1. Home
  2. Global

We can’t hope to end wars if we’re not honest about what they are

Grappling with the consequences of a world at war requires us to be more specific about the problem. This begins with using more honest and descriptive language.

This is a composite image showing the back of a soldier from the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) carries an RPG launcher at a Myanmar military base. Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters
A soldier from the Karen National Liberation Army, which is part of a coalition of groups fighting against Myanmar's junta government, at a military base near Myanmar's border with Thailand in April.

The world is plagued with more wars than at any time in a generation. For the most part, policymakers are also less able to resolve them. And even when they appear to do so, the deals they strike are less likely to stick.

This is often glossed over, but so is the fact that the language we use to describe war and conflict obscures the scale and nature of the violence and makes light of the work required to secure sustainable and inclusive peace.

Ceasefires, de-escalation, and frozen or low-intensity conflict are called peace. War managed through humanitarian action is a protracted crisis. A peace process is described as such, even if it is unable or unwilling to deliver any such thing.

Grappling with the consequences of a world at war requires us to be more specific about the problem. This begins with using more honest and descriptive language. It must also include more accurate framing of the lengthy and iterative phases of successful conflict resolution and peacebuilding.

A shared understanding of the problem may help to reframe the scale and necessity of the task ahead. Failing to do so allows the snowballing caseload of unresolved conflicts to continue growing unacknowledged, condemning millions to lives of violence, displacement, and deprivation.

There are many causes of the current proliferation of conflict and crisis in peacemaking: geopolitical competition and fragmentation, deadlock between veto-holders at the UN Security Council, and middle states vying for their place in the changing world order all contribute. The prevalence of affordable weapons, illicit financial flows, and asymmetrical war-fighting tactics mean armed groups can also fight better for longer.

Intra-state – rather than inter-state – conflict is now the norm, but civil wars are often internationalised, making them fiercely complex to resolve.

As a result, traditional peace architectures no longer enjoy the political weight and backing they need to succeed. Peacekeepers left Mali last year and have begun a drawdown in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo as a new phase of violence surges. Sudan and Myanmar saw political transitions give way to devastating, violent conflict. Yemen, Syria, and Libya ostensibly maintain UN peace processes, but these processes are in stasis, while the conflicts remain unstable. States that traditionally funded peace processes and operations face budget constraints and political priorities that constrain their diplomatic capacities.

The response to a challenging mediation environment and resource scarcity has been to reduce ambitions. De-escalating violence and accepting ugly or negative “peace” is increasingly seen as the realistic solution – a base from which to build towards more inclusive and sustainable peace. But all too often, when de-escalation is achieved, local and international actors disengage, effectively removing any chance of sustainable peace.

Renewed and sustained political will to pursue peace in its various forms is needed. Even an ugly peace can’t be sustained without it. 

This approach condemns millions to a life in unresolved conflicts, plagued by violence, displacement, and uncertainty. It leaves populations in acute humanitarian need, especially where aid budgets fail to come close to meeting needs. Moving away from life-saving aid is complicated when violence – or the risk of it – remains, and the conditions for development, good governance, transitional justice, and return of the displaced are out of reach. Conflict is also a major driver of poverty. By 2030, 60% of the world's poor will be those living in fragile and conflict-affected states (FCS). As the world fulfils the ambitions set out in the Sustainable Development Goals, those living in FCS are being left behind.

Renewed and sustained political will to pursue peace in its various forms is needed. Even an ugly peace can’t be sustained without it. Reframing the nature, complexity, and depth of the problems – and processes to remedy them – may help secure the necessary support.

Where we can do better

While ceasefire negotiations are a meaningful first step toward lasting peace, they should not be conflated with a successful peace agreement. Doing so risks diverting vital attention away before sustainable or lasting peace is secured.

An excellent example is the Pretoria Ceasefire Agreement that brought fighting to an end in Ethiopia's Tigray region. It did end immediate conflict and allowed aid access, but the deal’s limited terms failed to resolve the underlying political and social schisms that caused the conflict, provide justice or accountability for the victims, or remedy the conflict’s impacts. According to peacebuilders working in the country, the agreement has a limited shelf-life and will likely be superseded by renewed fighting despite being widely touted as a successful peace deal.

Similarly, conflicts where a “minimum acceptable level of violence”, “de-escalation”, or a freeze in the fighting are achieved should not be mistaken for anything other than less violent active wars.

The solution to a protracted humanitarian crisis in an unresolved conflict is not just more aid. It has to also include more peace. 

The conflict in Ukraine’s eastern regions from 2014 was largely forgotten until Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, which not only brought war back to European soil, but enormous humanitarian impacts in the immediate region, as well as knock-on effects elsewhere. The recent global focus on the Houthis’ actions in the Red Sea has been treated as separate from Yemen's conflict, which moved from “frozen” to forgotten alongside last year’s Saudi-Iran diplomatic thaw. As did Syria’s now-13-year conflict when the Arab League readmitted an unreformed Bashar al-Assad after last February's devastating earthquake. 

With nominal regional containment thought by many to be an adequate fix, peace processes often lie dormant, and the conflicts they sought to resolve are no longer actively managed. Their symptoms are addressed only when they intermittently reach newspaper front pages.

Successful transition to sustainable and lasting peace after civil war or political upheaval requires sustained attention. In post-uprising Sudan, for example, political transition and peacebuilding support waned long before a successful transition occurred. In Myanmar, premature enthusiasm and complacency about progress on the “peace process” gave way to a genocide against the Rohingya population, and then a coup that has thrown the country back into violent turmoil. Plunged back into active conflict, neither country now benefits from adequate international attention in pursuit of resolving these drastic consequences.

While not all protracted humanitarian crises are conflict-related, many are. Where they are, the use of the term “protracted crisis” has the effect of neutralising the problem, divorcing it from the political decisions or indecisions that created it. Moreover, delivering humanitarian aid and securing access in protracted crises often necessitates deeply politicised policy choices or negotiations.

The solution to a protracted humanitarian crisis in an unresolved conflict is not just more aid. It has to also include more peace. Failing to be clear about this helps to hide the real problems and adds to the pre-existing complacency around conflict resolution and management. Furthermore, long-term aid programming that is divorced from the conflict’s context and its drivers can undermine the prognosis for peace. For more on this, look no further than the well-documented concerns seen in Syria’s aid response.

Language alone will not resolve these conflicts or sharpen the policy tools used to address them. However, securing the diplomatic and political engagement – and funding – for successful peace processes and peacebuilding efforts requires us to be far more explicit about the task ahead before it's too late.

Edited by Will Worley.

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.