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The Heinous Humanitarian Cost of Modern Warfare

By Danny Kleschick


International armed conflict has subtly shifted in modern times from interstate warfare to regionalized conflict. Whereas the two World Wars, as well as the Cold War, were largely fought along national lines and between warring countries, this type of interstate warfare is far less common in the modern world with the advancement of free trade and international peace treaties. With several exceptions (the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russian intervention in Crimea and threats of aggression between the U.S. and North Korea as well as Iran, and India and Pakistan) the threat of large scale war between two states has largely diminished. With this diminution, the dangers of large scale World Wars and nuclear warfare has also waned since the Cold War.

While wars between states has declined, intrastate warfare, or conflict between competing political or ethnic groups within a nation, has steadily increased as the more common form of warfare. While these conflicts are generally smaller in scope than the world wide wars that marked the first half of the 20th century, they arguably inflict more damage upon populations in total. Most worryingly, the humanitarian effects of conflicts of this nature are horrifyingly more severe than at the beginning of the century.

Adverse humanitarian effects of war can be defined as the byproducts of conflict that affect non-combatant populations. The unique nature of modern skirmishes within nations among rival militias and governments has drastically increased war’s harmful effects on civilian populations globally. This is due to several factors, including the changing nature of the targets in warfare, advancements in weapon technology and availability, and increased proximity of noncombatant populations to conflict.

Previously, war between two or more nations had the aim of weakening the governments of rival countries. This meant targeting primarily the military forces and resources of a country. Because modern warfare is now often times between competing ethnic or political factions within a nation, all persons identified as belonging to a rival group are susceptible to being targets. This shift has seen a rapid increase in civilian deaths throughout the 20th century, from a mere 5% of all casualties in World War I, to 65% in World War II to an astonishing 90% in the 1990s [1]. This atrocious tendency is compounded by populations being in far closer proximity to conflicts than before [1]. Battles are now fought in cities and towns, rather than along borders where civilian populations can be cleared from.

Examples of this type of systematic targeting of noncombatants can largely be found from the 1990s on, from the Rwandan Genocide in which any and all members of the Tutsi ethnic group were targeted by the majority Hutus, to the Syrian conflict of today in which all civilian populations residing in rebel areas have been targets of chemical and conventional weapon abuse [2]. These conflicts have been marked by a caustic lack of discrimination in targets, in which women and children find themselves in severe danger of being targeted along with combatants. Civilian populations are not only at risk of death, but women and girls are also increasingly targets of sexual abuse and children are at danger of being conscripted into child soldier forces [3]. Due to the battles taking place in cities and heavily populated areas, these interstate conflicts have also given rise to the mass levels of refugee and asylum displacement seen on a global scale. Currently one of every 122 persons in the world, or about 65.6 millions people in total, is either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum due to conflict [4]. Of the 22.5 million current refugees in the world, 55% originate from three countries marked by internal conflict in the past years, Afghanistan, Syria and South Sudan [4].

The changing nature of conflicts has drastic adverse effects that continue far after conflicts have been resolved. Following the resolution of violent conflicts in developing nations, the winning side who either remains or assumes power typically maintains control over both the majority of arms and political systems. This means that although the horrors of armed conflict diminish, persecution of rival ethnic factions can continue. This can include prohibiting access to humanitarian aid and resources, education and economic opportunities to rival populations [3].



Even when conflict can be resolved in order to attempt a re-amalgamation of a society, war that affect affect civilian populations and cities pose far more difficulty of recovery for the people and economies of a nation. The harms of PTSD have been well documented within military personnel, however when non-combatants as well as combatants are exposed to the atrocities of warfare, these lasting psychological damage of deadly conflict in a society are far worsened. Furthermore, the damage that internal warfare inflicts upon physical infrastructure as well as internal and foreign investment into a national economy is severely aggravated.

The worsening effects of war upon civilian populations in modern conflict reflects an alarming turn and a necessity to promote non-violent and democratic conflict resolution. Conflict and disagreement among opposing factions of society are inevitable, however when they are combined with a lack of democratic systems and a wide distribution of arms, the likelihood of these divisions turning violent dramatically increases. The majority of these modern conflicts that inflict so much damage involve small arms and light weapons rather than large weapons systems, and appear in nations where there is a marked lack of democracy. Instilling democracy and a secure distribution and control of arms can ensure that differences of opinions are resolved through debate and legislation, rather than violent conflict. Peaceful conflict resolution is to the benefit of every faction of society, both during times of conflict and for the lasting development of nations.

[1] “Patterns in conflict: Civilians are now the target.” Unicef.org. Accessed November 14, 2017. https://www.unicef.org/graca/patterns.htm.

[2] “The Rwandan Genocide.” United to End Genocide. 2006. Accessed November 14, 2017. http://endgenocide.org/learn/past-genocides/the-rwandan-genocide/.

[3] “The Humanitarian Impact of Small Arms and Light Weapons and the Threat to Security.” Mogire, Edward Mogire. 2004. Accessed October 21, 2017. http://www.lincei.it/rapporti/amaldi/papers/XV-Mogire.pdf

[4] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Figures at a Glance.” UNHCR. Accessed November 14, 2017. http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html.

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