by Dan Jones
In the seven decades that Colombia has been riven by civil war, the country has seen kidnappings, rapes, terrorist attacks and pitched battles that have cost more than 220,000 lives and displaced millions of people. Negotiations, peace accords and ceasefires have come and gone to little lasting effect.
The latest round of this seemingly unending cycle began in August 2012, when the Marxist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) agreed to meet with the central government in yet another round of peace talks. But the negotiations collapsed in November after the rebels kidnapped a Colombian army general. The talks have since resumed, but even if they one day yield a peace accord, there is no guarantee it will hold. More than one-third of the world’s peace agreements and ceasefires since the 1950s have relapsed into violence within five years.
Colombia’s long history of strife is a classic example of ‘intractable’ conflict — a self-perpetuating cycle of hostility that can grind on for decades. Such conflicts are relatively scarce — only about 5% of the world’s myriad wars qualify — but their longevity means that they exert a huge toll on societies. Their tragic poster child is the 68-year-long Israeli–Palestinian conflict. But the list also includes India and Pakistan’s equally long battle over Kashmir, and Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been riven by conflict since 1996, as has South Sudan since its inception in 2011. Any number of intractable conflicts may now be emerging in the Middle East as Libya, Syria and Iraq are ripped apart by sectarian violence and with the rise of the Islamist group ISIS (see ‘Intractable conflicts’). The intensifying civil war in eastern Ukraine may eventually join the list as well.
By definition, these are the conflicts that are resistant to all the mainstream techniques of dispute resolution, says Robert Ricigliano, a mediation expert at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. Typically they are plagued by a history of “fixes that fail”, he says — peace agreements that collapse within days or weeks. “We mediate agreements, change leaders, arbitrate boundaries,” he says. “But those things don’t necessarily get at the underlying dynamics fuelling conflict.”
He and a growing chorus of other conflict researchers have therefore been pushing for a fresh approach — one that views intractable conflicts as dynamic, complex systems similar to cells, ant colonies or cities, and analyses them with the mathematical and computational tools developed over the past 30 years in complexity science.