stop ongoing conflicts, and we can attempt to strengthen peace in situations where conflict has recently ended. Herein I discuss each scenario. I contend that the greatest payoffs would come from improving the record of maintaining post-conflict peace, due to the high level of post-conflict relapses into civil war.

The Deep Prevention of Civil War

Deep prevention is obviously the most desirable form of prevention. The normal, somewhat pious, discourse on the deep prevention of ethnic conflict invariably invokes the need to address its root causes. Obviously, when grievances are genuine they should be addressed, regardless of whether or not they are the root causes of violence. However, the argument that violence will inevitably occur unless such grievances are addressed seems both unnecessary as a basis for remedial action and potentially counterproductive, as it becomes subject to hijacking by advocacy groups with their own pet agendas. The root cause method of explanation is inextricably linked to the notion that the motivation behind rebellion is some objective grievance. …

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