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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.”

Key Findings

  • 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 were 10.
  • 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 peacemaking.
  • 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 fatalities.
  • 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 tolls.

“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 civilians.

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.

International Terrorism

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 conflicts end.

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 millennium.

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.

Looking Forward

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 realities.”


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 Service.

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