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The Place of Conflict in Our Times

Wilbeme H. Persaud
Senior Lecturer
Department of Economics
The University of the West Indies
St. Andrew, Jamaica

Conflict and its resolution have been at the centre of human society from its very beginnings. Indeed there may be said to be a central place for conflict in nature-in its most basic sense, that in effect there are systems in place in the natural world which depend on conflict and its resolution for growth and continuity.

Today, for the man in the street, the easiest way to grasp the idea of conflict, is to ponder the possibility of global annihilation, MAD-mutually assured destruction-which the Cold War and the proliferation of nuclear weapons unleashed on the modem world. Or to consider that several nations in the world possess chemical and biological weapons, that could lead to untold suffering, -mutation in human species, malfunctioning of reproductive systems and the like-

Much of the world's scarce brainpower is today dedicated to dealing with war and its effects, political and ethnic violence, the task of brokering peace, making it lasting and delivering justice to humankind in all sorts of conflicts. The common names one recalls today include, Ireland, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Israel and Palestine, the Hutu just to name a few. President Nelson Mandela's and Bishop Tutu's "Truth Commission" is also an -offshoot of conflict resolution. The problems attendant on conflict have become the focus of academic, policy-making, government and international bureaucracies of all types. Admittedly, the focus, or importance placed on this issue is not at all misplaced!

From-a 1987 conference dedicated to conflict and peacemaking in multiethnic societies, hosted by the Center for the study of Foreign Affairs at the Department of State's Foreign Service Institute, the proceedings of which have been published, some persuasive statistical evidence is noted:

"Since 1700 A.D., there have been 471 wars in which at least 1,000 people were killed. Ninety per cent of the approximately 1 00 million deaths recorded in these wars occurred after 1900. And there is a new trend evident. Since the end of World [so-called] War II, there has been only one "war"-the Soviet Hungarian conflict in 1956-in Europe. But as of 1989, some nineteen wars [1,000 plus deaths) are being fought in the Third World; and regardless of the ideological, dressing many of these conflicts wear, most have a strong ethnic and/or sectarian bias"[Emphasis added]

In addition we may note that Desert Storm and the several flare-ups in Africa occurred after these statistics were compiled. Further and more worrying, in the case of Africa, the partitioning by Europe has left a complex web of ethnic diversity parading as "countries" or some may prefer "nation-states".

At the individual level as well, conflict and resolution mechanisms are of critical importance. For if resolution mechanisms are not available the end result is usually violence and potentially death.

Apparently we can demonstrate that conflict appears to be rather more the norm than the exception. That it is constantly with us, that the available evidence suggests it is an issue badly needing to understood and for which remedies need to be found. What of its genesis? Why does conflict arise in the first place?

Take our first lesson form nature. Ever seen a group of animals-animals of any sort-when there is sufficient food, mates, water and in general the sustenance of life, to go around, things seem reasonably calm. But even so, they often will have rituals. These may have to do with mating behaviour. They may have to do with young/old differentiation. They may have to do with maintenance of the species. Whatever their genesis, discernible patterns of behaviour develop that we may loosely compare to our idea of culture and ethnicity. A kind of identifying imprint so to speak which differentiates one type/group of animals from another. They will tend not to fight among themselves arbitrarily except under stress.

So we may consider stress conditions as a predisposing environment for conflict. Perhaps we are correct. But in human affairs there is another apparently very important factor - ethnicity. We speak of a thing called the Nation-State. Now for this notion to mean anything and make any sense there really should be a coincidence of the boundary of the 61 state", the administrative juridical limits and that of the "nation", the ethnic group creating the state, making up the state. This is most often not so for a very large number of countries.

Often when issues such as the independence of a new state is to be determined, ethnicity begins to take precedence over other factors. The question really is: "Will my group be allowed to prosper?" If we feel not, then efforts, including violence must be made to secure our future. These conflicts are not likely to go away in the near future. Rather it appears they will have a tendency to multiply. Look to Africa, parts of the former Soviet Union, the so-called Middle East for the flash points.

Another potentially hazardous set of effects are those deriving from the over development of some areas of the world. Where material sustenance is no longer able to maintain wholeness and resort is made to mind altering substances-the illicit drug trade. The profits are so enormous and the demand so undying that "foraging" in this arena is bound to lead to escalating conflicts. These will involve nation states and the complex institutions we call drug cartels.

All indications are that creative approaches will have to be developed to deal with such conflicts, otherwise, the brutish element of some peoples' existence will not go away.


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