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Seminar on the Demography of Conflict and Violence

Organized by the IUSSP Working Group on the Demography of Conflict and Violence
Oslo, Norway, 8-11 November, 2003


In November 2003, the IUSSP Working Group on the Demography of Conflict and Violence, with financial and other support from IUSSP, the Research Council of Norway, Statistics Norway and the Centre for the Study of Civil War at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), convened a seminar for researchers in demography, history, sociology, social anthropology, and political science to consider the relationship between demographic factors and the incidence of violence. Being one of the first seminars on such issues, the main goal was to get an overview of the scientific activities in this field. Thirty five papers were presented over the course of the seminar, out of more than 90 submitted to the working group. The sessions covered demographic causes of conflict and violence; impacts of conflict on mortality, fertility and reproductive health, and migration; questions of ethnicity and genocide; as well as methodology and the ethics of population research. In this highly diverse discussion, the relationships between human conflict and human populations that emerged were neither simple nor consistent, and elective human behaviors and cultural and political institutions shape those relationships in often surprising ways.

Causes of Conflict
Demographic factors have long been cited as potential causes of conflicts. Theorists have been interested in the role that ethnic make up and social inequality (either between classes or among distinct social groups) play in generating violence. Migration of populations has been thought to run hand-in-hand with pressures for conquest or territorial defense. Most recently, it has been argued that humanity stands on the edge of an era of neo-Malthusian conflict over scarce resources such as arable land or water. Alternately, some have argued that demographic trends are creating 'youth bulges' in a number of populations, leading to high numbers of underemployed and impoverished young men who will swell the ranks of city slums and, possibly, those of insurgent groups.

Studies of the incidence of conflict and violence, however, have not found simple or uniform relationships with demographic trends. Regarding questions of inequality, Marie Besançon of Harvard University presented a global study of wealth disparities and the incidence of violent conflict. Her work finds significantly different relationships between inequality and revolutionary conflicts, ethnic conflicts, and genocides. Her findings suggested one of the themes of the seminar: the need to look at various types of conflict-specific associated demographic patterns separately rather than assuming universal causes and impacts. Henrik Urdal of PRIO presented preliminary findings on conflict in India that similarly suggest that demographic factors may not be a good predictor of highly organized armed conflict but may have a clearer relationship to intercommunal violence.

Attempts to unpack the phenomenon of a youth bulge and conflict have also been quite diverse in their findings. Evidence clearly suggests that over population can strain government systems. For example, Tirza Aidar of the State University of Campinas, Brazil, has found strong correlation between areas of Campinas where rates of urban migration and population growth have been highest with higher rates of poverty, homicide, and homicide by firearms. However, looking globally, Richard Cincotta of Population Action International, has found that a cross-sectional model cannot refute the hypothesis that economic variables, rather than population variables are better indicators of future conflict. These results suggest that while youth bulges are a strain on state and economic capacity in some cases, for instance in Southeast Asia, that challenge can been turned into an opportunity through investment in education and job creation. Reviewing the microstates of the South Pacific, Helen Ware of the University of New England in Australia similarly stressed the importance of intervening institutional factors in the relationship between demography and conflict. She has found a correlation between those island states that have been unable to siphon their young adult cohorts into overseas economic opportunities with incidence of state failure. Ware suggested that her work signifies not that population structure determines conflict but rather shows that if policies (in this case immigration regimes) can be designed with demography in mind, the likelihood of violence can be significantly reduced.

Impacts of Conflict: Mortality and Fertility
The conflicts considered at this seminar were, by definition, costly in terms of human life and welfare. Researchers have found, however, a perhaps surprising diversity of ways in which the incidence of conflict impacts the long-term size and structure of a population. Ming Wen of the University of Utah began this discussion by presenting a global statistical analysis that confirms the intuitive hypothesis that, on average among nations with armed conflicts over the past half-century, violence has tended to increase mortality in both the short and long term. However, the presence of these longer range impacts means that a variety of mechanisms such as infrastructure damage and humanitarian disaster, overspending on the military and loss of social capital may be driving mortality after all the actual violent deaths of the conflict itself have occurred. John Landers of Oxford University presented a historical perspective here, arguing that it is only at a relatively recent stage in history that the battle violence of war itself, rather than the infectious disease and population displacement that accompanied it, became one of the primary direct causes of human suffering during conflict.

