By Harold A. Young

The burden and devastation of intrastate conflicts are disproportionally borne by people of color in the developing world. While many people of color in the United States may view these conflicts as distant, they are not. Some may have relatives and friends in these conflict areas; however, it is worth noting that many products we take for granted use raw materials extracted despite of and sometimes even used to fuel the conflicts. One only has to think of “blood diamonds” coming out of Sierra Leone and “conflict minerals” from Democratic Republic of Congo for graphic details. Further, while details are just emerging about the plight of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar (Burma), we do know that there has been little or no international response.

Without clear domestic and international leadership, a seemingly paralyzed global community struggles with sporadic attempts at cease-fires, humanitarian aid, and limited peacekeeping intervention. The designation of armed conflict is grounded in three key characteristics: (1) it is a political conflict; (2) it involves armed combat by the armed forces of a state or the forces of one or more armed faction seeking a political end; and (3) at least 1,000 people have been killed directly by the fighting during the conflict and there are at least 25 combat deaths annually (Project Ploughshare). Figure 1 illustrates the continuous decline of interstate conflict and death after World War II. Even with a brief decline in the mid-1990s, the growing trend in intrastate conflict (international conflict/war) is especially significant since the end of the Cold War (Human Security Report 2013).

Figure 1: Average number of Interstate conflicts per year by decade, 1950-2011
Figure 1: Average number of Interstate conflicts per year by decade, 1950-2011

There has also been an increase in the number of non-state armed conflicts resulting in significant casualties. These conflicts may involve groups in armed conflict outside the control of the government. Figure 2 displays comparative data on the numbers of intrastate conflicts (domestic conflict/war) and battle deaths (Human Security Report 2013).

Figure 2: Global trends in Intrastate conflicts and battle deaths, 1989 to 2011
Figure 2: Global trends in Intrastate conflicts and battle deaths, 1989 to 2011

State sovereignty remains an important concept in international politics. Westphalian “model states” never really existed nor were the geographic and political entities that existed unassailable. Acknowledging those realities would contribute more to peace and stability (Krasner 1995). Further, since the end of the cold war, some states are willing to lead, participate in, and publicly support multilateral humanitarian interventions using force against a state under certain circumstances. As was seen in the 1999 case of Kosovo, states are willing to act without authorization of the United Nations Security Council and without the U.S. expressly basing the intervention on humanitarian grounds. After the Cold War, the most important doctrinal development on humanitarian intervention is probably the U.N. authorization of intervention in Somalia in 1992 (Charron 2006). While the outcome is less than desirable, there are subsequent examples. The rationale may include reputation (U.S. as a champion of human rights), loyalty or history (e.g., colonial power and former colony as was seen with U.K. intervening in Sierra Leone starting in 2000) or to protect some specific national interest (U.S. intervention in Kuwait in 1990). While such interventions may be legitimate, there is a clear question of legality vis-à-vis the U.N. Charter. Nevertheless, the sample of intrastate conflicts in the table below shows that most of the conflicts affects people of color with little action from the international community.

Table 1 presents a sample of intrastate conflicts that have captured the attention of the media and the international community over the last four decades. This sample represents intrastate conflicts in several regions of world involving different groups and varying motives.




International Response

Democratic Republic of Congo,

Conflict over control of vast natural resources

6 million dead; 3.4 million internally displaced and 2 million refugees

No international military response


State persecution
under Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge

1,500,000 dead

Intervention by


Inter-clan and inter-factional

350,000 to 1,000,000 dead

Intervention by US



million dead; 225,000 Kosovar men are believed to be missing. Estimated 5,000
Kosovars executed.

Intervention by NATO


Tribal conflict


Intervention by UN
but did not prevent genocide

Sri Lanka,

Government vs. Tamil

Estimated 80,000-100,000
people killed

No international military


Ethnic cleansing

Estimated 30,000
killed and 1,000,000 displaced

No international military


Government vs.
resistance movement; faction wars

More than 465,000
dead and 145,000 reported missing

No international military

Table 1: Examples of major intrastate conflicts since 1975


There is some agreement that the world community should act in the face of a humanitarian crisis. There is, however, a divergence of opinion on the scope for fear of abuse by more powerful states advancing national interests. Despite the changing scope of state actions and their role in the era globalization, no one takes the issue of state sovereignty lightly. As posited, there is a prima facie presumption of state sovereignty over intervention although that presumption may not hold in certain circumstances (Carey 1997) or may be contingent on the existence of circumstances that warrant a violation of state sovereignty. What is missing is a set of agreed criteria or benchmarks that will trigger an intervention or response by a force recognized by the U.N. and a method for assigning duties and distributing costs.

Undoubtedly the debate about the tension between real state sovereignty and the international community’s obligation to protect people within a state will continue. The framework needed for the world community to act on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) commitment is yet to be developed and agreed to despite the priorities agreed to earlier in the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The Responsibility To Protect (ICISS). The report identifies preventing the development of humanitarian crises in the first place thereby avoiding the dilemmas and pitfalls of intervention that will inevitably plague the best-laid plans. Second, it specifies the responsibility of the international community to respond with military intervention as the last resort. Third, the responsibility to help the state rebuild after the intervention. Nanda (2013) reviews the future of R2P and the principles identified in ICISS is the light of the ongoing crises in different part of the world. Nanda expresses doubt that the principles of R2P and consistent international responses will become the norm.

It is unclear how far the current U.S. administration is willing to go in Syria or anywhere else based on the current mixed signals about guiding policies or plans of action. The 59-missile attack on a single Syria target on April 5, 2017 is characterized as a response to the use of chemical weapons as part of the ongoing conflicts and genocide (Rosenfeld, April 7, 2017). Further, despite establishing a commission in 2011 to investigate human right violation in Syria, its efforts have been stymied due to inaccessibility within Syria and the reports that have been produced based on sources escaping Syria have not yet resulted in any prosecutions. Frustration with the international commission peaked with the resignation of an experienced international prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, in August. She states “I am frustrated, I give up……We thought the international community had learned something from Rwanda. But no, they have not learned anything” (Gordts, August 6, 2017).

Meanwhile, intrastate wars smolder and rage in the hotspots around the world precipitating death, destruction of vital infrastructure, internal population displacement, refugee crises, and economic pressure on neighboring states. Those skeptical of the international will to act to prevent or stop intrastate wars have good reason while those who remain hopeful have little basis to do so.

About the Author: Harold Young is an Assistant Professor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. His research area is Public Law and examines an American and comparative perspective on judicial institutional changes and decision-making. Previously, he was a health communications manager, a social worker and practiced law. Contact Young at