Conflicts on the Wane

Terrorism Aside, Peace Is Making Progress

VANCOUVER, British Columbia, NOV. 5, 2005 ( A new report reveals that all forms of political violence, except international terrorism, have declined worldwide since the early 1990s. Wars are not only far less frequent today, but also far less deadly.

The first Human Security Report was published Oct. 17 by the recently established Human Security Center, based at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The center is funded by a number of governments: Canada, Britain, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.

The report found that:

— The number of armed conflicts has declined by more than 40% since 1992. The deadliest conflicts (those with 1,000 or more battle-deaths) dropped by a dramatic 80%.

— The number of international crises, often harbingers of war, fell by more than 70% between 1981 and 2001.

— The number of military coups and attempted coups has declined by some 60% since 1963. In 1963, there were 25 coups or attempted coups; in 2004, there were 10, and all failed.

— Most armed conflicts now take place in the poorest countries. But as incomes rise, the risk of war declines.

— The period since World War II is the longest interval without wars between the major powers, in centuries.

— The United Kingdom and France, followed by the United States and Russia/Soviet Union, have fought most international wars since 1946.

— The average number of people reported killed per conflict per year in 1950 was 38,000; in 2002 it was just 600.

— Most of the world’s conflicts are now concentrated in Africa. By the end of the 1990s, more people were being killed in sub-Saharan Africa’s wars than the rest of the world put together.

— The biggest death tolls do not come from the actual fighting, but from war-exacerbated disease and malnutrition. These “indirect” deaths can account for as much as 90% of the total war-related death toll. For example, the overwhelming majority of the 3.3 million deaths in Congo’s 1998-2002 civil war were from malnutrition and disease.

Why conflict declined

The Human Security Report identifies three major political changes that led to a decline in conflicts.

First, there was the end of colonialism. From the early 1950s to the early 1980s, colonial wars made up 60% to 100% of all international conflicts.

Second was the end of the Cold War, which had driven about one-third of all conflicts after World War II.

Third was the rise of international activities designed to stop wars and prevent new ones from starting.

This third element consisted mainly in activities coordinated through the United Nations. They included a sixfold increase in U.N. preventive diplomacy missions; a fourfold increase in U.N. peacemaking missions and peace operations; and an elevenfold increase in the number of states subject to U.N. sanctions.

The report estimated the annual cost of these changes to the international community as being extremely modest — under 1% of world military spending.

Another set of factors help explain the lower mortality in the wars that still occur. Most conflicts today are low-intensity, fought with light weapons. Often they are between weak government forces and ill-trained rebels, without major battles. While brutal enough, these conflicts are far less numerous than those in previous decades.

In addition, the number of nations governed by authoritarian regimes has sharply declined. These governments normally have higher levels of violent internal repression and gross human rights abuses. At the end of the 1970s some 90 countries were governed by authoritarian regimes; by 2003 there were just 30.

Civilian victims

The report also examines the effects of wars on civilians. Between 1980 and 1992 the total number of people estimated to have been displaced by conflicts increased to more than 40 million from 16 million. The quality of the statistics involved for this and other matters is questionable, the report comments. In any case, there is little doubt about the upward trend.

Displacement is a humanitarian tragedy and puts people at greater risk of succumbing to disease and malnutrition. At the same time, it also prevents many violent deaths. Indeed, the report argues that if these millions had not fled their homes, hundreds of thousands, possibly more, would likely have been killed.

The report also pointed out that assessing the vulnerability of civilians to conflict is difficult, due to the lack of reliable data. For example, one of the most frequently cited claims about today’s displaced persons is that 80% of them are women and children. A recent analysis cited by the report estimates the figure at 70%. These statistics might be expected, since women and those under age 18 make up at least 70% of the population in many war-affected countries.

Other studies suggest that women are less likely to be victims of mass killing than non-combatant males. And recent surveys found that males are more likely to die from war-induced malnutrition and disease than females.

The problem of sexual assault against women and girls during conflicts is also difficult to assess, given the absence of reliable data, the report states. It is not even possible, the report adds, to determine whether wartime sexual violence is increasing or decreasing.

The report also questioned the data related to child soldiers. Many have affirmed that there has been a dramatic increase in the use of child soldiers over the past three decades. But lack of reliable data confounds attempts to determine whether numbers of child soldiers have recently increased or decreased.

Governments and rebel forces routinely lie about their use of child soldiers, the report noted, and few if any records are kept. The widely cited estimate of 300,000 child soldiers worldwide dates back almost a decade, yet it is repeatedly cited as if it were current. The report opined that, given the dramatic decline in the number of wars since then, it would be surprising if the number of child soldiers had not fallen along with those of regular forces.

In spite of doubts over the data regarding the civilian impact of war, the report does provide ample evidence of the enormous costs resulting from conflicts. Property is destroyed, economic activity disrupted, resources are diverted from health care, and following conflicts there is normally a rise in crime rates. As well, crowded into camps, refugees fall ill from infectious diseases and contribute to the further spread of these diseases.

Terror’s scourge

The Human Security Report observes that international terrorism has killed fewer than 1,000 people a year, on average, over the past 30 years. Despite this low death toll it is still a major human security concern.

The U.S.-led counter-terror campaign has been associated with high levels of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world, which has increased the number of potential terrorist recruits. And there is the danger that terrorists might at some stage use weapons of mass destruction.

The report also warns that there are no grounds for complacency, despite the positive changes in recent years. Some 60 armed conflicts still rage around the globe. And there are still gross abuses of human rights and widespread war crimes. In addition, the United Nations remains in urgent need of reform if it is to be effective in avoiding future conflicts.

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