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Forgotten Wars: What happens when conflicts ‘drop off the map’?

It has been a common saying since the turn of the millennium that human beings are now living in the most peaceful time since the dawn of our species. Most academics and studies agree that the percentage of people killed in violent wars has decreased over time, and that violent deaths decrease proportionally as populations grow larger and societies become more organized. However, such initially reassuring data and claims should be carefully analysed . While it might be true that the number of bloody conflicts has decreased over time, the death tolls they generate appear to have increased. Furthermore, peace as a condition shows an unequal geographical distribution.

Indeed, several parts of the world are still submerged in what can be described as “forgotten wars”. These conflicts have been, as European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Poul Nielson said almost twenty years ago, dropping off the map. Conflicts in countries such as Yemen, Somalia, Sudan or even (to a certain extent) Myanmar gather little international attention from the media, are not prioritised within the foreign policy agenda of world leaders, and rarely feature in the imagination of global publics as they might have once before, if at all. The plight of those who fall victim to forgotten wars is lost under an invisibility veil, whose effects can last for years, if not decades. Where and why do these forgotten wars rage on? And why are certain conflicts given more priority over others? This blog post will discuss some of the main reasons why certain conflicts are forgotten , as well as underline some of the main consequences of this phenomenon. Lastly, it will outline possible recommendations to mitigate this phenomenon.

Examples of forgotten wars

In 2021, about two dozen high-intensity wars were fought across the globe. If all types of violent conflicts are considered, this number rises to roughly 350 existing conflicts. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that in 2022 around 274 million people will be in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. Additionally, the sum poses a worrisome 40-million-person increase from a year ago, a figure which was already the highest in decades. Yet, not all of those at risk have a guarantee that international help will arrive.

Yemen has been engulfed in a civil war for the better part of the last decade. The Yemeni conflict has been fought between the rebel forces of the Huthi group, backed by Iran, and the government forces, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, which in turn have been the centre of a power competition between the Iranian and Saudi governments competing for regional hegemony. Over 2 million children are out of school due to the ongoing conflict, while around 4 million people have been internally displaced within the country. Moreover, over 16 million people are suffering from acute hunger.

Yemen: the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, © European Union 2018 (photo by: Peter Biro), licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2021 alone, over 20 000 people lost their lives to the conflict in Yemen, amounting to a dreadful total of about 100 000 lives lost since the beginning of the conflict. Despite the magnitude of the struggle and of its humanitarian consequences, it has received little to no attention in the mainstream media and in the agenda of the main international powers, besides occasional condemnation by international organisations and advocacy and campaigning work from humanitarian groups and NGOs. What’s more, early in October 2021 Saudi Arabia pressured the UN to terminate the mandate of the only international mechanism responsible for examining human rights violations happening in the country, a specialized working group which had been installed in the Human Rights Council since 2017. It is important to remark that Saudi Arabia is one of the main regional allies of the USA in the Arabian Peninsula and has been accused of human rights violations both within and outside its borders.

Lucky are the people of Yugoslavia and Somalia as the world's eyes rest on them. Condemned are the people of Juba for the world is denied access to the town and even does not seem to care anyway. It may be a blessing to die in front of a camera - then at least the world will get to know about it. But it is painful to die or be killed, without anybody knowing it.” Hand-written letter smuggled out from the besieged Southern Sudanese town of Juba, August 1992.

When discussing forgotten wars, Africa cannot go unmentioned, given that it is one of the continents in which violence has never ceased to menace many of its inhabitants’ lives. A good illustration of a “dropped off the map” conflict, which once indeed held the world’s attention, is the case of Somalia. Since the end of the 1980s, the country has been caught up in a power struggle between various clans competing for governmental control and therefore engulfed in political upheaval. The scenario has created a difficult-to-resolve governmental and power vacuum, with the presidential mandate having expired earlier in 2021 without a viable replacement and no future election date set. On top of all of that, the violent threat of a terrorist group, the al-Shabaab, contributes to the social and political turmoil in the country.

Forgotten or at least partly forgotten conflicts are also to be found in Asia. International spectators might associate the word “Rohingya” with the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, which was further aggravated by a coup d’état in 2021. The situation can be considered a half-remembered war rather than a forgotten one, since it has been a rising centrepiece of political and other multidisciplinary academic interest and a focus of the international community, especially in the past three decades. In this context, one of the most noteworthy events has been the 2017 Rohingya Muslim international refugee crisis. Significantly, since 1948 when the country obtained independence, it has been the site of the world's longest-running civil war. Important domestic and international developments have concurrently taken place within the country without much scrutiny or attention from the international community, causing plights similar to those of the Rohingya and other ethnic minority groups in the country to go grossly overlooked or “invisibilized” to mass media and the international community. One group subject to this semi-concealed fate and which has been living under the same repressive Tatmadaw (Burmese military armed forces) rule are the Kachin, one of Burma's largest Christian minorities, concentrated mostly in the northern Kachin State, bordering China and India. The Kachin conflict has generally been characterized by low-level clashes punctuated by severe combat between the government and ethnic forces, but violence has increased in recent years, especially since 2011.

