Libya-Tunisia: Cross-frontier Conflict and Peace-building


Rene Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

In the past two weeks, the fighting between the Libyan government forces loyal to Colonel Muamar al-Qaddafi and the insurgency opposing him has spilled over into Tunisia, especially in the border region of Wazan.  The anti-Qaddafi insurgency hopes to use the border area as a supply route.  Tunisia’s deputy foreign minister, Radhouane Nouicer said his government had summoned a Libyan government envoy to complain about the incursions.  “We are not a party to the conflict” he said to al Al Jazeera reporter.

Whenever there is a spill-over of fighting from one country to another, officials will usually say “We are not a party to the conflict”.  However, armed conflict does not respect political or territorial borders.  Often there is a spill-over effect through refugee flows, ‘nomadic’ armed groups, small arms flows, narcotic or other criminal networks and sometimes as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the sale of natural resources.

There are also situations in which one conflict impacts similar conflicts on the other side of the frontier.  This is the case of tribal-based conflicts in Darfur, Sudan which are used in the tribal-based conflicts of neighbouring Chad. The longer the conflict lasts, the more opportunity there is for the growth of cross-frontier spill-over impact.

It is impossible at this stage to know how long the conflict in Libya will last nor how conflict-free will be the new society in Tunisia.  There is not in the Libya-Tunisia situation the long drawn-out cross-frontier conflicts that we find in other parts of Africa or as had been the case in Central America or the everlasting cross-frontier issue of Kashmir. A recent issue in the Accord series published by the London-based Conciliation Resources passes in review some of these cross-frontier conflicts. (1) The study looks briefly at the cross-border conflict dynamics of 22 recent or on-going cross-frontier conflicts. There are a few conflicts that concern the limits of the neighbouring States — just where does the frontier run. However, tracing frontier limitations is one issue that the World Court in The Hague has settled most frequently.  More common have been the spill-over dynamics.  A conflict starts in one country, and the neighbouring States are drawn in because the country is used as a “safe haven” or as a training ground etc.  The Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier area is a clear example as is the history of a “non-state” insurgency of the Lord’s Resistance Army which spread from northern Uganda into southern Sudan, to the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic impacting local insurgencies in each of these countries but which originally had nothing to do with the ethnic-religious conflict in north Uganda.

In the Accord study, there is a useful but short bibliography for each conflict.  However, more than a description of the causes of the conflicts — each of which has its specific characteristics — what is of interest is descriptions of some of the peace-building efforts to reduce trans-frontier conflicts. Peace-building is defined as “working with local people in fragile and conflict-affected states to prevent violence, promote justice and transform conflict into opportunities for development. Peace-building aims to establish sustainable political settlements and peace processes that are locally supported and complemented by international engagement.”

The emphasis in the study is that in order to tackle the challenges of cross-border peace-building, those individuals developing strategies need to “think outside the state”, that is, beyond the individual states to what can be done through supra-state regional organizations and especially what can be done by non-state, civil society actors such as networks that may exist through cross-border communities or trade networks.

There are some cross-frontier conflicts that involve well-structured entities such as the Irish Republic and the UK over Northern Ireland conflicts or between Spain and France concerning the Basque ETA. These states have trained diplomats and mediators, and yet it took a long time to find settlements that are accepted by the large majority of people.  The issue of the Kurds divided between Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria and a largely autonomous entity in Kurdish Iraq is more difficult to settle.  State institutions are relatively solid, but mediators and civil society actors are few or weak.  In other cases, such as the long period of conflict and instability in Liberia and Sierra Leone with a strong refugee spill-over to Guinea, the basic institutions of national government were lacking and the pre-colonial structures of village chiefs had largely broken down.

Social and cultural ties can span state borders.  State services and structures may be weak in remote borderlands where local people are left to provide for their own needs.  This can mean looking outwards across borders to other communities. One looks outward, especially to avoid the structures of the state which usually imposes limitations rather than providing services.  Therefore peace-builders need to look for the main drivers of systems change: the key factors that both help explain why a social system is the way it is and to focus attention on the necessary building blocks for sustainable peaceful change.

There is one drive greater than hating one’s neighbours across the frontier and that is a desire for money.  Cross-frontier trade is not undertaken to develop trust, to break down stereotypes nor to establish interdependencies across a border that may help to establish peace. People act to make money.  Thus business often responds more quickly across borders than diplomacy or civil society. There is an interesting article in the Accord study on “Trading for Peace in Kashmir” by Ayesha Saeed who has worked with trans-frontier Kashmir traders. Saeed outlines the bureaucratic difficulties put in the way of trade by the Indian and Pakistani governments. As is perhaps inevitable in a publication with financial support from the British, Norwegian, Swiss and Swedish governments, there is no suggestion that smuggling is the best answer. Smuggling has no doubt been already put into practice but is not described in the article.  Governments have long made money by taxing trade and for nearly as long, traders have learned to go around government regulations. Thus, the key slogan for trans-frontier peace-building may be “Make money, not war.”


(1) Alexander Ramsbotham and I. William Zartman “Paix sans frontiers: building peace across borders” Accord N°22, published by Conciliation Resources, London. All its publications are free to download at


René Wadlow:

Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens.

Member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 9 May 2011.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Libya-Tunisia: Cross-frontier Conflict and Peace-building, is included. Thank you.

If you enjoyed this article, please donate to TMS to join the growing list of TMS Supporters.

Share this article:

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

Comments are closed.