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War recedes, but turns crueler

The world is getting to be a more peaceful place. In the last 10 years, conflicts in Angola, Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nepal, Kosovo, East Timor, Liberia, to name just a few have been resolved, notes Jan Egeland, former emergency relief coordinator at the U.N. But at the same time, those wars that still drag on or burst to life—Colombia, Darfur, Iraq—are proving more intractable and more cruel. Egeland argues that wars have turned crueler simply because the majority of them are not being waged between nations, rather they are civil and internecine wars. "Civil wars are crueler because they are fought amongst civilian populations," he said. And although the U.N. is doing a good job of keeping people fed during such violence, according to Egeland, the international community is not doing a good job of protecting people after they have been fed, a lesson unlearned even after similar massacres in Bosnia in the 1990s. Nor are those places outside the English-speaking world, such as French- and Portuguese-speaking African nations, receiving the help they need. Technology helps these conflicts persist; Egeland showed a picture of a soldier in the northern Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army—wreaking havoc via kidnapped child soldiers since 1987—powering an untraceable satellite phone with solar photovoltaic cells. The problem of war can be solved, Egeland insists, despite the centuries of failure that refute him. "It's a question of political will." Whether that political will can be mustered or not, climate change and other environmental problems may undo the peace work of the last several decades. To take the current genocide in Darfur: over the last 30 years farmers had taken up more and more of the available land in that dry region, living in an uneasy peace with nomadic herders, according to Andrew Morton, a program manager for the U.N. Environment Programme. As rains became even more sporadic, the two groups came into conflict over diminishing resources, a conflict that spiraled out of control beginning in 2003. With more climate changes in store, the problem of environmental wars could spiral out of control, too.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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