Long-term population impacts due to conflict arise not only through mortality but also because of relationships between conflict and fertility, reproductive health, and reproductive behavior. There is ample evidence of the suffering caused to populations in this manner. Beatriz Piedad Urdinola of the University of California, Berkeley, has documented the relationship between higher rates of infant mortality and higher rates of guerilla violence and homicide by comparing municipality level statistics in Colombia. She argues that such a relationship persists despite recent massive government investment in health care because violence often results in female-headed households that may be less able to earn income or access health services. Rafiqul Huda Chaudhury of UNFPA-Nepal has found similar poor outcomes when examining reproductive health (rates of vaccination, access to contraceptives, and access to medical assistance during childbirth) in conflict affected areas of Sri Lanka and Nepal, but argues that different mechanisms have been at work in each of these cases. A key factor in Nepal has been the high number of provincial medical workers who were induced to flee from their posts by the conflicting demands and threats of the government and rebels, while in Sri Lanka staffing has been relatively consistent but far too limited because of under funding in this area. The health infrastructure in areas surrounding conflicts also has important impacts on fertility and reproduction. Linda Barlett of the US Center for Disease Control has documented maternal mortality among Afghani women, in remote rural regions and in refugee camps in Pakistan. Her results show that the best pregnancy outcomes and access to services are among refugee populations based close to internationally funded health care facilities, and the worst outcomes are among the comparatively stable rural populations who live at great distances from health care services.

Conflict can induce changes in reproductive behaviors in even more complex ways by leading to changes in nuptial and reproductive patterns, which are, of course, elective as well as biological behaviors. Sara Randall of University College London has found that after a period of conflict and population displacement in northern Mali, the Kel Tamalsheq population has seen a surge in fertility related to increasing numbers of marriages (as well as increasing numbers of marriages to close kin), which Randall explains as a strategy of cultural preservation at a time when the population has lost many of the old features of their formerly nomadic way of life. Two research projects among Palestinian refugee populations in the West Bank and Gaza, presented by Norma Hazboun of Bethlehem University and by Marwan Khawaja at American University of Beirut, have documented an upsurge of fertility during the first Intifada, which may have been spurred by both the social turmoil of the time, which lowered barriers to marriage, and to politically motivated reproduction spurred by concern for relative Palestinian and Jewish population growth rates. Khawaja presented findings suggesting that educated Palestinian women were more likely to marry relatively less educated men and to marry at a younger age during the first Intifada, trends which belie common assumptions about education and fertility rates.

Two studies at the seminar also considered a type of micro-level conflict: domestic abuse, and showed another kind of relationship between elective behaviors, cultural norms and violence. A survey of Russian women presented by Irina Gorshkova of Moscow State University found that incidence of domestic violence was strongly correlated with the loss of a woman's control over her own reproductive plan: such women tended not to have their ideal number of children, had larger families overall, and higher rates of abortion. S.K. Mohanty of the International Institute for Population Studies in Mumbai found a similar loss of control over reproductive plans among women who suffer domestic violence in India. He also found a correlation between domestic violence and various social indicators such as lower levels of female education, a woman's consumption of alcohol, being in a couple that resides within a male-headed extended family household, and being a couple that has already had several female but no male children.

Impacts of Conflict: Migration
The complexity of the relationship between elective behaviors, such as marriage, and conflict is paralleled in the study of population movements during times of conflict. Here, too, relationships are not monocausal or simplistic. For example, a number of scholars have argued that some of the internal displacement seen during times of conflict is, in fact, motivated by economic opportunities and urban migration rather than actual violence, while others have argued that refugees and displaced persons may be unwilling to return to rural areas after a conflict terminates because of greater services and opportunities available in the urban areas. By contrast, Kevin J.A. Thomas of the University of Pennsylvania has gathered documentation on internally displaced populations in Sierra Leone that suggests that these individuals took intermediate moves before reaching Freetown (implying a desire to remain close to their homes), that few of them had gone to the camps to prepare for the expected migration of other family members to the city, and that most expressed a plan to leave Freetown after war had ceased. In another example of how population movements can challenge expectations, Stephen C. Lubkemann has found that during the civil war in Mozambique a portion of the men assumed dead or engaged in military action by international bodies who tracked refugee populations, had actually sent their families to refugee camps while themselves undertaking economic migration to South Africa. Discussion throughout the seminar brought to light an interesting debate over why and how refugees and internally displaced persons migrate and the issue of conditions in refugee camps relative to those in a population's place of origin and in the surrounding community. These topics are highly policy relevant and it was suggested that it would be useful in future sessions to invite a representative from the UNHCR and other international agencies that deal with displaced and refugee populations.

