Every year, around the world, old conflicts worsen, new ones emerge and, occasionally, some situations improve. There is no shortage of storm clouds looming over 2013: Once again, hotspots old and new will present a challenge to the security of people across the globe.
There is, of course, an arbitrariness to most lists -- and this list of crises to watch out for in 2013 is no different. One person's priority might well be another's sideshow, one analyst's early warning cry is another's fear-mongering. In some situations -- Central Asia, perhaps -- preventive action has genuine meaning: The collapse into chaos has yet to happen. More complicated is anticipating when it will happen, what will trigger it, and how bad it will be. In others -- Syria, obviously -- the catastrophe is already upon us, so the very notion of prevention can seem absurd. It has no meaning save in the sense of preventing the nightmare from worsening or spreading.
What follows, then, is a "top 10" list of crises that does not include the ongoing, drug-related violence in Mexico, the simmering tensions in the East China Sea, or the possibility of conflict on the Korean peninsula after a rocket launch by Pyongyang. As if this mix wasn't combustible enough, there are new leaders in China, Japan, and on both sides of Korea's de-militarized zone who may well feel pressured to burnish their nationalist credentials with aggressive action. Nor do I mention the forthcoming elections in Zimbabwe, the ongoing trauma in Somalia, or the talk of war in response to Iran's nuclear program. Any of these could credibly make a top 10 crises list.
Focusing on countries also makes it more difficult to highlight some of the undercurrents and tensions percolating through the various crises we are likely to confront next year. So, before we begin our list, here are four examples, in brief.
Elections, we know, place enormous stresses on fragile polities: they're a long-term good that can present short-term challenges. The 2011 presidential polls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo failed to meet this challenge, and the current violence in the DRC's eastern provinces is at least in part driven by the bankruptcy of governance that the elections, if anything, exacerbated. Much attention in the coming year will be on how Kenya and Zimbabwe manage their forthcoming votes, and on how the region and the world respond.
A similar tension lies between the long-term benefits of justice -- promoting accountability and addressing an accumulation of grievances -- and the reality that it can often pose immediate risks. Whether in Yemen, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Kenya, or Colombia, the "justice or peace" debate is in need of fresh thinking.
The role of sanctions in preventing conflict also seems too often to involve a dialogue of the deaf. Did sanctions encourage the changes in Myanmar (also known as Burma) -- or simply punish the people, not the rulers, of that country? Have they become part of the problem in Zimbabwe rather than a driver of change? And most prominently, how will sanctions defuse the Iran nuclear crisis, when they appear to signal to Tehran that the goal is to change not the regime's behavior but the regime itself? It might behoove the international community to avoid the temptation to impose sanctions as an automatic default response to a given situation; sanctions will only be effective as part of a coherent, overall strategy, not as a substitute for one.
And finally, a word on the rule of law. Too often, we see this well-worn phrase used in the sense of "rule by law": That is, autocratic rulers co-opt the language and trappings of democracy, using the law to harass rather than protect. Hence the use of law to harass rather than protect; hence the international community's tendency to train and equip law enforcement units who, in the eyes of the civilians they are charged with protecting, likely don't need to become more efficient in techniques of repression. The international community needs to be more vigilant toward this charade and more focused on the substance of the rule of law -- perhaps most importantly the notion of equality before the law -- than its form.
The laws of war may also need to adapt to the evolving nature of modern warfare. Asymmetric warfare and the language of the "war on terror" challenge the critical distinction between "combatants" and "civilians." Technology, too, presents new dilemmas. Despite claims of surgical accuracy, drone strikes produce collateral civilian damage that is difficult to measure, while exposing one side to no risk of combatant casualties. In some instances, drones also may be self-defeating: They terrorize and cause deep trauma to those communities affected, potentially increasing support for radical groups.
It's difficult to convey all this in a list. But, with that said, here is the International Crisis Group's "top 10" list of global threats for the coming year. It is non-prioritized, and seeks to include a mix of the obvious risks and those we believe are bubbling beneath the surface. And because we're optimists at heart, it includes an addendum of three countries where recent developments suggest that the coming year could bring peace -- not torment. We certainly wish that for all.
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