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

Developing a new framework to measure violence “tipping points”

The legal determination of what constitutes an international and internal armed conflict is comparatively straight-forward.[i] International Humanitarian Law (IHL), for example, proposes that international armed conflicts exist whenever there is a resort to armed force between two or more states. By way of contrast, non-international armed conflicts are protracted armed confrontations between governmental armed forces and the forces of one or more armed groups, or between such groups arising on the territory of the state. According to recent legal developments, to be declared an “armed conflict”, then, the armed confrontation must reach a minimum level of intensity and the parties involved must show a minimum level of organization.[ii]

Although there appears to be an increasing level of agreement on the legal parameters of what comprises an “armed conflict”, the empirical basis for testing these claims – particularly in the case of internal conflicts – is contested.[iii] Humanitarian agencies have few mechanisms to scientifically test whether situations of complex urban violence, for example, conform to “armed conflict” or not. The Humanitarian Action in Situations Other than War (HASOW) project has developed a generic framework precisely to measure these claims. The framework draws on established precedents in IHL and Human Rights Law (HRL) – supplemented with insights from conflict studies theory.

Before introducing the framework, it is worth making an additional comment about the connections between IHL and HRL. It is generally claimed, for example, that IHL and HRL regimes are complementary. Specifically, there are in principle non-derogable rights that apply in all circumstances, including armed conflicts.[iv] On the one hand, the Geneva Conventions, Protocols and International Criminal Court/Tribunal rulings that make up IHL discriminate between situations of “armed conflict” and “disturbances” – though these classifications are often left open to interpretation. Likewise, HRL features clauses that establish a threshold of severity for when a situation constitutes a public emergency and thus allows for some derogation of rights to occur.

Drawing on IHL and HR norms, then, it possible to develop a preliminary classification system for determining when chronic forms of organized violence qualifies as “armed conflict”.[v] There appears to be some consensus amongst humanitarian and legal scholars that such a framework would encompass the intensity and organization of violence (see figure x).[vi] Each of these categories includes a range of specific variables identified in existing jurisprudence. Some of these categories and variables are examined in isolation by conflict studies specialists. For example, entities such as Uppsala’s Conflict Database and the Correlates of War projects focus more narrowly on the scale and severity of mortality on an annual basis as an index of armed conflict. By contrast, this framework offers a more comprehensive approach that builds on some legal precedents.

Figure x. Variables and indicators for measuring “armed conflict”

Intensity Organization
(i) the number, duration, type of confrontations; (ii) types of weapons used; (iii) number and caliber of weaponry; (iv) numbers of actors involved; (v) level of destruction; (vi) rates of displacement; and (vii) involvement of UNSC (i) the existence of command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms; (ii) the existence and use of headquarters; (iii) the display of control over certain territory; (iv) the ready access to weapons, equipment and military training; (v) the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations; (vi) the definition of a unified military strategy; (vii) an ability to speak with one voice; and (iii) a capacity to negotiate ceasefires/peace accords.

Our criteria for evaluating “intensity” draws on precedents from IHL decisions, specifically the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). According to the ICTY ruling,], intensity entails a “convincing combination of indicators” including: (i) the number, duration, type of confrontations; (ii) types of weapons used; (iii) number and caliber of weaponry; (iv) numbers of actors involved; (v) level of destruction; (vi) rates of displacement; and (vii) involvement of United Nations Security Council, among others.[vii] This initiative will utilize the above indicators and track them over time to develop an overview of violence intensity in three settings – Rio de Janeiro, Medellin and Port-au-Prince. It will also need to compare them to “established” cases of armed conflict to determine a relevant “threshold” or tipping-point from situations of acute armed violence to armed conflict.

While “organization” is key to definitions of conflict, there is considerable debate among IHL and HR theorists about what constitutes an “organized armed group”.[viii] Specific indicators (applied by, for example, ICTY) include: (i) the existence of command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms; (ii) the existence and use of headquarters; (iii) the display of control over certain territory; (iv) the ready access to weapons, equipment and military training; (v) the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations; (vi) the definition of a unified military strategy; (vii) an ability to speak with one voice; and (iii) a capacity to negotiate ceasefires/peace accords. As in the case of intensity above, HASOW will draw on these established indicators of organization and  compare outcomes in the cases of Rio de Janeiro, Medellin and Port-au-Prince to more “established” instances of armed conflict in order to establish an appropriate threshold.

Finally, as a side point, it is also possible to assess the “duration” of armed violence. While this may itself constitute a sub-category of “intensity”, establishing a sense of the duration, acceleration and spatial dynamics of organized violence is critical since it distinguishes periodic incidents of fighting from more sustained engagement enabled by an adequately resourced armed group. Duration can be measured as a sustained form of armed interaction between parties taking place over (i) weeks; (ii) months and even (iii) years. While the HASOW team has not set an arbitrary or fixed threshold that designates the precise moment when a situation actually “tips” from chronic urban violence to an “armed conflict”, it should not impede a longitudinal assessment.

