Inequality Primary Cause of Wars, says Annan
By Thalif Deen, InterPress Service, 9 September 1999
UNITED NATIONS, Sep 9 (IPS) - Wars are not caused by poverty, although poor nations are far more likely to be embroiled in armed conflicts than rich ones, according to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
"Poverty per se appears not be the decisive factor (for war) because most poor countries live in peace most of the time," argues Annan in his 43-page annual report to the 54th session of the UN General Assembly which opens Sep 14.
Titled "Report of the Secretary-General on the Work of the Organisation," the study says that, the causes of war inherently are more difficult to explain than those of natural events.
Annan's report cites a recent study completed by the Tokyo-based UN University which shows that countries affected by war typically also suffer from inequality among domestic social groups.
"It is this, rather than poverty, that seems to be the critical factor," Annan says.
This inequality may be based on ethnicity, religion, national identity or economic class but "it tends to be reflected in unequal access to political power that too often forecloses paths to peaceful change," he adds.
Annan also asserts that economic decline is strongly associated with violent conflict, not least because the politics of a shrinking economy are more conflictual than those of economic growth.
The widespread rise of "identity politics", coupled with the fact that fewer than 20 percent of the UN's 185 member states are ethnically homogeneous, means that political demagogues have little difficulty finding targets of opportunity and mobilising support for chauvinist causes, he says.
"The upsurge of ethnic cleansing in the 1990s provides stark evidence of the appalling human costs that this vicious exploitation of identity politics can generate," Annan warns.
The annual report points out that, during 1998, the world was subjected both to horrors of war and devastation by natural disasters. Armed conflicts broke out anew in Angola, Guinea- Bissau, Kashmir and Kosovo, and between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
At the same time, there were ongoing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan, among others.
In a report released last year, the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict said the cost to the international community of the seven major wars in the 1990s, excluding Kosovo, was about 200 billion dollars. This is in addition to the costs to the countries actually at war.
Annan says he subscribes to the Commission's argument that most of these costs could have been saved if greater attention had been paid to prevention.
The year 1998 was also the worst on record for weather-related natural disasters: floods, storms, forest fires and earthquakes.
The UN report says that in the 1960s natural disasters caused some 52 billion dollars in damage while in the 1990s the costs escalated to a staggering 479 billion dollars.
More effective prevention strategies would not only save tens of billions of dollars, but hundreds of thousands of lives as well.
"Funds currently spent on intervention and relief could be devoted to enhancing equitable and sustainable development instead, which would further reduce the risks of war and disaster," he notes.
Annan says that one of the more encouraging developments of the last decade has been an increase in the number of negotiated settlements of ongoing conflicts.
Three times as many peace agreements were signed in the 1990s as in the previous three decades, reflecting a more than 30 percent decline in the overall number and intensity of armed conflicts worldwide from 1992 to 1997.
"With the sharp upturn in the number of wars in 1998, however, it seems doubtful that the positive trend of the previous five years will be sustained," Annan complains.
While the crisis in Kosovo has dominated global media headlines during the past year, equally or more serious crises in other parts of the world have been largely ignored, he says.
"If this neglect were restricted to the media it would not be of great consequence, but media inattention reflects the attitude of much of the international community, as has become evident in the decline in support for humanitarian appeals for Africa," he says.
Arguing that it is better and cheaper to prevent crises before they break out, Annan quotes an ancient proverb which says "it is difficult to find money for medicine, but easy to find it for a coffin."
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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