New report: Fewer conflicts and fewer killed

28 December 2010

The number of conflicts no longer seems to be increasing, and the number of people killed has declined radically since the early 1990s. This is reported in the annual review from the research program Uppsala Conflict Database Program (UCDP) which is just being released.

This year the researchers have also looked into non-state conflicts and have found that the situation is worst in countries with weak state power, but that the number of people killed has decreased.

Over the last five years the UCDP has registered a rising number of conflicts in its annual “States in Armed Conflict” survey. In 2003 there were 29 active conflicts involving states, and by 2008 the number had risen to 37, an increase of fully 27 percent. In 2009 the first decrease in the number of conflicts was seen, with 36 active conflicts reported. Even though the drop is small, it is hoped that this is a turning point, according to Professor Peter Wallensteen, who directs the Conflict Database Program, though he advises that the figures be interpreted with caution. The number of conflicts is still high, with six of them classified as wars, and there are not as many peace negotiations underway as might be desired.

“We’ve known for some time that the number of people killed in conflicts is decreasing. New data show now that the number of fatalities in war dropped no less than 85 percent between 1990 and 2005,” says Peter Wallensteen.

Even though the numbers have risen somewhat over the last couple of years, they remain at a low level, compared with the early 1990s.

“The highest numbers of deaths are found in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia, countries that are often associated with terrorism,” says Lotta Themnér, one of the program’s project directors.

This year’s publication also has a special chapter on conflicts between groups where there is no state involvement (so-called non-state conflicts). This can include two rebel groups or two ethnic groups that are fighting each other. The information presented here is completely new and unique.

“Merely looking at conflicts that involve states does not yield a complete picture of organized violence in the world,” says Therése Pettersson, another project director at UCDP.

In 2008, for example, 35 non-state conflicts were registered around the world.

The number of non-state conflicts rose in the latter half of the 1990s but then declined in the 2000s. This trend was broken in 2008, when a 100-percent increase in the number of non-state conflicts made that year one of the most violent since the end of the cold war.

“But in general there are great differences from one year to another when it comes to this type of violence. Conflicts often flare up suddenly and are over in a few months. This makes it difficult to discern any clear trends over time,” remarks Therése Pettersson.

These conflicts have also been less bloody over the last few years in terms the number of people killed. These low levels are especially evident in comparison with the early 1990s, when in conflicts in above all Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo led to thousands of deaths. Therése Pettersson sees a clear parallel here to developments in armed conflicts involving states as primary actors.

“In comparison with conflicts where the state is involved, non-state conflicts entail considerably fewer deaths on average. A state army often has substantially more resources and better organization than these groups have,” she observes.

Africa is the region that has been – and is – most severely affected by this type of violence, with fully 74 percent of all conflicts between non-state groups since the end of the cold war taking place in this region. It is primarily conflicts between small organized groups that cause the violence, such as conflicts between various clans and tribes. Especially hard hit are Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In these countries, the actions of the state, and sometimes also of neighboring states, have been decisive for the development of non-state conflicts, according to Therése Pettersson. The researchers see many examples where the state has favored certain groups over other, with violent power struggles ensuing.

Just as in the case of other types of conflicts, democracies seem to be affected less. Strongly authoritarian states also see relatively little of this type of violence. The situation is worst for so-called anocracies, which are neither democratic nor authoritarian.

“The fact that two thirds of all non-state conflicts take place in unstable regimes is a clear sign that the existence of weak states is a major problem,” says Therése Pettersson.