This memo was prepared for a WPF seminar on “New Wars, New Peace” held at the Fletcher School, January 12-13 2012. Part two of this memo can be found here.


Do the military and humanitarian frameworks for engaging in war zones apply to other “fragile” settings, like urban contexts experiencing high rates of organized violence—rates that often exceed those of more conventionally understood wars? What are the political and legal implications of treating such environments as “armed conflicts” or of continuing to understand them as public disturbances? What criteria can be mobilized to gauge the thresholds separating chronic violence and armed conflict? These and related questions are central to the applicability of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and Human Rights Law (HR) and are urgent questions for military, policing, humanitarian and development actors alike.

The Humanitarian Action in Situations Other than War (HASOW) project intends to tackle some of these questions in cities such as Ciudad Juarez, Medellin, Port-au-Prince and Rio de Janeiro.[i] Based out of the International Relations Institute (IRI) at the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, HASOW is assessing settings affected by persistent organized violence and their “tipping point” into outright armed conflict. Drawing on existing datasets and some field-based investigation, the team is applying a threefold normative framework that measures the (i) severity; (iii) organization and (iii) duration of organized violence. If a given setting surpasses context-specific thresholds of (i), (ii) and (iii) then it can be tentatively labeled as an armed conflict.

Global preoccupation with the supposed rise of urban violence and its implications for humanitarian action is increasing. The names of cities – Abidjan, Baghdad, Ciudad Juarez Gaza, Guatemala, Kingston, Nablus, Grozny, Rio de Janeiro, and San Pedro Sula – are becoming synonymous with a new kind of armed conflict.[ii] In the words of one analyst “urban zones are fast becoming new territories of conflict and violence”.[iii] Indeed, building on the seminal contributions of scholars such as Mary Kaldor and Stathis Kalyvas, the focus on “new”, “asymmetric” and “irregular” wars is a hallmark of twenty-first century humanitarianism. A key question that is often sidelined, however, is when do chronically violent settings constitute armed conflicts? Is war, as Clausewitz famously proclaimed “a chameleon” with the “the means employed … seen as simply changes in color – dramatic but not so far altering its fundamental nature”?[iv] Or are there “tipping” points that differentiate situations of extreme violence from those of outright armed conflict and warfare?

There are some commentators claiming that cities such as Ciudad Juarez, Medellin,  Port-au-Prince and Rio de Janeiro are seized by a new kind of war.[v] Such sentiments are sensationalized in the popular media and documented in a growing array of policy and scholarly literature.[vi] Moreover, a number of institutions such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Organization for American States (OAS), together with United Nations (UN) special envoys, have for their part characterized certain cities in Latin America and the Caribbean as facing what approximates “armed conflict” – even if only for analogical purposes.[vii] In what is arguably a more telling development,  influential humanitarian agencies ordinarily focused more narrowly on situations of war – including the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières – have set up major operations in these very same cities.[viii]

While a number of these cities are experiencing horrific rates of homicide and extra-judicial killings, there are important reasons to question whether the violence affecting these urban settings comprises armed conflict in a strict legal sense. Although Ciudad Juarez, Medellin, Port-au-Prince and Rio de Janeiro have each on occasion exhibited indices of armed violence that are analogous to war (e.g. crude measurements of 25 to 1,000 violent deaths a year, a metric used by conflict studies theorists), they are seldom described as confronting warfare in United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolutions. And notwithstanding declarations and pronunciations by concerned municipal authorities and local politicians that their cities are “war zones”, the Brazilian, Colombian, Haitian and Mexican Ministries of Foreign Affairs are understandably reluctant to classify their national situations as constituting anything approximating “armed conflict”.

Yet determining whether or not such settings are affected by “armed conflict” in a de jure sense is of profound practical importance. How a setting is classified has tremendous policy and programming relevance internationally and most obviously in the settings concerned. On the one hand, describing a situation of intense violence as residing below the armed conflict threshold can satisfy foreign and domestic state interests who wish to keep a low profile. For some multilateral and bilateral aid departments, it means that assistance can continue unfettered and political relations maintained. Likewise, for affected states, denying the existence of armed conflict facilitates unrestricted application of criminal law and police engagement which can persist uncomplicated by international humanitarian norms. In other words, it allows for a wide range of repressive activities to reduce “crime” to persist unabated.

As is well known amongst diplomats and humanitarian practitioners alike, there are serious implications that arise from the designation of a setting as affected by armed conflict. Indeed, the application of international humanitarian law can influence the dynamics of organized violence on the ground. Critics argue that their application can also potentially undermine public order and law enforcement models adopted by governments and their security apparatus. By declaring a setting at war and imposing the Geneva Conventions, it is also possible that non-derogable human rights norms may be watered-down.  For example, the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial can be undermined by legitimizing the killing of those participating in hostilities, irrespective of age or acts of self-defense.[ix]

Part Two can be found here.

Dr. Robert Muggah is based at the International Relations Institute (IRI-PUC) in Rio de Janeiro. He is also a Principal of the SecDev Group in Ottawa and a fellow at the Center for Conflict, Peacebuilding and Development (CCDP) in Geneva. Dr. Muggah is the coordinator of the Humanitarian Action in Situations Other than War (HASOW) project.


[i] See the HASOW website at www.hasow.org in February 2012 onwards.

[ii] See Graham 2010. “Cities as Battlespace: The New Military Urbanism”, City 13 (4); Graham 2009. “The Urban Battlespace”, Theory, Culture and Society 26 (7-8); and Beall, J. 2007. “Cities, Terrorism and Urban Wars of the 21st Century”, Working Paper no 9. London: LSE/Crisis States.

[iii] See Lucchi, E. 2010. “Between War and Peace: Humanitarian Assistance in Violent Urban Settings”, Disasters 34 (4).

[iv]See Clausewitz, C. 1989. On War, trans. Howard, P. and Paret, P. Princeton: Princeton University Press..

[v] See, for example, Harroff-Tavel, M. 2008. “Armed violence and humanitarian action in urban areas”, International Review of the Red Cross 92 (878). See also Duijsens, R. 2010. “Humanitarian Challenges of Urbanization”, International Review of the Red Cross. 92 (878).

[vi] See, for example, Muggah, R. with Savage, K. 2012. “Urban Violence and Humanitarian Action: Engaging the Fragile City”, Journal of Humanitarian Assistance at http://sites.tufts.edu/jha/archives/1524 for a review of the literature.

[vii] See UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston who described violence in Rio as constituting “large-scale confrontational ‘war’ style policing.” Indeed, according to Professor Alston, “[d]uring  2007 and early 2008, police mounted a number of large-scale operations involving hundreds of men supported by armoured vehicles and attack helicopters, to ‘invade’ and take back favelas controlled by gangs.”.

[viii] See Lucchi (2010).

[ix] ICRC 2008. “How is the Term “armed Conflict” defined in International Humanitarian Law?”, Opinion Paper, March. The assessment sets out some minimum conditions for what constitutes an international conflict drawing on Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions (1949) and various international war crime tribunal processes.

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