Report on Political Violence Finds Global Wars Still Declining-with Dramatic Decrease in Africa
21 Dec 2006
Notwithstanding the escalating violence in
Iraq and the widening war in Darfur, the Human Security Brief 2006 a new report from the Human Security
Centre at the University of British Columbia, reveals that, from the
beginning of 2002 to the end of 2005, the number of wars being fought
around the world dropped significantly. By far the greatest decline was
in sub–Saharan Africa.
The post–Cold War decline in armed conflicts reported in last year’s
Human Security Report 2005 has
continued, says the new study. The 2005 Report argued that the decline
could be attributed in large part to an upsurge in international activism,
spearheaded by the UN, that sought to stop ongoing wars, help negotiate
peace settlements, support post–conflict reconstruction, and prevent old
wars from starting again.
The findings presented in the Brief suggest that these efforts are
continuing to have an impact.
“Governments and international agencies are increasingly demanding that
security policies be ‘evidence–based’”, notes Human Security Centre
Director, Andrew Mack. “The Brief and projects like it help provide the
data and analysis needed to bring this aspiration closer to reality.”
- Notwithstanding the escalating violence in Iraq and the widening
war in Darfur, the new data indicate that from the beginning of
2002 to the end of 2005, the number of armed conflicts being
waged around the world shrank 15%––from 66 to 56. By far
the greatest decline was in Sub–Saharan Africa.
- Estimated battle-death tolls declined worldwide by almost
40% over the same period. Battle–death statistics are prone to
considerable error, however, so these findings should be treated
with appropriate caution.
- The steep post–Cold War decline in campaigns of genocide
and other mass slaughters of civilians has continued. In 2005,
there was just one ongoing genocide––in Darfur. In 1989, there
- Growing numbers of wars are ending in negotiated settlements
instead of being fought to the bitter end––a trend that reflects the
increased commitment of the international community to
- The estimated number of displaced people around the world––
refugees and internally displaced persons––fell from 34.2 to
32.1 million between 2003 and 2005, a net decline of 6%.
- The number of military coups and attempted coups fell from
10 in 2004 to just 3 in 2005, continuing an uneven decline from
the 1963 high point of 25.
But other trends were far from positive:
- In four regions of the world the number of armed conflicts
increased between 2002 and 2005.
- International terrorist incidents increased threefold worldwide
between 2000 and 2005, with an even greater increase in
- The number of campaigns of organized violence waged against
civilians each year increased by 56% between 1989 and 2005.
- The fact that more wars now end in negotiated settlements than in
victories is encouraging news for peacemakers. But wars that end
through negotiation have a downside. They last three times
longer than those that end in victories and are nearly twice as
likely to re-start within five years.
What the Findings Mean
In addition to updating the armed conflict trend data from last year’s
Human Security Report, the Brief analyzes changing trends in organized
violence against civilians and changing patterns of war termination.
Deadly Assaults on Civilians
It is widely believed––in the media, in NGOs, governments and
international agencies––that the perpetrators of political violence around
the world are targeting––and killing––civilians in ever-greater numbers.
Some of the statistics cited in the Brief––that there has been a 56%
increase in the number of campaigns of organized violence against
civilians since 1989, for example––appear to support this belief.
But the data, which the Human Security Centre commissioned from
Uppsala University’s Conflict Data Program, also show that there has
been a clear, albeit uneven, decline in the fatalities associated with these
campaigns since the mid–1990s. Some campaigns had very low death
“The number of campaigns has gone up, but the number killed has gone
down,” says Andrew Mack. “The latter fact challenges the pervasive
belief that organized violence against civilians has been increasing.”
However, concerns about the reliability of some of the statistics,
particularly in Iraq and Darfur, mean definitive judgments about civilian
fatality trends in the post–Cold War years are not yet possible.
