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Guns, drugs and dollars: getting global drivers of local violence on the post-2015 agenda

Leaving violence and conflict off the post-2015 agenda is a clear signal that countries want to keep the door towards increasing international accountability for the use of violence as closed as possible.

Erwin van Veen
29 April 2013

The release of the report of the UN’s High Level Panel that will canvas the post-2015 global development agenda is imminent. In anticipation, policy papers and ideas are being floated nearly every day. Economic growth, sustainable development, poverty eradication and other topics jostle for pre-eminence as global development goals. Amongst these competing priorities, the question of whether and how to include violence and conflict as key barriers to development is one of the more contentious issues. Good and concrete ideas have been put forward by Saferworld, a recent UN consultation in Helsinki, your own correspondent and many others, but contention remains. It centres on two issues:

First, are violence and conflict major development challenges? Countries and individuals remain who argue that violence and conflict are not major development problems on par with poverty reduction or sustainable development and therefore do not merit a central place in a development focused post-2015 agenda. 

Second, does addressing violence and conflict require a global response? Some countries argue that domestic measures are perfectly sufficient to deal with the violence and conflict they face and that as a result, global action is neither necessary nor appropriate. This complicates inclusion of violence and conflict in a - presumably – universal development framework.

Genuine efforts to establish the right focus, arguments and language to ensure that the post-2015 agenda really pushes what it will take to lift about 900 million people out of poverty are of course welcome. Yet, the answers to the questions outlined above are fairly clear:

• There is a pile of evidence, including the findings of the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding and the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report that convincingly demonstrates that violence and conflict are critical barriers to development. We know enough to state this with confidence.

• In 2011 the world witnessed 37 armed conflicts in 30 countries. Many of these conflicts have been going on for years and six of them resulted in more than a thousand casualties that year. At more or less the same time, 58 countries featured homicide rates of two to ten times the global average. Taken together, these data points suggest that many of the world’s countries – from Central-America to the Great Lakes and Central Asia – face high and contagious levels of violence. Adding a longitudinal dimension demonstrates that much of this violence persists. This suggests violence and conflict are a global issue – both in their scope and in their need for a global response. The argument that violence and conflict are too country-specific for a global response seems a bit odd. After all, the causes, manifestations and remedies for high levels of poverty (MDG1) or poor education (MDG2) are equally varied at national and local levels but this hasn’t prevented a global effort.

• Finally, setting targets and indicators appropriately can perfectly enable differentiation and ‘exempt’ countries that are already in good shape. Countries could simply benchmark their performance against agreed targets and establish where they can use the post-2015 framework to boost their efforts to reduce violence. Hopefully they would be working on the issues already anyway.

But if we are honest, we must acknowledge that these arguments scratch the surface of the real issue, namely that many countries simply want to avoid any foreign involvement - through the post-2015 agenda - in how they deal with, for example, ethnic minorities, ‘terrorist’ groups or criminals. This perspective of ‘classic sovereignty’ focuses on keeping the door towards increasing international accountability for the use of violence as closed as possible.

However, a perspective of ‘global interdependence’ suggests that in an interconnected world, domestic violence and conflict have important international drivers. In the 21st century, international markets link the supply of illicit goods, services and funds with demand at global scale, often in the service of either violent activity or profit. This creates a significant collective action problem in which security and safety become undersupplied public goods at the global level and, in consequence, at the national level. For example, Mexico, Guatemala or Colombia would not be suffering their current levels of violence if it wasn’t for international criminalization and interdiction focused approaches to the drugs trade – supported mostly by Western consumer countries. Rebels in countries like India would not be able to get hold of arms so easily if the arms trade was better and more effectively regulated at the international level (you can find a deeper analysis of such global factors here).

In other words, domestic responses to violence are in fact not sufficient, not even for developed countries with functioning law enforcement agencies. No single country can take effective action by itself against, for example, the illicit arms trade, transnational organized crime or money laundering – the guns, drugs and dollars that enable much violence and conflict. As a result, addressing violence and conflict in the post-2015 development agenda - with a focus on their global drivers - can be a helpful component of national security or law enforcement strategies rather than a foreign intrusion. Framed within the overarching aim of reducing poverty, the post-2015 development agenda could for instance seek to:

  • • Reduce the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons by 2030. The UN Arms Trade Treaty is hot off the press and establishes a helpful political and regulatory framework for further global action. It now needs to be implemented and for this it relies heavily on countries setting up appropriate mechanisms to assess and verify that arms end up with legitimate users that respect international law. This will not be an easy task for many of the world’s developing countries. Fortunately, the treaty also sets up a mechanism and trust fund for capacity building. As a result, a post-2015 target could focus on improving national regulatory capacity. For example, it could pilot a ‘scorecard for improvement’ approach that links a voluntary assessment of national efforts to improve the quality of legislation, risk assessments and enforcement capacity with releases from this trust fund;

Reduce the level of violence resulting from the ‘War on Drugs’ by 2030. Drug production, trade and consumption currently face blanket international prohibition that was assumed to reduce drug production and use, as well as minimize harmful effects to health and communities. This assumption has not been born out. Instead, prohibition has made the drugs trade incredibly profitable, leading to extremely violent competition for market share, corrosive corruption of public institutions and a reliable source of income for all sorts of non-state armed groups. From a development perspective there is little option but replacing the current illegal market with a legal one that is tightly regulated. This will reduce profits, the size of the market and levels of violence. Complementary education and public health initiatives can help reduce the number of users in parallel. A post-2015 target could focus on gradually developing, negotiating and introducing a more permissive global regulatory framework for the drugs trade, for example starting with low-risk substances (as Washington State and Colorado and have done recently);

• Reduce the volume of illicit financial flows by 2030 that are used to finance violence, conflict, crime and terrorism. It is too easy to wire illicit money across the globe at the moment. A post-2015 target could take the form of full country compliance with the 2003 recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force on money laundering (as states can be non-, partially, largely and fully compliant there is scope for a staged target with interim indicators by e.g. 2020, 2025 and 2030). An alternative target could focus on strengthening national enforcement of compliance by shell company providers with due diligence requirements to establish customer identity.

Because realizing such targets will require efforts from developing and developed countries alike, their inclusion would contribute significantly to making the post-2015 agenda universal and ensure it underwrites a notion of shared responsibility that goes beyond political statements or transferring resources. Just to be clear, these targets do not require a headline goal of their own. It would already be a major achievement to have them included in the first place. Yet, to paraphrase Nelson Mandela: ‘it always seems impossible until it is done’.


This article does not reflect the official views of the OECD or its members.

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