There is a small chorus of social scientists who claim that organized urban violence in Latin America and the Caribbean can, in certain places and periods, constitute armed conflict. If measuring just rates of lethal violence in Ciudad Juarez, Medellin, Port-au-Prince, Rio de Janeiro and indeed other major cities such as Caracas, Karachi and Nairobi, these cities have satisfied at various instances  more conventional measurement criteria. Indeed, there are indications that urban violence in all of these cases periodically exhibit aspects of intensity and armed group organization that are analogous with (or even exceed)  war theatres in Afghanistan, Iraq or Darfur. 

In all of these cities, the levels of organized violence have precipitated mass displacement, military and police engagements, the deployment of high caliber weaponry, and threatened the metropolitan political order. There has been considerable heterogeneity in the duration of incursions ranging from hours and in some cases days, and have been spread out over decades. Moreover, the organizational features of armed groups are also wide-ranging.[ix] Yet with no statistical empirical evidence, some disqualify organized violence in Ciudad Juarez or Rio de Janeiro as being adequately intense or organized to reach the minimum threshold triggering the applicability of IHL;[x] Elaborating a new framework to analyze conflict indicators and then testing the evidence across a range of cases will put such speculations to the test.

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] It tends to flow directly from Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions (1949) and the definitions set out in Article 1 of Additional Protocol 1. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) also set out a provisional definition of armed conflict noting that “an armed conflict exists whenever there is a resort to armed forces between States”. See ICTY. 1995. The Prosecutor vs. Dusko Tadic, Decision on the Defence Motion for Interlocutory Appeal on Jurisdiction, IT-94-1-a, 2 October, para 70.

[ii] See, for example, http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/article/other/armed-conflict-article-170308.htm

[iii] See Schindler, D. 1979. “The Different Types of Armed Conflicts According to the Geneva Declarations and Protocols”, RCADI 163.

[iv] But even these guarantees must be interpreted in light of the fact that IHL constitutes lex specialis. For example, IHL accepts civilian deaths as collateral damage if justified by military necessity. Credit to Sven Peterke for his comments, Decemeber 2011.

[v] See, for example, Fuentes, C. 2010. The Applicability of International Humanitarian Law to Situations of Urban Violence”, Unpublished paper. See also Hauck, P and Peterke, S 2010. “Organized Crime and Gang Violence in National and International Law”, International Review of the Red Cross 92 (878). http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/international-review/review-878-urban-violence/review-878-all.pdf. See also Lewis, D. 2010. Police and Military Actions in Rio de Janeiro, December.  http://www.hpcrresearch.org/blog/dustinlewis/2010-12-17/police-and-military-actions-rio-de-janeiro

[vi] See, for example, Peterke, S 2010. “Urban Insurgency, ‘Drug War’ and International Humanitarian Law: The Case of Rio de Janeiro”, Journal of International Humanitarian Legal Studies, 1 (1).

[vii] The ICTY was required to consider the question of what constitutes and armed conflict when reflecting on the nature of the fighting that took place in 1998 between Serbian forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK). In the Limaj case, the defense disagreed that fighting constituted an “armed conflict”, arguing that the operations carried out by Serbian forces were not intended to defeat the enemy army but rather to carryt out “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo. The Tribunal rejected this argument noting that “the determination of the existence of an armed conflict is based solely on two criteria: the intensity of the conflict and organization of the parties, the purpose of the armed forces to engage in acts of violence or also achieve some further objective is, therefore, irrelevant” (emphasis added). See Cite, S. 2009. “Typology of Armed Conflicts in International Humanitarian Law: Legal Concepts and Actual Situations”, International Review of the Red Cross 91 (873).
[viii] The organizational component stems from IHL.It applies to internal conflicts in which “armed forces and dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups, which, under responsible command, exercise such control over a part of its territory as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations and to implement the protocol”. Common article 3 conceptualizes “organized armed group” tends to refer to clashes btn insurgents and/or states military forces and not criminal associations and militarized law enforcement.

[ix] According to Peterke (2010) in the case of Rio de Janeiro, the dons and their recruits have grown from the Commando Vermelho, expansion into organized crime networks, and shown a remarkable capacity to plan, coordinate and carry-out military operations. He claims that it is not clear if there is defined military strategy, an ability to speak with one voice much less a capacity to broker ceasefires/accords. Indeed, some contend that Rio’s “commands” do not satisfy the requirements of organized armed groups in the sense of Common Article 3.

[x] See Peterke (2010).

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