Welcome back! This is our second post reviewing armed conflict around the world in 2014. In our first installment we discussed Ukraine, Islamic State, and weapons development over the past year. In this installment we focus on militant organizations like Boko Haram and Al Shabaab, international criminal law, and conflicts between states.
On April 14, 2014, the Islamic militant group Boko Haram abducted 276 Nigerian schoolgirls in the town of Chibok, Nigeria. The group, established in 2002 and designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State in 2013, seeks to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria governed by Sharia law. The abduction sparked one of the year’s most prolific and powerful social media campaigns demanding the release of the girls and accountability for those responsible. United by the message #BringBackOurGirls, political leaders, prominent social figures, and citizens throughout the world have campaigned for the return of the girls.
In May, the United States deployed 80 military personnel to serve as advisors to the Nigerian government and assist with search and rescue efforts. Despite the escape of over 50 of the girls in Boko Haram’s custody and ongoing negotiations, hundreds are still being held by the group. Since April, Boko Haram has abducted hundreds more, most recently kidnapping 185 women and children in a northeast Nigerian village on December 18th.
Boko Haram is now expanding its campaign of terror beyond the Nigerian borders; the militants attacked a military unit in Cameroon as well as nearby villages, which encouraged Cameroon to fight back and launch airstrikes against Boko Haram. It looks like a regional approach may be useful in the continuing conflict with Boko Haram.
Al Shabaab is an al Qaeda linked militia fighting to establish an Islamic state in Somalia, where it controls territory in the southwestern part of the country. It is one of the latest contenders in the decades long civil war, which has claimed over a quarter million lives. Al Shabaab is responsible for countless bombings and attacks in both Somalia and neighboring Kenya, leaving thousands of civilians dead or injured. Following al Shabaab’s deadly attack last year on a Kenyan mall, in May of 2014 the group launched a suicide bomb attack on a restaurant popular with foreigners in Djibouti, causing 20 deaths.
The Somali government, with the support of international forces, has made significant progress in retaking territory from al Shabaab. The United States continues a persistent drone campaign against senior al Shabaab commanders and figures. These drone strikes killed al Shabaab commander and spiritual leader Sahal Iskudhuq as well as al Shabaab leader Ahmed Godane. However, continued al Shabaab suicide attacks and targeted killings in central Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, suggest that the group may have sustainable asymmetric warfare capabilities even as their territorial hold on the country loosens.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has a history of civil war and political corruption which has made life extremely difficult for its citizens. Although the government of the DRC reached a peace deal with the powerful M23 rebel group in December 2013, there are currently at least ten militant groups active in the DRC and civilians face ongoing violence. The Allied Democratic Forces and the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF), an armed rebel group in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have repeatedly directed attacks against civilians despite DRC military efforts to control the group; more than 200 civilians have been killed since October 2014. Fighting is not only limited to within the DRC, as the conflict has also been active along the Rwandan and Ugandan borders.
Despite the ongoing violence, there are positive developments in accountability for crimes committed against civilians during the armed conflict. In May, the International Criminal Court (ICC) sentenced Congolese militia leader Germain Katanga to twelve years for his role in a massacre of civilians in 2003 in which more than 200 civilians were brutally killed. Also, a DRC military court sentenced two soldiers to life in prison for their part in a mass rape by Congolese soldiers in 2012.
The country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has been engulfed in bitter ethnic violence for over four decades. The government continues to fight a protracted civil war with the Kachin hill people in Northern Myanmar. The Kachin people are mostly Christian in the Buddhist nation of Myanmar. They have a unique culture and language and want their own independent Kachin State. Peace talks, although ongoing, gave way to further violence throughout 2014. The international community has expressed concern over several issues, including the use of child soldiers by both rebel groups and the Myanmar government.
There is also significant international attention on the plight of the Rohingya people in Western Myanmar. The UN has expressed concern over the persecution of the predominantly Muslim Rohingya by Myanmar Buddhists. Especially concerning were attacks on offices of aid workers and international organizations providing relief to the Rohingya. Further complicating the desperate situation is the influence of al Qaeda and the Taliban on Rohingya militias fighting for independence.
Around 7,700 people were killed in Yemen due to armed conflict in 2014. A complicated array of forces are battling for power in the country–primarily the Houthi rebels, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the government. While the conflict raged on throughout the year, violence stepped up notably toward the end of the year; after protesting increased fuel prices in August, the Houthis overran the capital of Sanaa in September and appeared to control about 70 percent of the army’s capabilities. A deal was signed between the rebels and the president and a new government was sworn in but the situation remains unstable. At the end of the year turmoil increased when a U.S.-led rescue attempt resulted in the death of two al Qaeda hostages, fifteen school children were killed when a car bomb went off near a school bus, and a suicide bomb on December 31st killed at least 26.
