Throughout the world, we are eyewitnesses to constant and seemingly never-ending conflict. When the conflict ceases, however, so does the limelight and this leads to several issues including the lack of attention being given to the post-conflict context.
The post-conflict context generally refers to the period between the end of a conflict and ‘future peace’. This vague understanding of a post-conflict context restricts not only the attention given to a region after the end of a conflict but also directly affects the peace process due to its vaguely defined nature. Today, Iraq and Libya are two countries considered to be in this ‘period of post-conflict’, and we will be looking to them to highlight the importance of improving our understanding of the post-conflict context.
Before moving ahead, it is important to understand the present situation in these two nations. After the ‘defeat’ of ISIS in 2017, Iraq has been on the road to recovery from years of civil war and the presence of foreign troops on their land. However, despite the end of the conflict in the traditional sense i.e., military conflict, there are still several issues that stem from it which have not been resolved. This includes the formation of a government which has finally begun taking shape after nearly a year of stagnation. Despite signs of improvement, Iraq could be back to square one with the possible threat of sectarian violence that could result from the sensitivities surrounding the formation of a government.
Similarly, Libya too is presently recovering from successive civil wars with the future still looking uncertain despite the lack of military conflict. Presently, divisions in the country are fuelled along political and tribal lines. In both cases, the end of the conflict in the traditional sense neither reflects the end of its issues nor guarantees a future period of peace. This brings us to the question, how do we understand the post-conflict context?
To answer this, we will be using the idea of Fundamental Human Needs initially developed by Abraham Maslow and built on by Manfred Max-Neef. There are seven fundamental needs that are essential for humans to thrive and in this article, we will be focusing on three of them - Safety and Survival, Connection and Acceptance, and Esteem and Identity.
The needs for Connection and Acceptance, and Esteem and Identity can be further simplified to understand the need and importance of social and personal identities. More often than not, conflict, especially civil conflict is fought along ethnoreligious lines – this was and still is the case in Iraq and Libya. Iraq’s population is ethnically diverse with a significant Arab population – who identify as mostly either Shia or Sunni Muslims, and a small but significant Kurdish population of whom 98% identify as Sunni Muslims. It is also important to note that Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world to not have a state and despite being a minority still play a significant role in domestic and regional geopolitics.
A diverse population is by no means a driver of conflict, however, when a significant portion of the population feels that they are being persecuted because of their identity, the conversation turns from a question of co-existence to a question of who wields the power and over whom? For as long as there is a perception that one group is ruling over the other(s), conflict is within sniffing distance.
To rectify this post the ‘defeat’ of ISIS in 2017, a 2018 national election was held meant to redesign the country’s political landscape. The election resulted in a Kurdish President, Sunni Muslim Speaker and a Shia Muslim Prime Minister to unite different sections of Iraqi society and usher in a new generation of reforms. However, by the end of 2019, this government was met with mass protests across the country for failing to deliver on its promised reforms.
After years of further instability, October of 2022 marked the beginning of a new start in Iraqi politics with the appointment of a new President and Prime Minister. Efforts to elect a new President were delayed due to conflicts within and amongst different groups in the country with the final deadlock that required resolving the disagreements between the two Kurdistan Political Parties – The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party. This however still does not clear the path for a period of “future peace” with similar progress being made in 2018 only to result in further disputes.
Similarly in Libya, they too have faced divisions across religious, regional, tribal and political lines since the ouster of Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011. Since 2018, power has been contested between the Libyan National Army and the Government of National Accord – a United Nations-backed interim government which has since been replaced by the Government of National Unity and now the Government for National Stability attempting to unite not only the various factions involved but also the different regions of Libya. Despite various attempts at uniting the different factions, clashes between them continue with the most recent clash being in September of 2022.
The reason this is important is that despite years of conflict along religious and ethnic lines, personal identity issues remain deeply contested and individuals continue to fight for the rights of their respective groups. It is improbable to have a society with zero disagreements, however, can we consider a conflict largely based on ethnoreligious lines to have ended when the same ‘disagreements’ that had persisted during the military conflict continue to exist even now but only in a more political form? Is the end of the military conflict the sole demarcation for the beginning of the post-conflict process?
From identity, we now move on to the fundamental needs of safety and survival. Safety and survival are arguably the paramount fundamental needs and a major aspect of this includes health, healthcare, and wellness. One way to consider improvements on the healthcare front is the expenditure on it as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It is however important to note that data official data on this is available only up to 2019. In Iraq, healthcare expenditure had gone up to 4.44% of the GDP in 2019 compared to 4.19% of the GDP in 2017. This translates to a net increase in expenditure of only USD 39 per person in the two years since the end of the conflict. This is particularly striking considering that the expenditure on healthcare in the first few years of the ‘post-conflict’ period is not significantly higher than during the years of conflict.
In the case of other important health metrics such as life expectancy and infant mortality, both Libya and Iraq do show improving trends, however, when we look at the case of deaths caused due to communicable and non-communicable diseases, it paints a completely different picture. While the percentage of deaths caused by communicable diseases does show small and marginal signs of improvement in both of these countries from 2010 to 2019 with Libya improving from 12% in 2010 to 10% in 2019, and Iraq improving from 21% in 2010 to 15% in 2019, the figures surrounding the percentage of deaths caused by non-communicable diseases does not look promising. In 2010 (mid-way through years of conflict in Iraq), the percentage of deaths caused by non-communicable diseases was 60, but in 2019 (two years after the ‘end of the conflict’), that number had further risen to 67. Similarly in Libya, this figure was 75 in 2010 (at the onset of the conflict), and that number remained the same even in 2019 (a year after a United Nations Backed interim government began to take shape).
This once again brings us to the question – is the end of military conflict a good enough metric to demarcate the beginning of the post-conflict process? It is evident that not only do we see little to no improvement on the safety and security front in the post-conflict period to the period of conflict, but we also see no improvements in the social and personal identities of individuals as disputes continue to exist at the same level as before (if not more) but are just taking up different forms.
The purpose of highlighting these fundamental needs in the context of Iraq and Libya is to bring to the forefront our flawed understanding of the post-conflict context. Post-conflict simply cannot be understood as the period between the binary of war and peace or ‘future peace’. Highlighting the often ill-understood and vaguely defined post-conflict context is a necessary step to improve how countries can develop during this transitionary period. The post-conflict process is extremely delicate and we simply cannot use the absence of war presently and the hope for a future period of peace to ignore the plight of millions of people across the world whose daily realities continue to be shaped by years of conflict.