Comfort Ero: ‘People are getting away with murder’

The president of the Crisis Group tells Roxanne Escobales why war is trumping diplomacy and why South Africa’s legal case against Israel matters.

The World Today Updated 3 May 2024 Published 2 February 2024 3 minute READ

Dr Comfort Ero

Programme Director, Africa, International Crisis Group

Roxanne Escobales

Former Editor, The World Today, Communications and Publishing

Comfort Ero is the President of the Crisis Group. Its annual ‘10 Conflicts to Watch’ report has become an anticipated calendar moment, setting the security and peace agenda for the year. Beginning her career at the Crisis Group as West Africa Project Director in 2001, she spent three years as the United Nations Special Representative to Liberia, and subsequently joined various think tanks until returning to the Crisis Group in 2021. She is the first black woman to lead the organization. Here, she talks to Roxanne Escobales about the obstacles facing peacemaking.

What has been fuelling the rise in the number of conflicts around the world over the past dozen years or so?

One thing worth noting is that no region is untouched. While there are a number of factors, it started around 2012 with the Arab Spring. It’s not as though the era that went before, especially the 1990s, was glorious but there was a sense in which everybody was mobilized towards multilateralism and in which people were believers, faithfully ascribing to that.

Militarism is being preferred to the diplomatic dance.

But since 2012 the guardrails are slowly being chipped away. The tools that were often used to prevent, avert or mitigate are no longer holding. Instead, you are seeing more impunity. You can go as far as to say people are getting away with murder.

On top of that we have the geopolitics of serious major power tensions – in the context of fallout tensions from the Ukraine and West versus Russia, and the United States versus China, which is the worst that we’ve seen in contemporary times. There is a sense that militarism is preferred to the diplomatic dance.

We are experiencing conflicts that could erupt into wider, regional wars: Gaza, Ukraine, the Horn of Africa. Is the path to peace via a military response or will it be political and diplomatic?

In the past 10 years there has been an appetite for militarization, even by those intervening to help resolve the conflict. I understand the concept of ‘security first’, that you need an enabling environment, but the recent trend has been that that’s the only option on the table and there is no room for political dialogue.

Where we have seen efforts of diplomacy, they have been for the sake of humanitarianism. For example, the Black Sea grain deal led by Turkey, which opened a corridor to allow food to get out to those who needed it or the use of prisoner exchanges in Gaza or Russia and Ukraine. But this hasn’t necessarily led to the next stage. Instead, it has been seen as transactional.

Many leaders seem to not believe in the art of diplomacy or in multilateral institutions any more. Actors we would often turn to are themselves burdened with domestic issues. They have also become compromised by what they have done in the past. We hear a lot of talk about double standards and hypocrisy.

When did we begin to undervalue peacemaking?

A lot of this died on the altar of 9/11 and the response to that. The ‘War on Terror’ began to strip away a number of these values and principles such as human rights diplomacy, dialogue, negotiated settlement. Everything was justified in the name of the war on terror.  We saw it in the Sahel, we saw it in the Lake Chad basin, we saw it in Somalia where leaders were able to justify everything they did because of the war on terror.

At the end of the Cold War leaders were international, collaborative, and believed in the hard work of diplomacy.

Counterterrorism is a double-edged sword because, on the one hand, you understand the security imperative but then, on the other, it also allows leaders to use strong tactics. We saw leaders use that to deal with oppositional politics. We saw that the United Nations itself no longer had the space to negotiate a number of these issues because the countries you would turn to in the past are now the ones that are bastions of this hard-edged approach to dealing with peace and security. 

Even during the Cold War there were efforts to pursue peace. The early days at the end of the Cold War were the grandest era for the UN where you had an agenda for peace. And you had leaders – this is another missing element – who were international, collaborative, who believed in cooperation and pulling people together and believed that you have to do the hard work of diplomacy.

Right now, the space for mediation is getting smaller. People do not see that as the route to get the answers any more.

The year started with South Africa holding Israel to account in the International Court of Justice. Could the non-aligned movement and middle powers be the key to unlocking peace rather than relying on global powers?

Yes, this is an important initiative. Even more important because of the country that’s pursuing it. But it doesn’t get away from the fact that those key powers, particularly the US, are going to be vital to making Israel pull back.

Even that doesn’t look quite clear. Whatever influence we thought the US had is being shattered every single day. The shoe-leather diplomacy from Antony Blinken has not yielded significant change.

Leaders are increasingly getting away with murder, and those countries that would normally restrain them either no longer have the influence, or face hard domestic issues.

Where is South Africa on the accountability of Sudan?

It is not a surprise that South Africa pursued this, given its history of being clear about the Palestinian issue and given its own apartheid history. Now I would like South Africa to play the same role on the African continent. All the energy it poured into Gaza should be played into the continent because more than 13,000 people have been killed in Sudan, 4 million children are out of school and 7.4 million people are displaced.

So where is South Africa on the accountability of Sudan? We all saw that you talked to Hemedti [head of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces] who is at the helm of the most egregious crimes. If you are going to talk about double standards, it is close to home as well.

As the head of the Crisis Group, you are steeped in crisis and conflict. What gives you hope?

My colleagues. I say that in all seriousness because their job is to look for solutions. While it may take time to unlock these issues, we spend a great deal of time crafting options in every report and briefing we produce.

Sometimes we are ahead of the curve, sometimes it is too aspirational, too ideal. Sometimes it is too realistic. But the point is that every time you read a Crisis Group briefing, we are looking for opportunities. And we seek those opportunities.

What gives me hope is that I work in an organization that seeks to be relevant, even in a very tough time, even though the headline of our ‘10 Conflicts to Watch’ report is that we see a crisis in peacemaking. What matters for us is the job of trying to make peace because without it we are talking about 25,000 Gazans dead and 13,000 Sudanese dead.

We can’t give up, otherwise we have failed in our mandate and our mission.