While the Economist called Tunisia its country of the year for 2014, its editors noted that if Colombia’s peace process remains on track it will be a favorite for 2015. And it should be since peace negotiations in Colombia are not easy and have collapsed before.
It is hard to pin a date for the beginning of Colombia’s armed conflict, but since 1958 the violence in Colombia has claimed the lives of over 218,000 people – of which 81% were civilians. This figure pales in comparison to the over five million persons the conflict has displaced inside Colombia. In its most current form, the conflict is said to have begun in 1964, when the Fuerzas Armadas de Colombia (FARC) and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) came into being. At the time, both espoused a socialist agenda and were leftovers of a previous violent period known simply as La Violencia. Because of its size, FARC is the crucial player in any peace process; but, importantly, both sustain much of their operations through drug trafficking operations so it seems likely that this is an issue that must be settled with both groups.
Like most war afflicted countries, Colombia is not a basket case; the year that ended saw it become Latin America’s fastest-growing big economy. If the peace negotiations remain on track, Colombia should be in a good place to implement reforms after a peace deal. The challenges, however, are massive. Authorities estimate that reconstruction and development of the countryside is bound to cost some $16 to 32 billion over ten years.
War returned to Gaza this summer. On May 15th, two Palestinian teenagers were killed by sniper fire after protests on al-Nakba (also known as Catastrophe Day). Mounting tension over these deaths led to the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers one month later; after the bodies of the Israeli teenagers were found, a third Palestinian teenager was killed in retaliation in early July. Violent protests and rocket fire led to Israel launching Operation Protective Edge on July 8th, which consisted primarily of air strikes in Gaza (and later a ground operation targeting tunnels that extended from Gaza into Israel). Hamas continued to launch rockets toward Israel–many of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome Missile Defense System. Airstrikes in Gaza hit beaches, homes, schools, a hospital, an electric plant, and a refugee camp; many strikes wounded and killed civilians.
The hostilities continued for the rest of the summer until Egypt mediated a successful ceasefire on August 26th. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, after 50 days of fighting, over 2,100 Palestinians had died and the Israeli death toll was 69.
“The record suggests,” according to an editorial in the Washington Post, that the International Criminal Court (ICC) “lacks the clout to pursue cases in places where regimes remain in place and conflicts are unresolved.” While the decision to abandon the case against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, may support this assertion, it does not provide a complete picture of international criminal law today. For instance, the decision to discontinue the investigation of crimes in Western Darfur, may have more to do with the lack of support the ICC received from the UN Security Council, which first referred the situation to the prosecutor. But the ICC still has its supporters; 2014 ended with the Palestinian Authority accepting the court’s jurisdiction.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) docket added new cases related to nuclear weapons. The Marshall Islands, worried because dozens of nuclear weapons were tested in its territory during the Cold War decided, decades later, to sue nuclear weapon states before the ICJ. Although the docket currently lists only cases against the UK, India, and Pakistan, reports suggest the claim aims to reach all nuclear weapons states. The tiny archipelagic state also brought suit against the United States in domestic court, naming Barack Obama the defendant in a suit filed in San Francisco. While the U.S. suit will likely be thrown out of court, the ICJ cases are likely to move forward; memorials are expected in early 2015.
Feuds between States
2014 saw continued disputes between states over territory in what could be called international armed conflicts. Many of these disputes – like in Ukraine – resulted in the loss of territorial control by governments and even occupation by foreign forces.
Cyprus continues to be divided, with the northern half of the island declaring itself independent through the support of Turkey as the Turkish Republic of Cyprus. Although it has de facto autonomy, few states recognize its existence, and a United Nations peacekeeping force has monitored an uneasy truce since the 1980s.
Former nations within the Warsaw Pact also contain pseudo-autonomous territories. In Georgia, the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia maintain de facto autonomy as self-declared states with the support of Russia. Both territories gained autonomy after the Russia-Georgia War in 2008. Similarly, Transnistria declared independence from Moldova shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union and remains another pro-Russian territory in the region.
Morocco continues its three decade occupation of Western Sahara, its southern neighbor. Western Sahara, a former colony of Spain, was acquired by the Moroccan monarchy during the turbulent aftermath of decolonization. There is little international recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, and Morocco continues to wage a low intensity war with the Sahrawi nationalists based out of refugee camps in neighboring Algeria.
Finally, the region of Kashmir continues to be a flashpoint between India and Pakistan. Both states were a single entity as a colony of the United Kingdom, but partitioned on religious boundaries when independence was achieved in the early twentieth century. However, the fate of Kashmir, having a mixed population, was never resolutely decided. The region is occupied by both India and Pakistan, and has suffered frequent skirmishes over the past century. The rise of religious extremism in recent years complicated the issue as militant insurgents have also taken root in the region.