The elements of oblivion

This article suggests that conflicts are “forgotten” because of four main elements: an estimation of the lack of assistance reaching those in need; the level of media coverage; the positioning (if at all) in international geopolitical agendas; and lastly the key question of time. Thus, the reasons for the invisibility or common “memory loss” when it comes to certain conflicts are intersectional and complex. Another key fact to remember is that even if the immediacy and scale of wars attracts attention, both domestic and international authorities might effectively censor or minimize the publicisation of some conflicts due specific geo-strategic and economic concerns connected to the power dynamics at regional and global levels. Importantly, this does little to encourage interest from important international stakeholders such as the United States or the European Union to engage with it more actively.

Another element worth mentioning is the ever-shorter human attention span, as we are bombarded with streams of information 24/7. It should be noted that information overload, or “information crisis” is not a novel phenomenon; humans have been trying to adjust to increasing knowledge flows since the 15th century when technological innovations such as the printed press came about. Nonetheless, this plays a secondary role in the analysis of the amount of attention given to these conflicts, since the power of agenda-setting held by the media and international actors is imperative when framing information. In turn, this shapes the likelihood of an effective plan being put into place to tackle the problem.

A last cause worth mentioning is the existence of a decades-long skewed empirical picture, which reflects an existing bias in security studies which tends to favour the study of certain civil wars or conflicts over others. For instance, the top journals in the subject primarily publish research on armed conflicts in Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, while armed conflicts in Asia have received relatively little attention despite their ubiquity and protracted character. Selectivity bias in conflict reporting is a well-known phenomenon that can be attributed to commercialized media production's perceived newsworthiness. In other words, there is also an important scholarly bias which plays a great deal in how to prioritize and understand information and therefore shapes action regarding conflicts.

Consequences of forgotten wars

The failure to bring these other groups’ plight to the forefront of the international debate and the lack of criticism this invisibility entails translates into an ineffective international response which might hamper efforts to bring the conflicts to an end any time soon. Low-intensity or long-lasting conflicts pose a direct threat to the observance of human rights for all of those involved, especially civilians. Forced displacement, repression, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, disappearances, and breaches of freedom of expression are some of the common occurrences in these situations, which can have generations-long negative impacts on communities.

Furthermore, when conflicts go unresolved, the risk of violent outbreaks persists, and the movement of armaments from neighbouring conflicts, as well as vice versa, can precipitate outbreaks at any time. Conflict stagnation also obstructs the population's social and economic progress, particularly the attainment of gender equality. The unfettered flow of small arms, on the other hand, contributes to the militarization of society, with disastrous consequences for marginalized and at risk groups such as women and children who are placed at greater risk of domestic violence. To put it more simply, a significant disparity and irregularity in media coverage, public awareness, and the availability of help to global emergencies happens at the expense of the victims since media and international attention go hand in hand with foreign humanitarian support.

Looking forward

Conflicts should be understood and dealt with in a more holistic manner and taking into account a multilevel approach which encompasses international stakeholders (e.g., international organisations and nationstates) but also the media and the public, actors which could represent an important pressure mechanism to reorient a country’s priorities. In other words, both top-down and bottom-up approaches should go hand in hand.

More specifically, what can be done in order to properly address the issue? First, a crucial step is to correctly address the root causes of the conflicts and understand on which specific social divides , geopolitical interests or other elements these are primarily entrenched. The lack of a profound understanding of the opposing and concurrent goals among the different domestic and international actors involved might hinder efforts to properly deal with it ex post. Second, the active support of the international community should focus not only on a reactionary stance, but instead in a more pre-emptive or ex ante manner. There are procedures in place to prevent conflict, such as the Early Warning and Response Systems (EWRS). However, those ought to be combined with a constant and not shrinking effort to try and mitigate conflicts. Third, there needs to be a recognition of the current ever-changing nature of warfare, which allows certain struggles to fall in between the fine lines of what constitutesarmed or violent conflict. Even the understanding of the duration and when a crisis ceases to be one need to be expanded, since the boundaries of being at peace or at war are no longer as clear as they might have been in the past. And lastly, there needs to be a constant effort made by policy makers, scholars, the media itself and the public to go beyond the “if it bleeds, it leads” posture, which self-reinforces a tendency to only broadcast negativity.

It might be wishful thinking to believe that shedding light on a conflict will lead to its solution, but it certainly represents an important step without which peace and a full observance of human rights are ever delayed for years and sometimes decades on end, as some of the mentioned examples here demonstrate.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are personal to the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organisation, or employer.



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