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Early warning systems in social conflicts

Early Warning System (EWS), and its adjunct, Early Response (ER) have had their origins since olden times when in primitive societies people were keen to know about future untoward developments that could cause harm and destruction to their peaceful way of life. However after the World War II, the concept matured and saw its application and practice in a more systematic way. Following globalisation and increased use of technology the ability to forecast incipient disasters (natural and man-made) together with social conflicts (involving violence, loss of human lives and destruction to property) these EWS have considerably improved.

Therefore, the EW System and consequently, the Early Response have taken a new dimension and urgency. Albeit, EWS cannot prevent onset of different crises in entirety, their harmful impact in terms of frequency and intensity can be considerably reduced. Timely and early information and reporting along with proper institutional support can prevent and mitigate loss of many valuable lives.

The EWS concept took an institutionalised form during the Cold War when measures were taken to build early warning mechanism to prevent a nuclear war though hotlines, satellites etc. But the concept, initially devised to deal with military threats, transformed into multi-dimensional technique to alert and warn civil population about coming disasters and outbreak of social conflicts, disorder and in the extreme, genocidal wars.

In the early 1990s, when a number of civil conflicts started taking place in Eastern Europe, Boutros-Boutros Ghali, the then UN Secretary General stressed upon the need for conflict prevention and early warning systems. The International Early Warning Program (IEWP) was first proposed at the 2nd International East-West Conference in Bonn (2001). Predicting currency, stock exchange, economic and other crises are already being attempted.

More importantly, it is thought that EWS, if applied to social conflicts, could prevent these conflicts from turning into full-blown wars, mass killings and wholesale destruction. The EWS involves: a. collection of data; b. analysis of information coming from different crises zones by anticipation; c. development of strategic response; and d. presentation of options to decision-makers well in time. EWS entails four major steps: a. Collection of data; b. data analysis and interpretation; c. policy formulation by offering best/worst scenarios; and d. response options; communication to decision makers.

South Asia is a very conflict-prone zone. Over-population, rapid climate change, urbanisation, poor governance and, lately, terrorism and militancy have placed great stress. All states in South Asia have faced civil conflicts and disorders, including civil wars, genocidal purges and separatist violence. Fast means of communication and access to new technologies have made it imperative that decision-makers should remain steps ahead in anticipating and avoiding untoward situations.

South Asia comprises seven SAARC countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and the Maldives). Pakistan, the second largest South Asian country also has the second highest population. It is saddled with problems of internal disharmony and social conflicts - provincial, ethnic, religious and of minorities. There is need to establish effective EW system to mitigate these tensions before they escalate into open conflicts thus jeopardising the peace and integrity of the state. The prime example in South Asia of internal civil war is Sri Lanka which suffered a 29 year unremitting civil war entailing colossal human and material costs.

EWS and ER are concepts meant to respond to dangers of incipient social conflicts in 21st century. While it failed in Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia it ultimately proved useful in employing EWS in Macedonia and Albania in avoiding genocidal conflicts. As a result, the UN has improved its EW capabilities to great extent by activating humanitarian and diplomatic interventions. Its surveillance and satellite systems have been activated, observers are in place and global organisations, think tanks and some NGOs supplement the work. Also, Nato policy co-ordination groups, political and military committees are reinforcing this process by working in peripheral areas to avert crises, threats, instabilities, and risks of all nature.

The Foundation For Co-Existence (FCE). As an example, Sri Lanka faced a murderous civil conflict for 29 years - the longest in present times. Well known Sri Lankan scholar Kumar Rupasinghe has done seminal work on Conflict Prevention and inter-communal harmony by promoting vigorously EWSs in social conflicts. His organisation, The Foundation for Co-existence (FCE) has adopted a cutting edge ER system, employing latest technique with practical operating systems. It is called the "citizen-based early warning" and early warning system "of citizens, by citizens for citizens." It is a new tool acquired by civil society to prevent impending violence and manage ongoing violence.

This is a Third Generation System in predicting and forestalling violence. However, it has its limitations: it cannot eg, intervene when parties are already locked in a deadly conflict and are bent upon mutual destruction (eg, former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and government of Sri Lanka); moreover it cannot prevent all forms of terrorism which have lately acquired new and sophisticated forms. FCE presents, nevertheless, a useful model for inter-communal conflicts (religious, ethnic, language race). Implemented by eastern province of Sri Lanka, the FCE staff came under threatening situations. They belong to local people, are trained in impartiality, and are trained in EW and Conflict Resolution (CR).

While efforts should continue to eradicate the root causes that create social conflicts in societies it is not easy and can be a long time process. Disputes rooted in history and ideologies are difficult to manage soon. But EWS can at least help in preventing and if not, at least mitigating the damages. Institutionalising set methodologies and learning from previous experiences can prove quite helpful. While crises will come and go and cannot be eliminated at least their frequency and intensity can be reduced.

EWS can be short, medium or long term. All kinds of crises impose many challenges to decision-makers such as time pressure, surprise and suddenness, murky atmosphere, information overload or incomplete information; and threat to core values and narrowing of options.

In case of South Asia, the EWS on all fronts are crucial: domestic, regional and international. Deterrence in nuclear matters has so far worked but could break down under stress, miscalculation, urge to take risks, irrational behaviour, malfunction of security systems, and miscalculation etc. Likewise In the case of social conflicts, the EWS are needed to arrest conflagrations of conflicts in societies. Social conflicts usually start slowly and imperceptibly but over a period of time acquire a life of their own and then suddenly burst upon the scene.

(The writer is an adviser in Centre for Policy Studies, COMSATS Institute of Information and Technology, Islamabad)

Copyright Business Recorder, 2013


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