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close this bookWar and Famine in Africa (Oxfam, 1991, 36 p.)
close this folder7 The internationalisation of public welfare
View the document(introduction...)
View the document7.1 The conventions of war
View the document7.2 The internationalisation of public welfare
View the document7.3 The case for reform
View the document7.4 Oxfam's position
View the document7.5 Summary and conclusion

7.1 The conventions of war

This report has sought to demonstrate that internal war in Africa is a long-term problem which needs urgent and serious consideration. There are two immediate factors here. Firstly, internal conflict is organically linked to the instability of semi-subsistence. This means that even if national peace treaties are concluded, so long as local instability is not tackled, insecurity will continue to rear its head. The recent decline of external support for internal conflicts has indicated the resilience of local factors in warfare. Secondly, the way internal conflicts are fought systematically violates the international conventions on the conduct of war, particularly those dealing with the treatment of civilian populations.

The issue of the violation of the rules of war is a useful starting point for discussing the international response to internal conflict in Africa. The International Commission of the Red Cross (ICRC) should, in many respects, be the ideal agency to intervene in order to protect civilian populations. The ICRC, however, has faced many difficulties in Africa. Not only is it common for conflicting parties not to recognise one or all of the various conventions, but the conventions themselves were primarily framed to govern inter-state war between industrialised nations. Indeed, one could see them as a form of reciprocity which attempts to direct and limit the effects of such wars. Non-international or internal war is therefore something of an anomaly within international law, and many aspects of the relevant Articles and Protocols have a customary rather than a definitive status. One result of these difficulties has been that, at best, the ICRC has been ineffective in Africa.

Approaches to this problem are perhaps symptomatic of a wider policy orientation towards internal conflict. Two main responses seem possible. One would be to regard war in Africa as beyond the pale, as something to which normal conventions do not apply and which is best left alone. In other words, disengagement. This attitude would not be so far from the intentional or unintentional effects of the tactical support provided by the South African police to Inkatha: of allowing the outside world to develop a 'black on black' view of violence. The other response is to recognise that internal conflict has become a long-term problem and, precisely because current conventions were not framed to deal with this eventuality, they therefore require urgent and thorough reform. In other words, it is not so much that internal war is at fault (it has a political economy and logic), but the conventions, institutions, and strategies with which it is approached. This position is in my view the only defensible one.