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A civil war is a war that is fought internally within a nation between differing factions, religious groups, or powers. Exactly what makes a war "civil" can be hard to pin down; one common definition includes several criteria, including when both sides in the dispute have gained control of territory, created their own governments — however marginal — and have some sort of organized military that performs regular operations. In addition, most people only consider a conflict a civil war when other nations recognize the claims of one or more parties in the conflict. Smaller or less widespread conflicts may be known as insurgencies or insurrections, although they certainly have the potential to develop into a war.
Many Americans think of the American Civil War when they hear the term, but in fact, civil wars have marked human societies for centuries. These wars between countrymen can be particularly destructive, because they undermine the infrastructure and confidence of a country. In some cases, such a war might restore the balance of power in a country, while in other instances it might result in a more oppressive government, depending on who ultimately wins the conflict.
Some people like to distinguish between this type of conflict and a revolution or insurrection, arguing that a civil war involves distinct powers or factions. This is in contrast to an insurrection, when ordinary citizens individually start banding together to oppose the government, usually because they perceive it as unjust. A large-scale insurrection may turn into a revolution, with a violent overthrow of a prevailing government in the interests of the people. In some cases, the aftermath of a revolution turns into a civil war, because various factions may have emerged among the rebels to struggle for power.
There are a wide range of reasons that a war within a country can begin, ranging from religious beliefs to conflicts over available resources. Civil wars can be rapid and extremely efficient, like coups, or they can stretch on for decades, often costing thousands of lives and totally disrupting society. In this case, outside governments may step in to stabilize the region, either because they are concerned about events in the country or they are dealing with an influx of refugees from the fighting.
Many nations all over the world have struggled with civil wars, from Asia to Latin America. In parts of Africa, these conflicts became endemic after the collapse of colonialism, and some endure to this day. Sadly, in some cases genocide has accompanied civil war, as was the case in Rwanda, and many wars also claim large numbers of uninvolved civilians as well.
Frequently Asked Questions
What defines a civil war?
A civil war is characterized by conflict between groups within the same country or state. It involves organized groups that aim to take control of the government, change government policies, or split the country into separate entities. Civil wars are typically marked by a sustained, high-intensity conflict that causes significant casualties and disruption. According to the Correlates of War Project, a conflict must result in at least 1,000 battle-related deaths in a year to be considered a civil war.
How does a civil war differ from other types of wars?
Unlike international wars, which involve conflict between different nations, civil wars occur within the borders of a single country. Civil wars involve non-state actors, such as insurgent groups or militias, fighting against the state or each other. The focus is on control over the state or a region, rather than on disputes between separate sovereign entities. Civil wars can also lead to humanitarian crises, including displacement and civilian casualties, often at a scale that rivals or exceeds international conflicts.
What are some common causes of civil wars?
Civil wars commonly arise from a mix of political, social, economic, and ethnic tensions. Issues such as governmental oppression, economic inequality, ethnic strife, and the struggle for resources can fuel discontent. Historical grievances and the desire for self-determination or autonomy also play significant roles. For instance, the Syrian Civil War, which began in 2011, was sparked by political repression and quickly escalated due to ethnic and religious divisions, as well as external interventions.
What is the impact of civil wars on civilian populations?
Civil wars have devastating effects on civilian populations, often resulting in high civilian casualties, mass displacement, and human rights violations. Infrastructure such as homes, schools, and hospitals are frequently damaged or destroyed, leading to long-term socioeconomic challenges. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports that conflicts, including civil wars, have forcibly displaced over 84 million people worldwide as of mid-2021, illustrating the profound impact on civilian lives.
How do civil wars typically end, and what are the challenges of post-conflict reconstruction?
Civil wars can end through military victory, negotiated settlements, or external intervention. However, achieving lasting peace is challenging due to deep-seated grievances, weakened state institutions, and the need for reconciliation. Post-conflict reconstruction involves rebuilding infrastructure, restoring law and order, and addressing the root causes of the conflict. The World Bank emphasizes the importance of inclusive political processes and economic development to prevent the recurrence of violence and promote sustainable peace.