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Conflicts rage across the globe

By Christy Oglesby

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[Editors Note: The analysis and views presented in this project are based on interviews with experts at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan national membership organization, think tank and publisher, with headquarters in New York, offices in Washington, D.C., and programs nationwide.]

(CNN) -- Iraq and North Korea have dominated the world's attention in recent months, yet in countries and regions around the globe, strife smolders with sporadic notice.

Civil war. Mutilations. Threat of nuclear deployment. Human trafficking. Starving babies. Those are some of the seeds and harvest of conflicts in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America.

Neglecting these conflicts is dangerous, said Arthur Helton, director for peace and conflict studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a national think tank and publisher with headquarters in New York and offices in Washington.

"States that are weak and cannot police their own territories, that are involved in wars among their people, those are places that dedicated terrorists can inhabit," Helton said in an interview. Experts noted that is what happened in Afghanistan under the Taliban, where al Qaeda terrorists were able plan and train for attacks in the years before September 11, 2001.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan made a similar point recently when he told journalists that crises throughout the globe demand attention despite the current spotlight on Iraq and North Korea.

Though the U.N. Security Council is charged with focusing on Iraq at this time, Annan noted, "The international community should be focusing on some of the other agendas, other issues."

Experts at the Council on Foreign Relations provided with outlines of some of the world's regional conflicts they consider particularly critical and offered recommendations for possible solutions.

The countries and regions in conflict identified for this project are: Angola, the Balkans, Burundi, Colombia, Indonesia, Kashmir, the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.

These are areas wrestling with instability, rebels or hostilities that could jeopardize other continents or the world, the experts said.

"It is not possible to live in a world of gated communities," Helton said. "It is just not a sustainable future to think that North America and Western Europe can prosper while Africa continues to spiral downward."

Colonial curse or crutch?

Each of these regions is a former colony or has evolved from the breakup of another entity. Yugoslavia's 1991 demise following the collapse of the Iron Curtain, for example, created six Balkan countries. Britain once controlled Zimbabwe and Kashmir. Uzbekistan emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Others are former colonies.

In some cases, the disintegration of the progenitor or the colonial past is so remote that it has no bearing on current conflict. But in others, the link between past problems and present troubles is obvious.

A civil war in Angola erupted with the African nation's independence from Portugal in 1975. Since then, the Council on Foreign Relations says as many as 1.5 million people may have died in the power struggle between two factions.

An Indonesian student shouts during a demonstration protesting fuel and electricity price hikes.
An Indonesian student shouts during a demonstration protesting fuel and electricity price hikes.

In Indonesia, experts said, lingering memories of the nation's legacy as a colony of the Netherlands has left a reluctance to accept help from outsiders.

"Countries that might want to provide humanitarian assistance or link development with conflict prevention strategies are seen as suspect," said David L. Phillips, a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Soviet legacies in Uzbekistan include depleted water resources as a result of aggressive farming techniques, partially cleaned toxic dumps and soil contaminated with fertilizers that have shown up in breast milk in areas with high incidences of birth defects, said Rajan Menon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Because the government is authoritarian, said Menon, " when social and economic tensions exist, there's no place ... to vent them, and therefore they take radical turns."

"One is that there has been an underground Islamist movement called the IMU, the Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan, which clearly had links with the Taliban regime in Central Asia."

Millions of Zimbabweans face starvation, a U.S.-based food monitoring organization reported recently. Agriculture officials blame the impending food shortage on drought and the government's controversial seizure of farmland owned by members of the nation's white minority for redistribution to landless blacks in an attempt to right a colonial wrong.

But placing blame on colonizers isn't useful, Menon said.

"There is a generation now to whom colonial rule is a distant memory," he said " ... Rulers are going to have to deal with the expectation of the public quite independently of the historical legacy.

Long absences of international attention

It is not conceivable that one country can wither without affecting others, policy experts said. Technology, high-speed travel and interdependent economies make it impossible for even the most remote place to function as an island, they said.

Colombians carry coffins of peasants killed by rebels in January.
Colombians carry coffins of peasants killed by rebels in January.

In Colombia, the lack of a strong legal system, drug trafficking, energy problems, kidnappings and bombings can create economic shock waves that ripple in places such as Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, said Julia Sweig, senior fellow and deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Latin America Program.

Political problems in Venezuela have raised international concerns because of that South American nation's role as one of the world's leading oil suppliers. The tensions, for example, have prompted the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to increase production to mitigate a shortfall in supply.

Since tensions broke out in the African nation of Burundi in 1993, more than 200,000 people have been killed, Helton said, and hundreds of thousands more have been displaced. "Burundi could evolve into a genocide without too much imagining," he said.

The concern for the Balkans is that the economy could slip further into criminalized activity where there already is growing poverty and trafficking in people. The Philippines represents a potential harbor for terrorists given the presence of Abu Sayyaf, a radical Islamic group.

The conflict over Kashmir has raised the specter of nuclear conflict. Pakistan and India -- two nuclear powers -- both claim the region, an area with ambiguous ownership ever since the partition of British holdings in South Asia during the last century.

"The Indian government has been pretty clear on no first use [of nuclear weapons]," said Radha Kumar, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "However, I don't understand where their confidence comes from that Pakistan will never use them. ... Most of the U.S. intelligence was that Pakistan had gone a long way down the road to deployment."

start quoteYes, the world is a messy place. But the instruments are there to deal with these problems.end quote
-- Kofi Annan, U.N. secretary-general

Most regions in conflict suffer from long absences of international attention until overwhelming bloodshed or combat renews interest, Helton said, adding that the cycle of atrocity, shock, atrocity should be a wake-up call to seek lasting solutions.

"The effort to sort of disregard those events has a short-term advantage, but over the long term, it is terribly destabilizing," he said. "To the extent that we have a world in surprise after surprise indicates there's something lacking in our general world order."

In his comments at the United Nations in January, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed optimism and said these conflicts across the globe represent opportunities for the international community to work toward peace.

"Nations working together can make a difference. Nations upholding the rule of law can advance the cause of a fairer world," he said. "Yes, the world is a messy place. But the instruments are there to deal with these problems."

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