Gentium News

How To Stop A Civil Conflict (I)

  • 12th April 2018

This article is about how to stop a civil conflict before it starts. It is about Catalonia, which I believe is likely soon to slip into a civil conflict of a kind much more serious than most of its residents might imagine. The next article in this series, also about Catalonia, will be about how to stop a civil conflict once it has started. I hope I will never have to write that article, but very sadly I fear it more likely than not that I will do. If you doubt me, and you live in Spain or Catalonia, then ask your grandparents or other elderly people who you know what they think. The elderly have wisdom that the youth may lack.

I may not be the best person to write the second article in this series, because I am not a military man. I hope I am amongst the best-placed to write this first article, because my strong preference is to stop civil conflicts before they begin. But that is for others to decide.

Civil conflicts take various forms. Some are extremely serious. I was involved in the very worst such conflict since the end of the Second World War, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I describe it as the very worst, because some 2.5% of the population of that country died within a period of three and a half years, which is far worse proportionate to population size than, for example, the ongoing civil conflict Syria that has lasted since 2011 (which has also been shockingly bloody).

Some civil conflicts are substantially less serious than either Bosnia or Syria, although just as devastating to the people whose lives they touch. Another conflict I am familiar with is that between Russia and Ukraine, that has continued since 2014. The number of fatalities in that confrontation might be estimated as 6,000 to 8,000 over four years, although unlike for the Bosnian war accurate statistics are hard to come by. Then there are conflicts of lesser intensity such as “The Troubles”, an ethno-nationalist guerrilla war in Northern Ireland that killed some 3,500 people over 30 years; or the Basque conflict, that resulted in some 1,200 people dying over a period of slightly more than 50 years.

Before the killings begin, people like me – mediators and peacekeepers, who have no weapons except a microphone – may, through shuttle diplomacy, negotiation, charm and gentle or not-so-gentle coercion, be able to defuse tensions. Once the killings have started, military people become an inevitable component of a solution.

The beginnings of civil conflict have recurrent indices. I will list some of them, but this list is not exhaustive. One is a breakdown in the operation of the usual institutions of government. This is satisfied for Catalonia. There has been no functioning Generalitat for several months. It does not matter, for the purposes of predicting civil conflict, why the usual institutions do not work. The fact is that they always stop working as a precursor to civil conflict. Another indicator is an increase in conflictual dialogue on both sides, including reference to how the other side are racists or discriminate against one-another. This is satisfied. Both sides are doing this. A third is a reference to historical themes, and how they have echoes in modern events. This is satisfied; there is ever more reference to Francoism and its aftermath. Resentment over Francoism was supposed to be buried. But it seems it was only a shallow burial; the spectre of Francoism is back.

A fourth is the establishment of parallel quasi-government or popular institutions or groups outside government, to express the people’s will or outrage. This is satisfied. The Committees for the Defence of the Revolution / Republic are instances of this. I make no moral comment about these committees. I will just point out an recurrent fact from history. I have seen these committees in every conflict. Once they are formed, members of these committees find themselves charged with terrorism offences. I make no comment about whether this is fair or not. I just observe that in Catalonia, these legal acts of accusing committee members of terrorism has already begun.

A fifth indicator is the proliferation of offensive propaganda, on both sides. This condition is satisfied for Catalonia. I have received a number of offensive messages, and I am an outsider. The broader quantity of offensive materials being launched across cyberspace and in conventional media is substantial. A sixth indicator is polarisation of the media. This condition is satisfied. Much domestic media comment in Spain and Catalonia now is unambiguously in favour of one side or the other. There is a relative fall in impartial analysis. A seventh indicator is quiet withdrawal of moderate politicians into obscurity. This is satisfied. I have seen it myself.

Some other indicators of impending civil conflict might appear quaint or obscure, but they are revealing. An eighth indicator is that many of one’s usual domestic contacts dry up and stop answering calls or correspondence: people one has trusted over a long time. This has been observed by many people and not just by me. The reason people stop responding to communications is not because they are suddenly uninterested, but because they are afraid. A ninth condition is that the prices of hotels and flights to the disputed region drop dramatically. This condition is satisfied. The reason this happens is because tourists are staying away because the international narrative is that the region is dangerous. A tenth condition is that the streets become emptier at night, and restaurants and bars start closing earlier than ordinarily they would do. This condition is satisfied. Again, it is because people are afraid. These are the circumstances of a gradually-enveloping informal curfew.

The eleventh condition is an unusually high police presence on the streets, ostensibly to try to calm tensions but it does not always have this effect. Those police will be extremely polite to foreigners, but otherwise edgy. This condition is satisfied. A twelfth condition is that electioneering posters and materials subsist well after elections are over. This is satisfied. La Rambla still exhibits such materials. A thirteenth condition is a disputed referendum. This is satisfied. A fourteenth is the presence of more than one kind of police force, each with divided loyalties. This is satisfied. A fifteenth is an unusual concentration of security and intelligence services, both domestic and international, in the conflict zone. This is satisfied.

I could go on. But I believe I have made my point. I predict that the model of civil conflict Catalonia is likely to follow will not be Bosnia and Herzegovina (all-out ethnic civil war, in which neighbour murdered neighbour) nor Russia-Ukraine (in which rival military units engaged in controlled conflict along a mostly defined border of dispute) but rather the Northern Ireland model, in which a central government (then London, now Madrid) purports to maintain juridical control over the disputed territory but can maintain this pretence only by the use of increasingly oppressive legal methods.

In Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom used a number of legal tools to repress insurgent Catholics. A series of loosely-defined offences relating to acts of terrorism were enacted. Membership of certain political organisations was made a criminal offence. The right to jury trial (a cornerstone of British constitutional law) was abolished. The “five techniques” were a series of illegal interrogation methods used by Northern Irish law enforcement officers to coerce confessions and cooperation from suspects. The Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland’s police force, was politicised and become despised. British troops were moved onto the streets. A “shoot-to-kill” policy was adopted. Northern Ireland was no longer ruled not from its capital Belfast; its local government was indefinitely suspended. Instead “direct rule” (i.e. from London) was imposed. The parallels with the application of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution can surely not be more obvious.

The Troubles in Northern Ireland began as a series of protests by the minority Catholics against perceived discrimination by the Northern Irish Police. The British Army was deployed, ostensibly to keep order. Things spiralled rapidly downward. The political and security landscape of Northern Ireland became dominated by paramilitaries for decades. The protests by Catholics against the Police were just a trigger for what was to follow. The events that catalysed the beginning of the conflict could have been a variety of things. Nevertheless a typical such trigger is demonstrations that spiral out of control and that the capital of the larger country (then London, now Madrid) becomes uncomfortable with. A decision is taken to increase exponentially the use of force in an attempt to stabilise the situation.

Do not believe that the pressure of the European Union is sufficient to prevent an exponential increase in the use of force by Madrid. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland joined the European Economic Community in 1973. This was in the midst of the Troubles. There were British soldiers on the streets of Northern Ireland. Northern Irish Catholics were being held indefinitely in prison on terrorism charges. The Northern Irish Parliament had been suspended in the midst of the accession negotiations. None of this either forced Europe to intervene or caused Europe to apply more than token pressure upon the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland was viewed by Europe as a British problem, to be solved internally and in accordance with the British constitution and British laws. That is how Catalonia is viewed currently by the European Union.

The lesson from this is that the Catalans cannot force the European Union to intervene in their conflict with Madrid by inciting or provoking Madrid to use violence against them. Indeed if Madrid does find a pretext or cause to use violence in Catalonia, then Brussels will show itself determined to engage ever less with the Catalan crisis than to the minimal degree it has done already. That is because Brussels is allergic to problems involving civil unrest and violence with European Union borders. Brussels wants to pretend that those problems do not exist. The enduring fiction of the European Union, invented by its founders and propagated by its contemporary bureaucrats, is that the ideals of the European Union render such internal civil conflict within Europe impossible. Therefore where it does happen, European Union officials prefer to pretend that it does not.

Any trigger, in any forthcoming day, week or month, could tip Catalonia into calamity. If that happens, I will write my second essay in this series. But if I write that essay, then the situation will be much worse and my job in trying to help Catalonia regain political and economic stability will be much harder. I hope that I never have to write that essay. That is why I am writing this one.

What do we do, in order to minimise the possibility that I never write that second essay? There are a lot of things we can and should do, and there is very little time because the situation is unstable and critical and things could go bad any day now. Firstly, every effort must be made to establish a new government in the Generalitat. Even if that requires painful compromises, it must happen immediately. Even if it requires people who are incarcerated or in exile to resign from their positions in party lists so that other people lower down the same party lists can vote for a new President of the Generalitat without judicially-sanctioned legal objection from Madrid, then it must happen immediately.

Secondly, the new President of the Generalitat, and his or her cabinet, must be chosen with great care. They must be cosmopolitan people, who speak English and who can tour Europe’s capitals persuading Europe to engage. While representing the opinions of their constituents, these new government representatives must be able to present a moderate face for Catalonia. They must also be willing and prepared to negotiate in good faith with Madrid, even if Madrid is not willing and prepared to negotiate with them. Europe will want to see this willingness on the part of a new generation of Catalan politicians, or the countries of the European Union will not get involved.

Thirdly, all acts of civil disobedience must cease immediately. There must be no more general strikes. There must be no more blocking of roads. There must be no acts of vandalism or damage to public or private property. Barcelona must start to feel like a normal city again. And then, once it feels normal, the international media must be courted. Tourists and investors must be encouraged to come back to Catalonia. If this does not happen, then by the summer of 2018 the economy of Catalonia will be in risk of collapse because the usual tourist crowds will be significantly diminished. Residents of Catalonia will risk sliding ever further into poverty. Poverty tastes worse than the lack of freedom.

Fourthly, the Police must be reassured. The Mossos d’Esquadra have divided loyalties. They are the Catalan regional police service. Their independence and impartiality must be reassured. But they are also Spanish police, who have undertaken to uphold Spanish laws. It is not fair to test their loyalties by trying to divide them between these two poles. Indeed any attempt to do so will not work. That is because the salaries and budgets of the Mossos are ultimately fixed by Madrid, not by Catalonia. Therefore Madrid ultimately has the tools to enforce the loyalty of the Mossos. They control their pay cheques. Unless and until Catalonia has its own independent tax system, tax revenues and treasury, from which Catalans pay the Mossos directly, this will not change.

These are short-term crises. Catalonia does not have the military resources for a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain. Therefore at the least, the idea of independence must be postponed until the political circumstances are more propitious. Once the foregoing short-term goals have been achieved, I will set out my vision for how to achieve Catalonia’s medium- and long-term goals. But the time is not yet right for those methods to be articulated. The immediate challenge is that we have a crisis of potentially grave proportions. Catalonia might slip down into becoming another Northern Ireland. This could happen any moment. If it happens, it will be a catastrophe for all the people of Catalonia and indeed for all of Spain. Everything must be done to prevent it. I believe that all of this is possible, but It requires the constructive cooperation of everyone, starting immediately. Fear must be put aside. A vision to avert an impending disaster must be embraced. Then we may have hope.

Matthew Parish


Matthew Parish is an international lawyer. He has won many accolades for his work. He is a former UN peacekeeper, and has studied or been involved in a number of civil conflict situations across Europe and the Middle East. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and he has been named as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland.