The chilling sights and sounds of war fill newspapers and television screens worldwide, but war itself is in decline, peace researchers report.
In fact, the number killed in battle has fallen to its lowest point in the post-World War II period, dipping below 20,000 a year by one measure. Peacemaking missions, meantime, are growing in number.
“International engagement is blossoming,” said American scholar Monty G. Marshall. “There’s been an enormous amount of activity to try to end these conflicts.”
For months, the battle reports and casualty tolls from Iraq and Afghanistan have put war in the headlines, but Swedish and Canadian nongovernmental organizations tracking armed conflict globally find a general decline in numbers from peaks in the 1990s.
The authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in a 2004 Yearbook report, said 19 major armed conflicts were under way worldwide in 2003, a sharp drop from 33 wars counted in 1991.
The Canadian organization Project Ploughshares, using broader criteria to define armed conflict, said in its latest annual report that the number of conflicts declined to 36 in 2003, from a peak of 44 in 1995.
The Institute counts continuing wars that have produced 1,000 or more battle-related deaths in any single year. Project Ploughshares counts any armed conflict that produces 1,000 such deaths cumulatively.
The Stockholm report, released this month, noted that three wars ended as of 2003 — in Angola, Rwanda and Somalia — and a fourth, the separatist war in India’s Assam state, was dropped from the “major” category after casualties were recalculated.
It lists three new wars in 2003 — in Liberia and in Sudan’s western region of Darfur, along with the United States-British invasion of Iraq. These joined such long-running conflicts as the Kashmiri insurgency in India, the leftist guerrilla war in Colombia, and the separatist war in Russia’s Chechnya region.
Other major armed conflicts listed by the Stockholm researchers were in Algeria, Burundi, Peru, Indonesia’s Aceh province, Burma, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Israel and Turkey. Their list also includes the U.S. war against al Qaeda, mainly in Afghanistan, the unresolved India-Pakistan conflict, and two insurgencies in the Philippines.
“Not only are the numbers declining, but the intensity is declining,” said Mr. Marshall, founder of a University of Maryland program studying political violence.
The continuing wars in Algeria, Chechnya and Turkey are among those that have subsided into low-intensity conflicts. At Canada’s University of British Columbia, scholars at the Human Security Center are calculating war casualties worldwide for their Human Security Report, to be issued later this year.
A collaboration with Sweden’s Uppsala University, that report will conservatively estimate battle-related deaths worldwide at 15,000 in 2002 and, because of the Iraq war, rising to 20,000 in 2003. Those estimates are a sharp decrease from annual tolls ranging from 40,000 to 100,000 in the 1990s, a time of major conflicts in such places as the former Zaire and southern Sudan, and from a post-World War II peak of 700,000 in 1951.
Andrew Mack, director of the Canadian center, said the figures don’t include deaths from war-induced starvation and disease, deaths from ethnic conflicts not involving states, or unopposed massacres, such as in Rwanda in 1994.
Why the declines? Peace scholars point to crosscurrents of global events.
For one thing, the Cold War’s end and breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989-91 ignited civil and separatist wars in the former Eastern Bloc and elsewhere, where the superpowers had long held allies in check. Those wars surged in the early 1990s.
“The decline over the past decade measures the move away from that unusual period,” said Ernie Regehr, director of Project Ploughshares.
At the same time, however, the U.S.-Russian thaw worked against war as well, scholars said, by removing superpower support in proxy wars, as in Ethiopia, Mozambique and Cambodia. With dwindling money and arms, warmakers sought peace.
The United Nations and regional bodies, meanwhile, were mobilizing for more effective peacemaking worldwide.
“The end of the Cold War liberated the U.N.” — until then paralyzed by the U.S.-Soviet rivalry — “to do what its founders had originally intended and more,” Mr. Mack said.
In 2003 alone, from Ivory Coast to the Solomon Islands, 14 multilateral missions were undertaken to protect or reinforce peace settlements, the highest number of new peace missions begun in a single year since the Cold War, according to the Stockholm institute.
The recent record shows “conflicts don’t end without some form of intervention from outside,” said Renata Dwan, who heads the institute’s program on armed conflict and conflict management.
Most new missions, half of which were in Africa, were undertaken by regional organizations or coalitions of states, often with U.N. endorsement.