There appear good reasons for most people to think that the world is becoming a more dangerous place. In the four years since the 9/11 attacks, the George W Bush administration has pursued a vigorous counter-terrorism policy that has already terminated two regimes and has, at a conservative estimate, seen at least 40,000 people killed, most of them civilians. United States forces are mired in a deep and bitter insurgency in Iraq, and almost 20,000 more troops are active against a determined Taliban guerrilla force in Afghanistan; they have also engaged in border clashes with Syria, and are involved in a tense standoff with Iran over the latter’s nuclear developments.
Despite this vigorous US strategy, the al-Qaida movement is able to sustain its activities by launching numerous attacks around the world (see the list of incidents in last week's column, “America, Iraq, and al-Qaida”).
This series of large-scale problems surely provide ample evidence for the feeling that global security is threatened. In such circumstances, for a substantial and carefully researched report to claim otherwise seems a nonsense – yet that is exactly the conclusion of the first annual Human Security Report published today, 17 October 2005, by the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver (and launched at the United Nations in New York).
The Human Security Report (HSR) – co-financed by five governments, including Canada and Britain – is modelled on that indispensable guide to issues of development, the United Nations Human Development Report, though it is not itself a product of the UN system. It argues that there has in fact been a marked decrease in political violence since the end of the cold war. The number of armed conflicts has decreased by more than 40%, and the number of major conflicts (which it defines as resulting in 1,000 or more "battle-deaths") has declined by 80%.
Among its other conclusions, it finds that interstate wars now comprise only 5% of all armed conflicts, far less than in previous eras; that the numbers of people killed in individual wars have declined dramatically in the past five decades; and that the number of international crises fell by more than 70% between 1981 and 2001. The report also says that the number of autocratic regimes, noted for their systematic attacks on human rights, is decreasing.
At first sight, the conclusions of the report seem to fly in the face of everyday, tangible experience. However, the report is well researched, carefully constructed and offers explanations for its results. Moreover, it is not alone in its findings. For the past five years, comparable if smaller-scale work by the Center for International Development and Conflict Management, University of Maryland, has generated broadly similar conclusions. Its latest biennial survey, Peace and Conflict 2005, co-authored by veteran peace researcher Ted Robert Gurr, also finds a marked decline in major conflicts since the early 1990s.
One explanation these reports offer for the overall decrease in wars in the last two decades is the ending of two of the main "drivers" of conflict: decolonisation and the cold war. Both historical cycles were marked by endemic conflict. The thirty years after 1945 saw numerous “small wars” – regarded as insurgencies or revolutionary threats by colonial powers, and as wars of national liberation by the combatants and their supporters – in southeast Asia, Kenya, Cyprus, Algeria, Angola, Mozambique, and many other places. There was also massive internal violence surrounding other transitions to independence, including the partition of India in 1947 and the birth of Bangladesh in 1970-71.
Many of these conflicts had a wider geopolitical aspect as “proxy wars” between the United States and its allies and the Soviet bloc. It was characteristic of this cold-war era that these wars, which killed at least 10 million people and wounded 30 million, were fought in the “third world” – including Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Ethiopia/Somalia – rather than Europe.
When the two types of conflict, decolonisation and cold war, are taken together, it is not surprising that (as the Human Security Report points out) the two countries that have been most involved in international wars since 1946 are Britain and France; the United States and Soviet Union/Russia are next on the list.
The cold war drew to its end in 1989-91 with the fall of the Berlin wall, revolutions across east-central Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union. This period coincided with the first Gulf war in 1991 to expel Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, and was closely followed by bitter conflicts in the Caucasus (Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Chechnya) and the Balkans, as well as one of the worst conflicts of the past century in the Great Lakes region of Africa.
Alongside such violent and destructive events was a huge expansion in peacekeeping and conflict-prevention initiatives, principally but not only by the United Nations and its agencies. The Human Security Report argues strongly that these initiatives have had a direct effect in defusing some potential conflicts and easing others.