The Role of Demography as a Witness to Conflict
Demographic study during and after conflict is not of merely theoretical interest but also plays a role in preserving or creating a record of what has occurred and what the experiences of affected populations have been. Such work can provide a sober study of questions that are often obscured by rhetoric and conflicting claims of those involved in the conflict and can inform policymakers, advocates and NGOs, journalists and the public, and may even be called on in post-conflict processes of justice or reconciliation. Ewa Tabeau presented information to the seminar that is being compiled by the Demographic Unit at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The Unit is documenting individual cases of mortality in Bosnia and Herzegovina for use as evidence by the Tribunal. Colin Thomas, of the University of Ulster at Coleraine in Northern Ireland, has made special study of population movements during the wars in the Balkans in the early 1990s and argued that in addition to the need for studies that can witness incidents of fatal violence, systems should be constructed to prevent refugees and internally displaced persons from losing all record of their property and even their very existence in the upheaval of a conflict.

Demographic studies of the scope of violence and massacre can uncover important information in ways beyond providing individual records of mortality. The seminar considered the work of Philip Verwimp of the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, who has studied the fate of households that were identified in a 1992 census in Rwanda and found significant differences in mortality patterns between Tutsi and Hutu families during 1994. These findings are relevant to debates about what constitutes a genocide, in both the Rwandan context and globally. Beth Osborne Daponte of Carnegie Mellon University presented a framework for estimating excess deaths caused by war and argued that demographers can provide policy makers and military officials with unique expertise on the long term impacts of war and infrastructure damage on a population, considerations that are relevant to militaries seeking battle plans that will limit damage to civilian populations.

The potential for demography to bear witness to and perhaps prevent tragedy, however, is mirrored by the potential for such work to be abused. Many of the participants at the seminar have confronted issues relating to the ethics of asking people to recount extremely traumatic past losses. Some have argued that compiling data on certain ethnic categories or other social groupings may contribute to social polarization. Ram Bhagat of the International Institute for Population Studies in Mumbai argued that, in the case of India, religious data gathered in the census has been a good servant, allowing administration of affirmative action programs, but a bad master in its tendency to reinforce consolidation of religious identities, especially since information has been selectively released. Most importantly, census and other survey data that can be linked to individuals must also enjoy the strictest possible protections; there are too many historical cases of such records being used to select victims for political persecution and massacre.

William Seltzer of Fordham University, chair of the IUSSP Exploratory Mission on Demography and Human Rights, invited all participants in the seminar to participate in the upcoming IUSSP initiative on demography and human rights. This would focus not on typical themes of abortion, migration, and optimal population size, but on ethical issues that are often crowded out by these hot button topics: human rights consequences of demographic research and methods, the restriction of demographic research in totalitarian states; the use of demography in support of human rights; and ethical norms of research.

Needs for the future
At the end of the seminar, a number of concrete steps were suggested for advancing the still relatively infrequent collaboration among researchers interested in issues of both demography and conflict. Because this study is inherently interdisciplinary, the first theme stressed was the need for communication across disciplines. William Seltzer suggested that there is a need for a directory or database that helps demographers and political scientists to identify available compilations of data (e.g. lists of armed conflicts, variables on population size, indicators of mortality) and to understand what the various measures really signify and their strengths and weaknesses as indicators. There is a similar need for debating and clarifying methodology when it comes to the various tools used for gathering mortality indicators (relying on perpetrators, victims, or independent sources, as well as contemporaneous versus retrospective study), and for defining the various categories and concepts related to violence of which only one, "genocide," is clearly set out in international law.

As well as this communication within the discipline, Ware spoke on the need to draw policy implications and unique findings when presenting demographic research to a nonacademic public. She suggested that the IUSSP consider launching an electronic journal with rather short articles in which studies by IUSSP authors were summarized for dissemination to media and policy outlets. Demographers provide some of the most careful study of human population and the kinds of questions that are considered vital for understanding why conflict occurs and what impacts it has. Thus, this work should be made accessible to the wide range of political, non-governmental, and media actors interested in these issues.

This report does not summarize all the papers presented at this seminar. For a complete list of authors and paper titles, etc., please see the addendum. Some of the authors have been invited to submit their papers for publication in forthcoming issues of Journal of Peace Research and European Journal of Population.