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Learning not to forget: Our short memory of conflict and its long term consequences

December 4th, 2014

Emily Daglish – Research Assistant

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We are guilty, notably in the developed world, of focusing our attention on issues we deem of immediate importance at the expense of long term intractable conflicts. However, what we continuously fail to recognise is how those issues we have never prioritised, and those we long ago forgot, continue to drastically shape our economic stability and security. Extremism, economic stagnation and intractability are just some of the implications policy makers’ inaction has contributed to. This brief will document first the case of Western Sahara, where the conflict between Morocco and the Polisario has fuelled both radicalisation and economic stagnation. Next, the legacy of international reaction to chemical weapons in Syria and political wariness over Gaza are documented for their impacts on radicalisation and inaction leading to further suffering. Policy makers in the West are, and should be, representative of the interests of their populace. However, it is their responsibility to ensure that there is greater understanding of global impacts of such conflicts and how they affect domestic communities in their daily lives and futures.

Western Sahara

Undervalued impacts of a forgotten conflict

It is crucial first to turn to a conflict we can truly call ‘forgotten’. The conflict over Western Sahara dates back to 1975, pitting Morocco against the Algeria-backed Polisario. Although a UN brokered peace deal in 1991 on the understanding that a referendum would determine the area’s fate, this has never been implemented and the conflict unresolved.[1] With more than 200,000 people still displaced[2], their plight, conflict and condition is being gravely undervalued. Western Sahara demonstrates how the international community fails to keep track of conflicts, its own involvement and the detrimental impacts placating tensions rather than fully resolving conflicts. From this example the international community must learn and ensure that we do not forego responsibility in other conflicts as we have done with Western Sahara.

The unresolved dispute over Western Sahara has had regionally defining impacts that are underestimated, with economic and security aspects being the most acute. The cold relationship between Rabat and Algiers has been a direct cause of the failure of the region to consolidate a Maghreb trading bloc.[3] The four North African countries (plus Mauritania) in 1989 created a regional economic and security cooperation organisation, the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), encouraged by a plan of the UN Economic Commission for Africa for regional groupings in the continent. The UMA has been ‘frozen’ since 1995, largely because of political tensions between Algeria and Morocco. It has not met at the decision-making level for nearly two decades, and sectoral commissions on various aspects of cooperation have made little progress.[4] Complementary natural resources and pooled labour resources[5] are just some of the opportunities being missed, preventing the region from moving away from reliance on others, particularly Europe. A 2006 World Bank study estimated that the lack of sufficient regional trade was equivalent to 2/3% of the Maghreb’s GDP. In 2008, regional trade was estimated at around 3%, in comparison to 64% traded with the European Union.[6]

If the international community were to recognise that the conflict over the Western Sahara remains a considerable stumbling block then efforts to improve relations could potentially result in fulfillment of such a regional economic bloc. It is estimated that regional trade for the Maghreb would improve by between $4-9billion.[7] To improve the economic prospects of the region and the livelihoods of those living there, an agreement on cross-border cooperation is a crucial first step to the region’s future. The rationale can easily be framed as a significant opportunity to expand trade and investment and be sold to an electorate concerned about their own economic futures. Policy makers may be able to forego conflicts that are not in the daily news agenda; economic prosperity however will always be a popular topic that can be utilised to reduce instability indirectly. It is also up to policy makers and others to ensure that the ramifications of forgotten conflicts are being publically analysed and given more priority on the political agenda.

Alongside the economic implications of the conflict, Morocco’s boycott of the African Union[8] has left regional security lacking, indirectly both punishing the population and subsequently risking wider conflict given its insufficient structure to target terrorist groups.[9] The failure of the international community to sufficiently maintain pressure on the parties to the conflict and uphold its humanitarian obligations has allowed Western Sahara to descend into repeated spells of violent protest[10] that perpetuate an intractable situation. The socio-economic effects of the lack of economic cooperation have serious implications on the ability of jihadist groups to recruit young men in particular. High unemployment in the region as a result of the conflict’s effects on regional cooperation and social budgets provide accessible recruitment for terrorism, smuggling and other illegal activities.[11] The Sahel region in particular, with its large ungoverned areas, has been exploited by groups for a number of years. The West’s perceived compliance towards the Sahrawi’s exploitation by both Morocco and other actors has provided a powerful narrative for extremists.

