A welcome surprise: war waning globally

After a 20th century that was perhaps mankind's most violent, all indicators point to a 21st century that will be as bad or worse. Civil wars and new ideological conflicts will multiply. The effectiveness of international forces for peace will wane. And the security of mankind will be the victim caught in the middle. Right?

Wrong, says a report based on a three-year study by a group of international researchers. Contrary to widespread public perception, they find that the world is witnessing fewer wars - and those wars that do occur are killing fewer people.

The study, released Monday at the UN, also concludes that global conflict-prevention and postconflict peacebuilding efforts are becoming more numerous and more effective.

"We knew the number of wars was coming down, because that has been around in academic circles for a while, but particularly surprising is how the decline in wars is reflected right across the board in all forms of political conflict and violence," says Andrew Mack, head of the Human Security Center at the University of British Columbia. He directed the team that delivered the report.

That means that not only are interstate wars down, but so are civil conflicts, as well as other forms of political violence like human-rights abuses.

The report finds that the total number of conflicts declined by 40 percent since the cold war ended. The average number of deaths per conflict has also declined dramatically, from 37,000 in 1950 to 600 in 2002. The study found 25 civil conflicts last year - the lowest number since 1976.

Why the vast improvement? The report credits an "explosion of efforts" in conflict prevention and peacebuilding. The number of UN "preventive diplomacy" missions and government-based "contact groups" aimed at resolving conflicts has risen sharply in the last decade.

Other specialists note that the number of democracies in the world is growing. And democracies, recent history suggests, do not go to war against each other.

"Yes there are caveats, but generally the growing number of democracies in the world reduces the number of countries to fight," says Richard Stoll, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston.

At the same time, he says that a strengthening sense of an "international community" is changing world thinking on when warfare is acceptable.

War in Afghanistan, viewed by the world as a response to an attack, was seen as legitimate, says Mr. Stoll. Iraq, judged more as a war of choice, he adds, was not.

The increasing weight of world opinion and action is also having an impact on leaders and warlords who in another era would have felt no constraints on warmaking, says John Norris, a senior adviser with the International Crisis Group in Washington.

"There is an international rallying to the notion of a need to protect populations that are threatened in their own borders; it's gained some traction," say Mr. Norris. He notes that international actions against high-profile violators like Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic or Liberia's Charles Taylor have had an impact.

"The world has sent a message to the warlords and despots," he says, "and we've seen modified behavior from people who were engaged in the worst sorts of abuses."

Norris says failures in Rwanda, the Balkans, and Sierra Leone in the 1990s taught the international community what doesn't work. Peacekeeping operations are now "more robust, and we're generally better at postconflict activities."

To be sure, the report does not suggest that wars are disappearing. "The last thing we want to encourage with this is complacency," says Mr. Mack.

But the findings, he says, should help debunk fears that global human security is deteriorating.

Why do those fears persist, despite countervailing evidence? Mack lays principal blame on the media, which he says dwell on conflict while paying less attention to "quiet successes" and under-the-surface trends.

And he notes that people's perceptions are slow to change. In South Africa, for example, people continue to think that murder and other violence are getting worse, even thought statistics show that those threats are decreasing.

The public's sense of what threatens security in the 21st century has changed, too, especially in developed countries like the United States, experts say.

The 9/11 attacks "tore away the illusion that the oceans protected us," says Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, with the "psychological effect that certainly Americans feel less secure."

ICG's Norris says a poor perception of security in the face of improving conditions may be a response to what he worries is a trend for the 21st century - more targeting of individuals, including aid workers. "Those cases get a lot of attention," he says, "and suggest another area for international action."

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