Report on Political Violence Finds Global Wars Still Declining-with Dramatic Decrease in Africa

Notwithstanding the escalating violence in Iraq and the widening war in Darfur, the Human Security Brief 2006 a new report from the Human Security Centre at the University of British Columbia, reveals that, from the beginning of 2002 to the end of 2005, the number of wars being fought around the world dropped significantly. By far the greatest decline was in sub–Saharan Africa.

The post–Cold War decline in armed conflicts reported in last year’s Human Security Report 2005 has continued, says the new study. The 2005 Report argued that the decline could be attributed in large part to an upsurge in international activism, spearheaded by the UN, that sought to stop ongoing wars, help negotiate peace settlements, support post–conflict reconstruction, and prevent old wars from starting again.

The findings presented in the Brief suggest that these efforts are continuing to have an impact.

“Governments and international agencies are increasingly demanding that security policies be ‘evidence–based’”, notes Human Security Centre Director, Andrew Mack. “The Brief and projects like it help provide the data and analysis needed to bring this aspiration closer to reality.”

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Key Findings

  • Notwithstanding the escalating violence in Iraq and the widening war in Darfur, the new data indicate that from the beginning of 2002 to the end of 2005, the number of armed conflicts being waged around the world shrank 15%––from 66 to 56. By far the greatest decline was in Sub–Saharan Africa.
  • Estimated battle-death tolls declined worldwide by almost 40% over the same period. Battle–death statistics are prone to considerable error, however, so these findings should be treated with appropriate caution.
  • The steep post–Cold War decline in campaigns of genocide and other mass slaughters of civilians has continued. In 2005, there was just one ongoing genocide––in Darfur. In 1989, there were 10.
  • Growing numbers of wars are ending in negotiated settlements instead of being fought to the bitter end––a trend that reflects the increased commitment of the international community to peacemaking.
  • The estimated number of displaced people around the world–– refugees and internally displaced persons––fell from 34.2 to 32.1 million between 2003 and 2005, a net decline of 6%.
  • The number of military coups and attempted coups fell from 10 in 2004 to just 3 in 2005, continuing an uneven decline from the 1963 high point of 25.

But other trends were far from positive:

    • In four regions of the world the number of armed conflicts increased between 2002 and 2005.
    • International terrorist incidents increased threefold worldwide between 2000 and 2005, with an even greater increase in fatalities.
    • The number of campaigns of organized violence waged against civilians each year increased by 56% between 1989 and 2005.
    • The fact that more wars now end in negotiated settlements than in victories is encouraging news for peacemakers. But wars that end through negotiation have a downside. They last three times longer than those that end in victories and are nearly twice as likely to re-start within five years.


What the Findings Mean

In addition to updating the armed conflict trend data from last year’s Human Security Report, the Brief analyzes changing trends in organized violence against civilians and changing patterns of war termination.

Deadly Assaults on Civilians

It is widely believed––in the media, in NGOs, governments and international agencies––that the perpetrators of political violence around the world are targeting––and killing––civilians in ever-greater numbers.

Some of the statistics cited in the Brief––that there has been a 56% increase in the number of campaigns of organized violence against civilians since 1989, for example––appear to support this belief.

But the data, which the Human Security Centre commissioned from Uppsala University’s Conflict Data Program, also show that there has been a clear, albeit uneven, decline in the fatalities associated with these campaigns since the mid–1990s. Some campaigns had very low death tolls.

“The number of campaigns has gone up, but the number killed has gone down,” says Andrew Mack. “The latter fact challenges the pervasive belief that organized violence against civilians has been increasing.”

However, concerns about the reliability of some of the statistics, particularly in Iraq and Darfur, mean definitive judgments about civilian fatality trends in the post–Cold War years are not yet possible.


A second source of information on changing trends in violence against civilians is found in the scholarly research on genocides and other campaigns of mass political violence that are directed primarily against civilians.

A study by Barbara Harff of the US Naval Academy found that genocides and other campaigns of mass violence against civilians dropped by 90% between 1989 and 2005, after rising for almost three decades. This pattern closely follows the trend in high–intensity armed conflicts over the same period––which is not surprising since most intentional mass killings of civilians take place in the context of major wars.

“The 90% decline in these campaigns of mass violence since the end of the Cold War is also at odds with the conventional wisdom,” says Mack.