The term “civil war” is not modern, as its usage goes back to the first century BC to describe the internecine wars of the Roman Republic. Ever since, the term has been used to describe all conflicts that occur under the umbrella of a single entity, be it a tribe, city, or state.
Currently, a civil war is regarded as an armed conflict between organised groups within the same country or between two countries that were at some point a unified nation. The conflict may be motivated by the desire of a group to separate in order to form its own state, change the country’s policy or to take over power. Often in the ensuing conflict a regular army is on one side. Such conflicts usually result in large numbers of casualties, in addition to a significant loss of resources in the battle zone and the destruction of infrastructure.
These conflicts also result in significant failures in services and a paralysis of public facilities, accompanied by the emigration of the population to other regions within the same country or to neighbouring countries. Development plans slow down in such conflicts and organised crime flourishes.
In recent decades most armed conflicts were intra-state rather than inter-state - between one country and another. Despite the large losses that take place in the conflict zone, civil wars have serious implications on the stability and well-being of the region in which they occur.
These conflicts may also lead to foreign interventions and may well ignite the fire of a regional war, especially when the different parties have foreign, ethnic, religious, or sectarian extensions.
Approaching civil wars and addressing their causes and consequences varies from time to time and from one place to another. On the official level, the UN Charter granted the Security Council the power to intervene in internal conflicts when these conflicts become a source of danger to global peace and security.
The UN’s Charter Chapter VII allows the Council — after a series of steps included in the items listed in this chapter — the right to issue instructions to carry out military operations by air and sea and to despatch military troops to stop the risks that result in the continuation of the conflict. However, these powers are only executed to the extent that meets the requirements of the permanent members of the Security Council and not the clashing parties in the conflict.
The end of the Cold War era provided real opportunities for international organisations to carry out their tasks to end intra-state armed conflicts in an effective manner after the decline of these conflicts between the two political poles that existed at the time of the Cold War.
In the period between 1989 and 2006, the Security Council adopted 617 resolutions related to 27 civil conflicts among 44 countries that took place during that period in which 1,988 warring parties took part.
The UN Council’s efforts were not focused on ending civil wars as much as they were primarily concerned with urging conflicting parties to come up with reforms through political and constitutional changes to remove the causes that led to the conflict in the first place, in line with the outcome of the end of the Cold War, namely the atmosphere of freedom and human rights, which require political and social reforms.
Resorting to civil war is the optimum solution used against a government or a ruling group which has violated the rights of people and citizens in self-determination which is a part of the UN Charter. Moreover, the French Revolution’s Constitution of 1793 addressed this issue before others.
There are differences and lack of agreement on the features that characterise civil wars. It is not surprising that we do not find standards of international credibility to judge the nature of armed conflict and the classification of their degree. Nonetheless, some organisations concerned with world peace have set up a number of standards and categories in this respect.
The Global Peace Institute is an independent US institute in New York City tasked with preventing conflicts between countries and within countries. It has prepared an extensive study of all the civil wars that have attracted the attention of the Security Council over two decades. In the light of this research, the institute set a criteria to judge the nature of conflicts. They also defined civil war as an armed conflict involving two or more parties where at least 500 causalities occur annually and the government is a major part in the conflict.
The bloody conflicts in a number of countries in the region fall under the category of civil wars in terms of the number of victims who fall annually and the fact that these conflicts threaten regional security, and that current international circumstances allow these wars to accelerate and sustain.
It seems the Cold War years had only left us temporarily. Today, we are witnessing one of the most savage and ferocious civil wars in Syria. It has been ongoing for the past three years and the Security Council is not able to do anything but to stand idly watching its devastating flames. This conflict has its impact on neighbouring countries that are also suffering as a result of the return of the Cold War atmosphere.
Dr Mohammad Akef Jamal is an Iraqi writer based in Dubai.