The peace industry can win its war

Conflicts around the world are both changing and, in some measure, declining. One big reason: The art of conflict resolution and the numbers of people practicing it have risen.

Audiences at a beauty pageant often cringe when a contestant, asked about her life goal, responds “I want to promote world peace!” These days, however, that’s not such a bad profession to be in.

Over the last 15 years, the world community has not only learned more about preventing and ending conflicts but the success rate for peacemaking has also gone up.

A number of research groups keep track of conflicts around the globe – their numbers, their origins, and their resolutions. Most find hope for reducing war and violence in some measure because of people who, yes, promote peace.

Compared to the 20th century, many more conflicts these days are being negotiated to a conclusion than are being started. “Wars between states are far less common than they were in the past,” declares a 2011 World Bank report, “and civil wars are declining in number.”

The best explanation, says longtime peace activist Gareth Evans, “is simply the massive increase in international activism – across the whole spectrum of conflict prevention, conflict management, and post-conflict peace building activity.”

Peacemaking operations, for example, have tripled since 1989 to more than 30 places worldwide. And, Mr. Evans notes, there was a tenfold rise in the number of groups that support peacemaking and follow-on initiatives from 1991 to 2007.

Mediators have become better at negotiating peace deals that stick and the United Nations has become better at peacekeeping. In the 1990s some 45 percent of peace settlements broke down within five years. In the first years of the new century the success rate was closer to 85 percent.

Defining peace, let alone measuring it, is almost as challenging as achieving it. Still, many groups try.

The Australia-based Institute for Economics & Peace, for example, has issued a “Global Peace Index” for each of the last five years, ranking 153 countries on 23 indicators for their level of conflict and violence – or “peacefulness.”

Its latest report reveals that in two indicators – military spending and relations between neighboring states – the world is more at peace over the past year. Still, the level of violence went up, in large part because of the pro-democracy upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East, mainly in Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen.

Yet that violence in the region may end up ending the inherently unstable dictatorships there and bring about peace-promoting democracies – as could be the case for Egypt and Tunisia.

Another “conflict counter” is the Human Security Report which comes out of Canada’s Simon Fraser University. In a report last December, it found “serious” conflicts (those with 1,000 or more reported battle deaths per year) and mass killings have seen an 80 percent decline since the early 1990s. “Long-term trends are reducing the risks of both international and civil wars,” the report stated.

What are some of those trends – beyond better peace promotion?

1. Greater interdependence between nations, mainly through trade.

2. The growth of better governance, through more democracies and anticorruption campaigns.

3. Less ideology-driven wars – except for radical Islamic groups (which have declining Muslim support).

4. Rising use of visual technology such as cellphone cameras to record violence – and then using it to shame or convict perpetrators.

Such trends help redefine peace as something other than a lack of violence. The world is adapting higher values, such as justice and a reverence for life. Peace is being seen more as the natural state for humanity.

Still, one in four people still live in conflict-affected states or in countries with very high levels of criminal violence. The region with the least peace is Sub-Saharan Africa. And the nature of conflict itself is constantly changing.

“Norms about wars, and especially about the protection of civilians caught up in them, have evolved rapidly, far more so than anyone would have guessed even half a century ago,” writes scholar Joshua S. Goldstein in the latest Foreign Policy magazine.

“Similarly rapid shifts in norms preceded the ends of slavery and colonialism, two other scourges that were once also considered permanent features of civilization. So don’t be surprised if the end of war, too, becomes downright thinkable.”

Plenty of work awaits those who want to promote peace.

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