Refugees are particularly vulnerable as conditions in the camps, especially human rights abuses, have fed resentment and contributed to large numbers of young men from the area fighting in foreign conflicts on behalf of Islamic extremism.[12] The international community’s ignorance and the media’s short attention span have fed into increasing our own security risks. Like the economic argument, security is consistently a popular topic that can be exploited in order to support increased and sustain efforts to resolve the conflict over the Western Sahara. Despite the lack of international attention, the human rights conditions of the region’s population have been noted on the UN level, especially considering that the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) is one of the few UN peace missions in the world without a human rights mandate.[13] There are widespread concerns over human rights abuses in the Western Sahara and the Tindouf refugee camps. However, the recent renewal of the mission’s mandate, which omitted a proposed amendment to include a human rights mandate for the peacekeepers, was a hugely missed opportunity – but not a surprising one. The lack of priority and attention to the region in comparison to other conflicts means there sufficient international pressure on the UNSC is lacking. Again, by neglecting the long term impact of failing to protect the refugees, international inaction is feeding into the resentment fuelling extremism. Influential pressure from powerful players curtailed the humanitarian impulse to act. Even the UN Security Council finds itself under little pressure in these circumstances when the public are simply unaware of a conflict they perceive to have been resolved more than two decades ago.

It is understandable that the conflict in Western Sahara has not been on top of the international agenda given the events of the past few decades, the rise in Jihadist terrorism, the Arab Spring and the financial crisis being just a few. However, this is a fundamental oversight by the international community that has underestimated both the regional and local impacts of such a sustained conflict. Turning to the more recent conflicts in Syria and Gaza, both have garnered notable coverage, yet important aspects remain undervalued by the international community and are at risk of having similar but more deadly impacts as the conflict in Western Sahara.


Forgotten promises fuelling the fire

The civil war in Syria has been ongoing for nearly four years. Our news coverage, fundraising and political efforts have visibly moved in waves, often in response to crises or massacres, with prolonged periods where the conflict and its consequences are firmly in the background of people’s minds rather than initiating action. As the crisis currently stands, 10.8 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance,[14] with the UN estimating that nearly 200,000 people have died in the fighting.[15] The conflict has spilled over into the region and beyond, with Islamic State topping the news agenda and the sheer numbers of refugees flooding into neighbouring countries turning the tide away from humanitarianism.[16]

Chemical weapons atrocities committed in 2013 firmly put Syria back on the international agenda. The unprecedented cooperation between world powers that led to a framework to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons in September 2013[17] demonstrated global ability, yet also its opportunistic nature. It was worryingly unsurprising that, prior to the chemical weapons attack, far too few were aware of a conflict that had already killed nearly 100,000 people.[18] Equally concerning is that it took worldwide media uproar to spur policy makers into action, when, in reality, the use of such chemical weapons against civilians had been commonplace and well documented.[19] Part of the reason why there was such media uproar was the limited discussion on the topic in the public eye prior to September 2013. The scale of the event was catastrophic, and combined with lack of awareness it increased demand for action. Nevertheless, this framework has yet to be fulfilled, John Kerry and others determining that the Syrian regime has in fact broken the treaty.[20]

When images of children burnt and suffocating covered our media for weeks, policy makers showed considerable skills and adeptness. In May 2014 however, the OPW found that chlorine gas had been used during fighting, just one example of the numerous claims and evidence that shows continued use of chemical weapons in the civil war.[21] Syrian opposition groups view the chemical weapons deal as the end of US involvement in Syria. In addition, the failure of the international community to fulfil its promises to rid Assad of chemical weapons[22] has further contributed to the disenchantment felt, one that the international community is only just coming to recognise has heavily contributed to the rise of more international threats.

The most prominent of these is the Islamic State, who has merged the conflict in Syria with one they have swiftly created in Iraq.[23] The world appeared taken by surprise when the jihadist group engulfed large swathes of Iraq. Syria, the conflict the international community had deemed too difficult to solve, have reared its ugly head in one of the West’s most recently healed wounds. To those following Syria’s conflict, the emergence of Islamic State as a regional force will not come as a surprise as failure of the international community to support moderate opposition, alongside aid relief that has not matched requirements, lent itself to breed violent extremism.[24] Short attention span, alongside other pressures such as the international economy, has blinded the policy making community to the manipulations and complexities involved in the conflict. The increasing dependence on quick fixes furthermore means that the linkages are missed, pressure foregone and the consequences demonstrably dire. Recent months have shown an increasing awareness in policy and media circles of the links between Syria’s war and regional instability – a positive sign but one that should not be forgotten if the situation in Iraq fails to top the news agenda.

It must be recognised that no conflict exists alone before we are forced to catch up on issues we should have been engaging with all along. Islamic State may top one or two news-stands today in the West, but in reality even if Islamic State are somehow quelled in their movement across the region, the underlying causes remain. The West’s perceived reluctance to engage substantial diplomatic capital on the crisis continues to fuel resentment. IS are what chemical weapons were a year ago – a definable crisis, but one that needs sustained engagement and not to be forgotten.


The ‘unsolvable’ conflict repeatedly side-stepped

The summer of 2014 demonstrated how policy-makers wariness to spend political capital has led to yet further violence and suffering, Gaza and Israeli civilians being the recurring victims. Only a few months on from the catastrophic conflict in the Gaza Strip and the international pressure and debate promised to the crisis, the Middle East peace process has all but collapsed. Coupled with a failure to fully appreciate information disparities and bias from both sides, policy makers continue to shy away from the world’s most intractable conflict.