A second source of information on changing trends in violence against
civilians is found in the scholarly research on genocides and other
campaigns of mass political violence that are directed primarily against
A study by Barbara Harff of the US Naval Academy found that genocides
and other campaigns of mass violence against civilians dropped by 90%
between 1989 and 2005, after rising for almost three decades. This
pattern closely follows the trend in high–intensity armed conflicts over
the same period––which is not surprising since most intentional mass
killings of civilians take place in the context of major wars.
“The 90% decline in these campaigns of mass violence since the end of
the Cold War is also at odds with the conventional wisdom,” says Mack.
Statistics on the incidence of international terrorism provide a third
measure of organised violence against civilians.
Here the data follow a trend similar to that of genocides and high
intensity armed conflicts––namely a steep but uneven increase in terrorist
attacks throughout the Cold War years, followed by a steep decline.
But while both armed conflicts and genocides continued to decline in the
new millennium, the number of international terrorist incidents shot up
almost threefold from 2000 to 2005––with an even greater increase in
fatalities, according to the US–based Memorial Institute for the
Prevention of Terrorism.
The terrorism data do suggest that civilians are increasingly being targeted
by the perpetrators of political violence––although for most of the period
under review (1968–2005) the number of civilians killed by international
terrorists has only been a small fraction of the civilian death toll from
other forms of political violence.
In terms of civilian lives saved, however, by far the most important
changes in the past 50 years have been the steep decline in genocides and
other campaigns of mass violence against civilians since the end of the
Cold War, and the equally steep decline in high–intensity armed conflicts.
The latter trend is important because large numbers of civilians were
intentionally killed by governments or rebel groups in many of the major
conflicts of the Cold War years.
“None of this minimizes the appalling toll of civilian deaths in Iraq,
Darfur and elsewhere,” Mack points out. “But if we can better understand
what stopped the slaughter of civilians in the past, we may do better at
saving innocent lives in the future.”
How Wars End
There has been a radical shift in the number of wars starting and ending
since the Cold War––and an equally important shift in the ways in which
A new study on conflict terminations produced by the Uppsala Conflict
Data Program and funded in part by the Human Security Centre, reveals
that from the 1940s to the end of the Cold War, more wars ended in
military victory than in negotiated settlements.
In the 1990s there was a major change. More wars were now ending in
peace talks than on the battlefield. This trend has continued into the new
The big increase in negotiated settlements provided evidence that the
UN’s rapidly expanded peacemaking activities in this period were having
an impact. But wars that end in negotiated settlements have a downside.
They last three times longer on average than conflicts that end in victory,
and are nearly twice as likely to start up again within five years.
This is a sobering finding, but the record of the past six years suggests––
no more than this––that negotiated settlements may be becoming less
prone to breakdown.
The Human Security Report 2005 noted that the demise of colonialism
and the end of the Cold War had removed two major sources of conflict
from the international system. It also argued that the international
community’s efforts to stop conflicts and prevent them from starting
again, though plagued by many failures, had helped drive the steady
decline in armed conflicts that began in the aftermath of the Cold War and
has continued ever since.
There can, of course, be no guarantees that this decline will continue––
and there are many reasons why it may not.
“But in a world that spends a trillion dollars a year on defence,” says
Andrew Mack, “a modest shift of resources from the military to support
conflict prevention, peacemaking and peacebuilding policies, could help
stop today’s potential threats from becoming tomorrow’s violent
Andrew Mack is Director of the Human Security Centre, at the
University of British Columbia. He was Director of the Strategic
Planning Unit in the Executive Office of UN Secretary-General
Kofi Annan from 1998 to 2001. Formerly Head of the international
Relations Department at the Australian National University, he
has held research and teaching positions at Harvard, the London
School of Economics, the University of California (Berkeley and
San Diego), and in Australia, Denmark, Hawaii and Japan. He
has also been a pilot with the UK’s Royal Air Force, a
meteorologist in Antarctica and a diamond prospector in Sierra
Leone and spent three years a journalist with the BBC's World
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