The most important step in ending the world’s civil wars (there are no interstate wars these days) is to move from low-level fighting to a cease-fire agreement. Lately the world is making some progress in that regard, though with some movement backward as well.
Start with the progress.
In Burma (Myanmar), the government, as part of a general move toward (some) democracy and liberalization, has vowed to reach cease-fires in its ethnic wars, which have dragged on for decades along the borders. The most important, the Karen (Karin) ethnic group, signed a cease-fire with the government in January and, after some further fighting, a stronger cease-fire agreement last Friday (photo above). However, another ethnic group, the Kachin, has been fighting the government since a 17-year cease-fire broke down last June. China has backed the Burmese government and bought a lot of wood, minerals, and other natural resources there. China’s interests are in secure trade through quiet border regions, which cease-fires promote. (China does worry that Burma’s reforms are drawing it toward the west; Britain’s prime minister will visit Burma this week.)
In India, some similar little armed conflicts have also dragged on for decades. India’s government periodically battles several secessionists in the northeast, several Maoist groups in the southeast, and Islamist militants in Kashmir in the west. A few weeks ago the government and one Maoist group began observing a cease-fire and the Maoists named three negotiators to talk with the government. The Kashmir conflict used to cause skirmishing between India and Pakistan’s regular armies, but that has become rare. Today Pakistan’s president even visited India for brief talks, the first such visit in seven years.
In both Colombia and Peru recently, the government side has killed the rebel leader and greatly reduced the potency of the insurgency. What remains in each country is a drug trafficking gang with a thin veneer of political ideology. Peru’s war essentially ended many years ago, with unimportant remnants left, but Colombia suffered for decades with serious armed conflict until the recent years of lower violence. A cease-fire in Colombia could be within sight this year.
Less hopefully, there is a cease-fire at the moment in Mali. Ethnic Tuareg rebels have come home heavily armed from Libya, where they fought for Gaddafi, and seized the northern part of Mali, which they have declared independent. The government, trying to recovered from what seems likely to be a short-lived coup, has not mobilized to take back the territory with the help of the armies of ECOWAS countries (the West African regional organization). When it does, the war presumably will resume. The Tuareg rebels, with their Gaddafi connection and some al Qaeda fighters in their midst, are trying to violate the top principle of African countries since independence — no secessions by force. If the rebels are smart, they will try immediately for negotiations to retract their independence idea and work for autonomy, with local authorities and the central government sharing revenue. Since I’m not sure the rebels are that smart, the war will probably resume as ECOWAS takes back northern Mali for the restored civilian government of Mali.
In Somalia, there is definitely not a cease-fire, but the capital has enjoyed a resurgence since the government pushed out al Shabab rebels (fundamentalist Islamists affiliated with al Qaeda) last August with military force provided by the African Union. The government/AU offensive intensified in January. Ethiopian forces pushed back Somalia’s rebels on their side of the country, while Kenya pushed into Somalia on their side. The war continues, but the progress is welcome after so many years. The famine in southern Somalia has ended, although famine risk remains.
In Syria, there was supposed to be a cease-fire tomorrow, but the Assad regime is worming out of it as many expected. Now they say they won’t stop the killing until the opposition signs a pledge to stop violence and foreign countries promise not to send arms and support to the Syrian rebels. The opposition Free Syrian Army should have called the government’s bluff and signed off to stop violence when the government does, but instead they refused to sign. So that conflict grinds on, as do the diplomatic efforts of the UN/Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to solve it.
In Gaza, the militant group Islamic Jihad, which had been fighting with Israel recently, declared a cease-fire on Friday. The larger group Hamas, which controls Gaza, was already in a cease-fire with Israel and did not participate in the recent fighting (airstrikes on Gaza and rocket attacks on Israel).
In Libya, last week a cease-fire ended ethnic fighting that had killed about 150 people in a southern city. The war in Libya is over but violence still breaks out as militias from different towns jockey for control.
In Afghanistan, as far as is publicly known, peace talks never really got off the ground, and there is no prospect for a cease-fire in sight. Pakistan is similarly far from a cease-fire. Other, lower-scale conflicts grind along, as in southern Sudan, northern Nigeria, and (still) Iraq. But the world continues to inch toward peace as the 21st century unfolds.