The UN dimension is significant in anticipating possible reactions to the report. The HSR is not an official UN product, but it is very clearly sympathetic with that organisation, and this is likely to induce cynicism from the UN’s critics like US ambassador John Bolton and others in American politics and media. At the same time, the evidence the report gathers and the arguments it proposes are not ideologically one-sided: it includes major caveats and is very far from claiming that an era of universal peace is dawning.
The invisible casualties
The current political context makes the Human Security Report a rare document that provides a more hopeful picture about current indicators of conflict in the world. But a close reading of the HSR’s detailed analysis suggests two issues in particular that deserve closer attention.
The first is the marked tendency it notes for people to flee from major areas of conflict, seeking security either in neighbouring countries or even further afield. This means that large numbers of people are being exposed to sustained and often extreme dislocation and hardship – a trend that may well result in an underestimation of the actual numbers killed and wounded in current conflicts.
The second issue is that in any case, the crude counting of casualties can be hugely misleading, especially when conflicts are happening in weak and impoverished societies. Most wars of the modern era take place in just such societies, with sub-Saharan Africa being particularly badly affected. In such circumstances, the effects of war can take years or even decades to overcome.
The destruction of schools, hospitals and clinics, damage to farming systems, marketing networks, ports and even bridges will have a far greater effect in poorer countries where most people already live close to the margins. The net effect frequently is to add to malnutrition, susceptibility to disease and, especially, infant mortality and death in childbirth in a manner that is almost entirely missing from the simple, direct statistics of war.
Such impacts have, needless to say, been part of conflicts for decades if not centuries. They should be of great concern today, because alongside the great wealth and comfort of rich 21st-century societies a huge proportion of the global human community lives on very basic incomes with no guarantee of a stable future, while hundreds of millions more barely manage to survive at all. It is arguable that no social order that tolerates such vast inequalities can long endure.
Two sources of insecurity
These qualifications to the optimistic thrust of the HSR still leave a conundrum: why can this report and other similar research suggest that the world is becoming less violent and dangerous when so many analysts and citizens find daily evidence to offer the opposite view?
There are perhaps two main explanations. The first is that it is mainly people in the "Atlantic" countries – especially the United States and Canada, and western European countries such as Britain and Germany – who perceive a world of increasing violence. For this (in world terms) elite group, which includes people directly involved in George W Bush's "global war on terror", media coverage of Iraq and of al-Qaida attacks helps create a pervasive view of global insecurity. But most people in other parts of the world are more directly concerned with immediate worries – jobs, health and education, and even water, food and shelter – and any larger worries about war may well have diminished in the past two decades.
The second explanation is that the 9/11 attacks really did have a profound effect on the United States, by challenging a self-perception of invulnerability that had previously been disturbed as long ago as 1941. The threat to the US’s superpower dominance, leading to a “war on terror” now approaching its fifth year, may actually be distorting its understanding of the global picture of increasing security.
In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here
A collection of Paul Rogers’s Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris (October 2005)
These two arguments require careful attention, but also two strong notes of caution in turn. First, the very vigour of the American response to 9/11 may be creating the conditions for increased instability and conflict. These counter-currents are most evident in the middle east, whose rapidly growing energy resource significance coupled with the advent of China as a competitive agent reinforce existing political tensions.
Second, the assessment of whether or not the world has become more peaceful needs to accommodate the greatest human test of all – the response to climate change and all the many new insecurities that will come in its wake if it is not brought under control. The "drying out" of the tropics and the impact of global warming on the polar icecaps, which now look increasingly possible, will overshadow every other issue of international security in the coming decades. The huge pressure to migrate they are likely to bring is only one of their likely effects.
These two cautions refer to problems that will dominate the coming years and which can still – just – be addressed by making necessary policy changes. It is in this political context that the Human Security Report is a salutary reminder of what is possible. In many different ways over the past fifteen years there really has been a much-increased effort to prevent conflict, to resolve it when it happens and to improve the world’s capacity for post-conflict peace-building. In the context of so many forces and dynamics of insecurity, that is a powerful message.