Red Alert

Giving peace a chance

Posted by on November 6th, 2009

Turns out the world is becoming more peaceful. Who knew!

There has been a steady decline since the late 1980s and early 1990s in the number of wars (both between and within states), in the number of genocidal and mass atrocities, and the number of people dying violent deaths because of them.

Serious conflicts (defined as 1000 or more battle deaths per year) and political mass murders (like Rwanda or Cambodia) have declined by 80% since the early 1990s, and there are 40% fewer conflicts taking place. Even more striking is that from the 1940s to the 1990s most years had reported battle deaths of more than 100,000 and sometimes as many as 500,000. The average for the past few years has been around 20,000.

Sub-Saharan Africa is generally assumed to be the most war-torn part of the planet, and it was, in the late 1990s. But between 1999 and 2006 the number of inter-state conflicts dropped by more than half, and battle deaths shrunk to just two percent of the 1999 toll. Non-state conflicts or one-sided violence, for instance killing of defenceless civilians, declined by two-thirds or more between 2002 and 2006.

The figures come from the Canada-based Human Security Report Project, and I found them reading The Responsibility to Protect, by former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans. Evans was in Wellington this week speaking about nuclear disarmament on which I will post later. But one of his biggest achievements in recent years has been developing and building support for the idea of the responsibility to protect aka R2P.

The idea is that states have a responsibility to protect their citizens from mass atrocity crimes. If they fail to uphold that responsibility then the international community’s responsibility to protect kicks in with the full gamut of conflict resolution, preventive diplomacy, peace keeping, and ultimately if necessary military intervention. It is by no means settled international law. The whole idea is still controversial particularly with developing countries wary of the West’s tendency to imperialist intervention. But Evans and others have made great headway with R2P. If it continues to gather support it will be a useful tool in preventing future Rwandas and Srebenicas.

It is interesting to wonder why the number of wars and conflicts is trending down so strongly. Evans argues that the end of the Cold War meant an end to the many proxy wars fuelled by Washington and Moscow. And the end of colonialism which was responsible for two-thirds of the wars from the 1950s to 1980s. But the recent improvements he puts down to…

the huge upsurge in…conflict prevention, conflict management, negotiated peace making, and post-conflict peacebuilding activity that has occurred over the last decade and a half, with most of this being spearheaded by the much maligned UN, albeit with a great deal of additional input from regional organisations, governments and NGOs.

This sea change has affected our part of the world. New Zealand under Don McKinnon helped bring peace to Bougainville. In recent years our police, aid workers and soldiers have helped build, manage and keep peace in Bougainville, Timor Leste, Solomon Islands, and Afghanistan. New Zealand has developed some expertise in this area. Andrew Ladley of Victoria University spends much of his time these days on mediation and conflict resolution and has just returned from a mission in Zimbabwe.  Kevin Clements has returned from a distinguished career abroad to run the new National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at Otago University. It is an aspect of our foreign policy that has huge potential for the future. More on this later.

In the mean time Yoko, Sean and Julian Lennon have re-released Give Peace A Chance as a fundraiser for projects of the UN’s Peace Building Commission.  Watch this video of the song with historic footage from anti-Vietnam war demonstrations.


7 Responses to “Giving peace a chance”

  1. Andrew Eames says:

    Attended Kevin Clements inaugural lecture earlier in the year and was very impressed – he shared some amazing experiences and has an excellent grasp of global thinking on peace and conflict. They have also had a line-up of regular guest speakers that has been top-notch. This centre will produce some interesting and vital work.

  2. Jeremy Harris says:

    Hmmm, very interesting… Maybe one day soon will be the first day without a war somewhere in the world since the 50s…

  3. Spud says:

    I hope the trend continues and that evil things come to an end, like that ghetto in Gaza :x

  4. Sam Buchanan says:

    “our police, aid workers and soldiers have helped build, manage and keep peace in… Afghanistan”

    Peace? What peace? Unfortunately, regardless of their probably good intentions, they seem to be restoring the dodgy local tough guys that were the reason Afghans welcomed in the Taliban in the first place.

  5. Phil Twyford says:

    Fair point Sam but I would argue that the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, have contributed to peace and stability, by providing an international presence, and through humanitarian and development work, although things appear to be deteriorating now.

  6. [...] posted on the humanitarian work Evans, a former Australian foreign minister, has been doing in recent [...]

  7. If all troops currently engaged in military action were withdrawn (unless they are UN peacekeeping troops) and the defence force of every country morphed into a peacekeeping unit that acts only under the direction of the United Nations, then we might have even fewer conflicts.

    I heard Kevin Clements give the Remembrance Day address at St Matthew-in-the-City and aside from remembering the dead of war, he honoured the conscientious objectors.

    It is good to see Cpl Joe Glenton’s stand against fighting in Afghanistan.