(AP) — 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 non-governmental groups tracking armed conflict globally find a general decline in numbers from peaks in the 1990’s.
The authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in a 2004 Yearbook report obtained by The Associated Press in advance of publication, says 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, says in its new annual report that the number of conflicts declined to 36 in 2003, from a peak of 44 in 1995.
The Stockholm 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, to be released in September, notes 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 U.S.-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, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Israel, and Turkey. Their list also includes the U.S.-al-Qaeda war, mainly in Afghanistan, the unresolved India-Pakistan conflict, and two insurgencies in the Philippines.
“Not only are the numbers declining, but the intensity” — the bloodshed in each conflict — “is declining,” said 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 quantifying this by tackling the difficult task of calculating war casualties worldwide for their Human Security Report, to be released late in 2004.
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 sharply down from annual tolls ranging from 40,000 to 100,000 in the 1990’s, a time of major costly conflicts in such places as the former Zaire and southern Sudan, and from a post-World War II peak of 700,000 in 1951.
The Canadian center’s director, Andrew Mack, 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 old East bloc and elsewhere, as the superpowers’ hands were lifted in places where they’d 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, war makers had to seek 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.” — historically paralyzed by U.S.-Soviet antagonism — “to do what its founders had originally intended and more,” Mack said.
In 2003 alone, from Ivory Coast to the Solomon Islands, 14 multilateral missions were launched to protect or reinforce peace settlements, the highest number of new peace missions begun in a single year since the Cold War, the Stockholm institute will report.
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. sanction.
The idea of U.N. primacy in world peace and security took a “bruising” at U.S. hands in 2003, when Washington circumvented the U.N. Security Council to invade Iraq, Dwan noted. But meanwhile, elsewhere, the world body was deploying a monthly average of 38,500 military peacekeepers in 2003 — triple the level of 1999.
By year’s end, the institute yearbook will conclude, “the U.N. was arguably in a stronger position than at any time in recent years.”