It’s not really a matter of hate

A BBC Television report on Northern Ireland ‘s transition into a new era of self-rule under a government of unity felt obliged to warn viewers that the old hatreds have not vanished.[i] Or, as the BBC’s website puts it, “Old enmities have been foregone, rather than forgiven or forgotten. It is just that [the old enemies] have decided jointly to manage the present.”[ii]

Well, even “foregoing” the active prosecution of enmity, despite its ongoing presence, is a cause for celebration when active cooperation is the substitute behaviour. And just as cooperation between two communities does not require that they be linked by love, war between communities does not require that they be divided by hate.

A recent report in the Washington Post,[iii]unrelated to the happy events in Northern Ireland, makes that point by refering to the work of the American scholar Barbara F. Walter and her findings that it is wariness or a lack of trust rather than hatred that prolongs armed conflicts.[iv]

Communities and regions that find themselves in bitter armed conflict have usually lived harmoniously together for generations, even centuries, and when they come to blows the cause is not innate hatred but is invariably linked to a range of changed economic and political conditions that cast doubt on the reliability of hitherto trusted public institutions to mediate competing interests.

Communal identity remains a prominent factor in contemporary wars, but more as a product than a cause of conflict. When states fail, when they lose their capacity to maintain stability and meet the security needs of their citizens, the first casualty is trust in public institutions. With growing doubt that those public institutions really have the interests of their families and communities at heart, people appeal to other social and political entities, notably ethnic communities, through which to pursue individual and collective security.

And when mistrust of public institutions extends to security forces, including the police, then private and community militias inevitably emerge – illustrating an advanced stage of state failure, namely the loss of the state’s monopoly on the resort to force.

The point is persuasively, and tragically, illustrated in the conflict and chaos that have gripped much of Somalia for almost two decades now. Here is a people that has lived together in peace for centuries. One has to be careful not to romanticize the past, of course. Somali history is actually conflict ridden in the sense that it is a region inhabited by nomads and farmers that have always had to compete for access to land and water in harsh conditions, but it is a history of conflict that also produced a sophisticated set of communal (clan) institutions to mediate conflicts and to prevent disintegration and chaos.

But when national leadership developed that did not support the delicate diffusion of power among the country’s multiple clan communities, the result was a wholesale distrust of national institutions that led to their eventual overthrow. And since then, the “civil war” in Somalia has not been about venting old hatred or about competition for power – it has really been a fight to prevent any group from acquiring inordinate power and to prevent the emergence of any national authority or institutions that would be open to manipulation in support of some at the expense of others.

Conflicts in which the rights and political/social viability of particular communities are central issues are not evidence of ethnic chauvinism or of hatred for “the other”. Such conflicts are reflections of a more fundamental social conflict, borne out of a community’s experience of economic inequity, political discrimination, human rights violations, and pressures generated by environmental degradation. Identity conflicts emerge with intensity when a community loses confidence in mainstream political institutions and processes and, in response to unmet basic needs for social and economic security, resolves to strengthen its collective influence and to struggle for political recognition as a community.

In Afghanistan , in other words, achieving relative peace is not a matter of overcoming age-old hatreds; it is more a matter of addressing communal and regional wariness. The southern Pashtun are of course wary of a Kabul Government that has been constructed in such a way that it is regarded as unable, or at least unlikely, to understand and cater to the needs and interests of all Afghans.

You don’t defeat that wariness; it has to be dispelled through concrete acts of inclusion and accommodation. Military commanders, Afghan and NATO, make the point, over and over again, that the struggle in Afghanistan is not ultimately a military struggle, but neither they nor their respective political masters have yet managed the wit or the will to give priority to the non-military struggle.

Behind ethnic or communal or regional conflicts are basic economic, social, and political grievances. Failure to redress them has made group solidarity an increasingly attractive political strategy, throw some religious zeal and easy-to-use and easy-to-get small arms into the mix and the result is persistent social/political chaos and public violence – conditions that can be expected to bestir hatred, but that makes it a symptom not a cause.

Does it make a difference that conflict is much more likely to be rooted in distrust than hate? Yes it does – a lot. It means solving conflict doesn’t require a change in human nature, just in human institutions. And institutions can be built, and built to function according to agreed rules – and when they do, they become conveyors and purveyors of public trust.


[i] May 8, 2005 BBC World News, WNED TV New York.

[ii] Kevin Connolly, “A benchmark for improbability,” BBC News, March 8, 2007 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/northern_ireland/6636371.stm).

[iii] Shankar Vedantam, “Wariness, Not Hatred, Keep Civil Wars Raging,” Washington Post, May 7, 2007 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/06/AR200705…).

[iv] The particular study cited by Vedantam is not cited, but brief references to the work of Barbara F. Walter are available at http://www.princeton.edu/politics/people/bios/index.xml?netid=bwalter.

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