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2. Trends in armed conflicts: one-sided violence against civilians


I. Overview

II. One-sided violence in the context of armed conflicts

III. Somalia

IV. Sri Lanka

V. South Ossetia (Georgia)

VI. Colombia

VII. Conclusions


Read the full chapter [PDF].


In contrast to battle-related violence that may harm civilians indiscriminately, much ‘one-sided’ violence against civilians takes place in the context of armed conflicts and targets civilians directly and intentionally. Although it may be hard to establish the intent behind the violence and, sometimes, to distinguish between one-sided and indiscriminate violence, data shows that campaigns of one-sided violence have significantly increased since the early 1990s. In contrast, the number of armed conflicts declined in the same period.


The scale, motivation and type of perpetrator of massacres, terrorist attacks and other acts of one-sided violence vary in the conflicts in 2008 in Somalia, Sri Lanka, South Ossetia (Georgia) and Colombia. The cases of Somalia and Sri Lanka reaffirm the dominant pattern of one-sided violence in armed conflicts: constant, almost routine, violence against civilians that falls short of mass atrocities but is perpetrated by all armed actors, including government forces, non-state actors and others. Even when fatalities number in the low hundreds, as in the conflict over South Ossetia, a combination of indiscriminate attacks by governments with incidents of one-sided violence, especially by irregulars, may result in disproportionately large-scale displacement of civilians. Colombia, on the other hand, shows signs of a reversal of its embedded pattern of one-sided violence.


These cases illustrate that indiscriminate violence is more deadly when perpetrated by government forces. However, fatalities from one-sided violence by states have been in relative decline in the present decade, as compared to the 1990s. This trend is partly counterbalanced by:

  • increasing reliance in state counter-insurgency campaigns on government-aligned militia—a form of ‘outsourcing’ direct violence and abuses against civilians;  
  • the growing role of rebels in causing civilian fatalities through one-sided violence, including terrorist attacks, which are increasingly employed as a tactic in asymmetrical confrontation with the state.
  • the fact that in the broader context of the fragmentation of violence and the diversification of armed actors—especially in weak and dysfunctional states—some of the worst violations against civilians may be committed by local power brokers, armed irregulars and criminal gangs with no explicit political agendas.


If a relative decline of one-sided violence in specific cases is not a short-term effect of mass displacement it is more likely to result from the rise of minimally functional local governance structures, often with questionable human rights record, than from the parties’ compliance with the norms of international humanitarian law.


Dr Ekaterina Stepanova (Russia) is the Leader of the SIPRI Armed Conflict and Conflict Management Programme.