Strange to Say, Global Warfare DecliningThe UN secretary general issues statements on the "worsening situation" in Chad and says he is "more concerned than ever" about the deteriorating situation in Nepal. Iraqi politicians continue to be unable to form a government, as car bombs and other attacks kill Iraqi citizens and US soldiers. Iran boasts of an ongoing nuclear-enrichment program despite international efforts to stop it.
The world would seem to be as dangerous as ever, and perhaps getting worse. Or is it? Only the dead have seen the end of war, to quote philosopher George Santayana, but people today may in fact be seeing its decline. At least, so argues Dr. Andrew Mack, a professor at the Liu Institute for Global Issues' Human Security Center at the University of British Columbia and the lead author of the October 2005 Human Security Report, a kind of analog to the United Nation's annual Human Development Report.
Rather than report on good news like decline in disease rates or growth in gross domestic product, the Human Security Report is instead a kind of "human misery" index that focuses on the hard-to-collect information like the number of ongoing wars, the death resulting from war, terrorist attacks, and other issues related to security. In a presentation April 12 at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, in Washington, D.C., Mack said that the public has been profoundly misled about the state of world security today.
A director of strategic planning in the UN secretary general's office between 1998 and 2001, Mack said that prior to the release of his report, the United Nations and other organizations simply didn't know whether the number of wars, and the number of people dying in them, were going up or down, in part because such data is difficult to collect, especially in the very countries where war is most prevalent, and because the political nature of the UN makes labeling an act of violence difficult. Just as one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, so a conflict that might objectively be termed a civil war could by the particular country's government be labeled simply "criminal activity."
In absence of solid data, people based make conclusions based on worldwide security based on media reports, which tend to emphasize death and disaster, Mack said.
Sponsored by various government agencies from Canada, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Norway, and Sweden, the report finds that, among other things, while the number of intrastate conflicts may be up since the end of World War II, coinciding with the beginning of the end of colonialism, the number of conflicts overall is down, as is the deadliness of conflicts. For example, armed conflicts in 1950 killed an average of 38,000 people; in 2002, armed conflicts on average killed about 600. As another example, the number of military coups or attempted coups dropped from 25 in 1963 to 10 in 2004, with none in that latter year succeeding.
If such figures are true, what value is there in knowing conflict is declining? The dollar value of international arms transfer may be down 33 percent between 1990 and 2003 but the billions still spent on arms surely means that armed conflict – even if less pervasive than commonly believed – remains pernicious. Mack said that data provided by reports like his can help organizations begin to see where their activities may be doing some good. In the area of peacekeeping missions, for instance, while the missions may be effective just 50 percent of the time, however "success" is defined, they appear to have greatly aided places like Timor and Sierra Leone avoid ongoing conflict.
"There's been an explosion of activism, spearheaded by UN peacekeeping missions" and aided by the World Bank and numerous non-government organizations, Mack said. "These are exercises in nation building, and as screwed up as they are, as appalling as they are, they appear to have made a difference."