Fewer wars, but no less deadly

The 28 wars now being fought on the territories of 24 countries leave a legacy of squandered potential well beyond their immediately measurable consequences.

Project Ploughshares has been tracking global armed conflict since 1987 and the good news is that the current count of 28 armed conflicts in 24 countries is the lowest on record over the past two decades.[i] Wars were at a peak in the 1990s – reaching 44 armed conflicts in 1994 and 1995, followed by slight declines over the next four years, but then returning to 41 armed conflicts in 1999 and 2000. Since then there has been a steady decline, down to the current low of 28.[ii]

The bad news is that a gradual decline in the number of conflicts does not seem to be matched by a commensurate decline in conflict deaths.

Counting the war dead is clearly a difficult proposition. Many battles and attacks are fought in relative obscurity, and even wars with a high profile, like those in Afghanistan and Iraq, are not followed in detail by war correspondents (local or foreign) who can be present at all the battles, air strikes, and IED (improvised explosive devices) explosions to systematically document the casualties. Nevertheless, local communities, fighting forces, news organizations, and non-governmental groups do make serious efforts to count the dead and to report on them.

The methodology at Project Ploughshares is to monitor such reports in a very wide range of published sources[iii] and to tabulate the results, not for the purpose of publishing specific figures but to place conflicts in one of three broad categories – 1,000-10,000 combat deaths, 10,000-100,000, over 100,000). In the last three years the results have shown total war combat deaths (combatants and civilians) to be just over 50,000 per year. That figure is roughly 10 to 20 percent higher than the previous three years and it is reinforced by a major study carried out on behalf of the secretariat of the “Geneva Declaration,” a 2006 Declaration on Armed Violence and Development endorsed by more than 90 states. That 2008 study, The Global Burden of Armed Violence, estimates that from 2004 through 2008, on average, about 52,000 people were killed each year in armed conflict.[iv]

According to the Ploughshares tabulation, about 80 percent of the direct war deaths in 2008 occurred in six countries (ranked highest to lowest in combat deaths): Iraq, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, and India.

While 1,000 people are killed each week by fighting, most deaths in war are not combat deaths. They are deaths by hunger, disease, and the denial, through the chaos and disruption of war, of the basic essentials for living. The Geneva Declaration study estimates that these war-related deaths are currently at an average of about 200,000 per year – bringing annual war deaths to about 250,000 per year, or closer to 1,000 deaths per day.

Indeed, such estimates are most certainly conservative. Direct combat deaths are likely to be seriously underestimated – there is obviously no systematic way to be comprehensive in finding out about them all, or in publicly reporting them. And counting indirect deaths – those that are a consequence of war conditions rather than the result of direct violence – is even more daunting.

A detailed study by the International Rescue Committee[v] of deaths in the Democratic Republic of Congo found that in the ten years from 1998 to 2007 there were 5.4 million excess deaths (that is, deaths not explained by normal life expectancy rates and so attributed to the devastatingly harsh and extraordinary conditions imposed by ongoing war). Of those, fewer than 10 percent were judged to be the result of direct violence. More than 90 percent were deaths from preventable causes, but which were not prevented because of the presence of armed conflict. By that estimate, annual war-related deaths would actually have been more than double the estimates of 52,000 direct and 200,000 indirect deaths each year of the last decade – in other words, the costs in human lives are probably greater than 1,500 every day.

Of course, another feature of current wars is their durability. Some 21 of the 28 current armed conflicts (that is, 75 percent) have been ongoing for more than 10 years. Of those, 10 are more than 20 years old; and of those, eight have seen fighting for more than 30 years. In four conflicts the fighting has been between five and ten years, and in only three is the fighting of less than five years’ duration.

And throughout, the impact on families and communities in these perennially war-torn societies quite literally becomes immeasurable. Schools remain closed, medical clinics cannot be built or operated, crops cannot be planted, markets can’t function, homes must be fled. The Geneva Declaration study does try to measure the impact and puts it this way: “Armed violence…corrodes the social fabric of communities, sows fear and insecurity, destroys human and social capital, and undermines development investments and aid effectiveness. The death and destruction of war – which ebbs and flows from year to year and is concentrated in a few countries – reduces gross domestic product growth by more than two percent annually, with effects lingering many years after the fighting ends.”[vi]


[ii] An armed conflict, or war, is defined for the purposes of this tabulation as a political dispute in which has turned to armed combat involving the armed forces of at least one state, or one or more armed factions, in which at least 1,000 people have been killed by the fighting during the course of the conflict. A fuller definition is available at: http://www.ploughshares.ca/libraries/ACRText/ACR-DefinitionArmedConflict.htm.

[iv] The Global Burden of Armed Violence, Geneva Declaration Secretariat, Geneva 2008, 162 pp.

[v] Reported in The Global Burden of Armed Violence, p. 31.

[vi] The Global Burden of Armed Violence, p. 1.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.