7.2.6 A Collapse of Law and Order

A collapse of law and order can occur if public violence exceeds the enforcement capacity of police, and civil war becomes possible.

Protest demonstrations can escalate into full-scale riots and a government may need extra resources to enable it to restore calm.  On 14 August 1969, for example, the BBC reported on British troops sent into Northern Ireland, after “three days and two nights of violence in the mainly-Catholic Bogside area of Londonderry”.

Conflicts between ethnic groups or criminal gangs can get out of control, if the participants are armed, as was the case in India during the period leading up to partition.  Yasmin Khan, in chapter 4 of her book The Great Partition, described the ethnic violence between Muslims and Hindus and referred to the military force required to restore order:

“The fact that 1800 troops, 600 armed police, 130 unarmed police, and Royal Air Force Planes had to be mobilised indicates the magnitude of the crisis.” [p.  69]

A struggle for independence can escalate to civil war, as was the case when Eritrea separated from Ethiopia for example.  From 1998 to 2000, “Eritrean-Ethiopian border clashes turn into a full-scale war which leaves some 70,000 people dead” according to the BBC Eritrea profile – Timeline.

Paul Collier’s paper, Economic Causes of Civil Conflict and their Implications for Policy,[1] analysed 47 civil wars during the period 1965-99.  It identified five factors which make rebellion and civil war more likely:

●  “Primary commodity exports are the most lootable of all economic activities”, so rebels can fund their operations.

●  Governments find it hard to control a geographically dispersed population.

●  “History matters because if a country has recently had a civil war its risk of further war is much higher.” A large American diaspora, to feed funds to the rebels, is an added risk factor.

●  “[i]f there are few job opportunities, few schooling opportunities, and many young people needing work, the rebel organization has an easier task.”

●  “If there is one dominant ethnic group which constitutes between 45% and 90% of the population, – enough to give it control, but not enough to make discrimination against a minority pointless – the risk of conflict doubles.” A more ethnically diverse population is safer.

All these factors were present in Iraq after the American invasion, so it was predictable that any new government would face difficulties.

A government might start out with the best of intentions, to protect both itself and most of the population from the dangers of anarchy – where a few people overturn the rights of the many – but there are drawbacks in using military force when there is a collapse of law and order:

●  There are problems in using armed forces to restore order, as discussed later (, because military personnel might not be trained or equipped to operate in a civilian situation.

●  If the use of force succeeds in restoring order for a while, as it often does in practice, it is without the agreement of those who had participated in the violence. The problem will resurface at a later date unless the underlying causes can be resolved first.

A penal system can deal with conventional criminals, but internal political struggles can only be finally resolved by negotiation: bringing people back into the political process.  It is obviously preferable to prevent relationships from reaching the point where violence seems like an attractive option.

A similar analysis applies to restoration of regional stability.


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/726a.htm.

[1] Paul Collier’s paper, Economic Causes of Civil Conflict and their Implications for Policy, was published on 15 June 2000.  It was available in February 2020 at https://siteresources.worldbank.org/DEC/Resources/econonmic_causes_of_civilwar.pdf but it is no longer online.