During the crisis, the humanitarian impact of the violence led to considerable media coverage and debate over the status of the population of Gaza.[25] Although there are still some international effects being felt from the conflict, such as the slowly growing recognition of a Palestinian state among those previously opposed,[26] a prominent discussion on a way to solve the conflict has all but disappeared from public view.[27] National interests play a major role in this – the political capital expenditure involved in attempting to reconcile Israeli/Palestinian conflicts is deemed too high for most, and when our media no longer puts the political pressure on policy makers to act, we see their reluctance to get involved and the consequences.

The status of the Palestinian territories and the failures of the international community demonstrate a combination of both the longevity of the conflict in the Western Sahara and the radicalising impacts noted in Syria. One of the dominant reasons why the conflict in Gaza garnered significant attention at the time was because of the perceived national interests of policy makers in the developed world. It is indeed the case that the diaspora communities ensured that it came up on our radar. However, the linkage between our reluctance to engage with the conflict and radicalisation in particular is significantly undervalued by policy makers,[28] even more so than in Syria. The Arab Israeli conflict remains the elephant in the room in policy making circles, one deemed too complex to solve and yet with considerable ramifications for us all, let alone for the Palestinian and Israeli people.


These three examples stand as evidence to support greater involvement in conflict resolution, humanitarian efforts and for the international community to hold up their responsibility to protect. The implications of foregoing this responsibility are dire and cannot be understood alone. Socio-economic issues feed radicalisation, failure to protect the most vulnerable leads to greater suffering and resentment, and wariness of diplomatic failure entrenches conflict. Policy makers must be bold in their attempts at peace, strong in their demands for civilian protection and aware that inaction easily breeds insecurity. The following policy recommendations represent these conclusions and the need for swift, coordinated and sustained action. It is perhaps understandable that these long term arguments are lost on a public de-sensitized to conflict in regions deemed too far away. However, policy makers must take it upon themselves to provide arguments for action, be this through a domestic economic or security perspective, and to engage the public in debates rather than allowing debates to take place on the sidelines away from the areas that have the most impact in the long term.

Policy Recommendations

  1. If efforts are to make a tangible difference to the world’s most intractable conflicts, they must be maintained. Political capital has limited use in large bursts with nothing in between. The most effective change is brought about by sustained and coordinated efforts that recognise the importance of compromise and inclusiveness without unrealistic expectations.
  2. Policy makers, non-governmental organisations and the media should work together to ensure the international community does not forego its responsibility to protect civilians. Policy makers should work to move away from reacting to the 24-hour news cycle and instead focus on ensuring that policies produced are those most needed. There is considerable media and organisational analysis of these conflicts underway and policy makers need to engage with these debates rather than sweeping them under the rug.
  3. Perception of national interests must take a more long term and global perspective. Given our globalized world, no one conflict exists in isolation. Although there is recognition of this, this is seldom translated into wider policy debates, which in turn feeds the perception that responsibility to those most in need is being cast aside. There must be more coordination and willingness amongst policy makers to advocate resources, political capital and security to those most at risk. Those most at risk are also those most vulnerable to become those causing new risks.

Emily Daglish is a Research Assistant with the HSC. Contactable at:


Cite this article as:

Daglish, E. (2014). ‘Learning not to forget: our short memory of conflict and its long term consequences’ Human Security Centre Policy Brief, Issue 12, December 2014.

[1] Reuters, April 22, 2014 [Link]

[2] Guardian,  April 4, 2013 [Link]

[3] Reference for business [Link]

[4] Conciliation Resources, 2011 [Link]

[5] Reference for business [Link]

[6] World Bank, June 14, 2012 [Link]

[7] Conciliation Resources, 2011 [Link]

[8] The Brenthurst Foundation, January 2013 [Link]

[9] Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, April 2, 2013 [Link]

[10] Cyclopaedia [Link]

[11] Conciliation Resources, 2011 [Link]

[12] TIME, August 4, 2014 [Link]

[13] Amnesty International, April 23, 2013 [Link]

[14] UNOCHA [Link]

[15] Huffington Post, August 22, 2014 [Link]

[16] BBC, November 13, 2014 [Link]

[17] RT, September 14, 2013 [Link]

[18] Guardian, September 13, 2013 [Link]

[19] NTI, July 2014 [Link]

[20] The Telegraph, September 18, 2014 [Link]

[21] Daily Mail, August 21, 2014 [Link]

[22] My North West, August 21, 2014 [Link]

[23] Guardian, June 18, 2014 [Link]

[24] NY Daily News, August 11, 2014 [Link]

[25] Middle East Monitor, August 8, 2014 [Link]

[26] Reuters, October 30, 2014 [Link]

[27] Haaretz, September 18, 2014 [Link]

[28] Guardian, August 6, 2014 [Link]

About Emily Daglish

Emily is a Junior Fellow in the Policy Unit. She was previously with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and areas of research included non-state armed groups, post conflict transition, conflict mediation and counter terrorism.