UNITED NATIONS -- A study issued yesterday paints a surprising picture of war and peace in the 21st century: Armed conflicts have declined by more than 40 percent since 1992, and genocide and human rights abuses have plummeted around the world.
The only form of political violence that appears to be getting worse is international terrorism -- a serious threat that nonetheless kills extraordinarily few people per year compared with wars, it said.
The first Human Security Report, financed by five governments, said the end of the Cold War and breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989-91 was the most important factor in the decline in armed conflicts: It ended the East-West ideological battle, stopped the flow of money to proxy wars in the developing world, and most importantly allowed the United Nations for the first time to begin to play the role its founders intended.
''Over the past dozen years, the global security climate has changed in dramatic, positive, but largely unheralded ways," the report said. ''Civil wars, genocides and international crises have all declined sharply."
Professor Andrew Mack, who directed the three-year study, said there has been a shift away from the huge wars of the 1950s, '60s and '70s where million-strong armies faced one another with conventional weapons.
''The average war today tends to be very small, low intensity conflict, fought with ill-trained troops, small arms, and light weapons, often very brutal, with lots of civilians killed -- but the absolute numbers of people being killed are . . . much, much smaller than they were before," he said.
Armed conflicts have not only declined by more than 40 percent since 1992, but the deadliest conflicts with over 1,000 battle deaths dropped even more dramatically -- by 80 percent. The number of international crises, often harbingers of war, fell by more than 70 percent between 1981 and 2001, the report said.
Notwithstanding the genocides in Rwanda in 1994 and Srebrenica in 1995, mass killings because of religion, ethnicity or political beliefs plummeted by 80 percent between the 1988 high point and 2001, it said.
The report also traced other positive changes back to the post-World War II era.
''The average number of battle-deaths per conflict per year -- the best measure of the deadliness of warfare -- has been falling dramatically but unevenly since the 1950s," it said.
In 1950, the worst year, the average war killed 37,000 people directly, Mack said. ''By 2002, it was 600 -- an extraordinary change."
The postwar period also saw the longest period of peace between the major powers in hundreds of years, and attempted military coups have been in decline for 40 years, the study found.
Mack, who directs the Human Security Center at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, said the report relies on new data from the Conflict Data Program at Sweden's Uppsala University and other sources. He said its statistics were probably the best available but added that decent data on wars and conflicts remained hard to obtain. ''We would never be confident about a single figure," he said. ''What we can be confident about is trends."