Conflicts are due to divergence in interests, and people tend to disagree when interests do not align. The human condition is characterized by the struggle to preserve and defend specific interests. While this phenomenon can occur at individual or group levels within society, nations can find themselves in disagreement too. Unresolved disagreements can balloon into worse conflicts that non-state actors can take advantage of.
There is nothing inherently unethical about being in conflict with others as long as a peaceful resolution is possible. Conflicts can be resolved through persuasion, but doing so requires men and women of goodwill, although this is still not sufficient. Effective governance and rule-of-law are required too. They ideally level the playing field between the weak and strong so that persuasion is a more attractive option. Conflicts take on a larger moral dimension when one or both parties choose violence over persuasion due to their incentives. At this point, the situation can escalate, and violence replaces persuasion.
To resolve conflicts between individuals, groups, and nations that have different or divergent interests, removing the incentives for violence should be the focus. Changes in the relationship must allow persuasion to determine outcomes instead of violence, though not all conflicts can return from the brink of violence to the stability of persuasion. Corruption, however, can interfere with this de-escalation. So what happens when corruption prevents resolution of divergent interests?
Sarah Chayes, author of Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, illustrates why conflicts of interest can cause violence: “Acute government corruption may in fact lie at the root of some of the world’s most dangerous and disruptive security challenges—among them the spread of violent extremism.” If violent extremism is caused in part by corruption, a manifestation of injustice, then surely targeting conflicts of interest is critical to de-escalating violence.
In addition to being a key cause of violence, corruption can exacerbate or prolong conflicts in at least two ways. First, it can undermine strategies implemented by institutions responsible for building stability. For instance, before the 2006-07 Operation Sinbad failed in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, “[m]any police stations in the city [were] alleged to be bases for corruption, organised crime and assassinations.” Corrupt actors and our inability to stop them still continue to undermine stability in Iraq , and there are countless other examples of corruption exacerbating violence.
Second, corruption can give an actor additional tools that embolden them to continue along the path of violence. A case in point was when corrupt Ukrainian and Russian officials transferred an estimated 12 Raduga KH-55 Granat nuclear cruise missiles (without warheads but still including technologies) to Iran in 2001. These officials’ conflict of interest added to the insecurity posed by the current regime in Tehran. Had Iran not received this technology through illicit means, it would likely be less of a regional threat.
Corruption therefore alters conflicts and restricts actors who are attempting to build stability and justice. Conflicts of interest, if not kept in check, can exacerbate conflicts of diverging interests.
The just war tradition explains how justice can be sustained while managing the use of force to resolve conflict. Conflicts of interest and corruption create injustice and are direct affronts to just war tradition’s principles, in particular the principles of jus in bello. Wisdom is therefore required to understand and target these conflicts so that they can be avoided or confronted and so that they do not undermine stability. Those concerned with jus in bello and the resolving of divergent interests should target conflicts of interests as seriously as they do the proponents of violent extremism.
Actors who abuse power and misuse influence will continue to prolong conflicts until fighting corruption becomes a core component of stabilization strategies. Just war theorists should therefore consider how to implement integrity and anti-corruption initiatives, and putting jus in bello principles in practice would help.
Jean Pierre Chabot is a principal analyst at Conscious Consensus Services (CCS).
Photo Credit: Anti-corruption billboard in Zambia. By Lars Plougmann, via Flickr.