A New Measure of War: Fewer conflicts and deaths, more displaced people

Tasneem Jamal Armed Conflicts, Forced Displacement and Migration

Christina Woolner

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2011 Volume 32 Issue 2

In 2010 there were 24 active armed conflicts worldwide, a decrease of four from the previous year. After no change in the number of active armed conflicts between 2008 and 2009, this decrease marks a return to the prevailing downward trend that started in 2000.

No new conflicts were added in 2010, and conflicts were deemed over in Nepal, Burundi, Sri Lanka, and Uganda. In 2006, both Nepal and Burundi signed peace agreements that now seem to have taken root. While violence flared up in Burundi in 2008, for each of the two consecutive years since, the total number of direct conflict-related deaths in Burundi has been fewer than 25. In Nepal, while human rights abuses and incidents of violence continue, especially in the Terai region, this violence lacks a political agenda; the number of combatant deaths resulting from conflict between political actors has fallen below 25 a year for several consecutive years. Sri Lanka’s civil war came to a decisive end in July 2009 when the government militarily defeated the main rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The end to Sri Lanka’s war marks a rare instance of military victory; the overwhelming majority of conflicts since the 1990s have ended through some type of negotiated settlement. Although Northern Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) continues to commit violence in neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan, and Central African Republic, no combat-related deaths have occurred on Ugandan soil in a number of years, and it seems unlikely the LRA will be active in Uganda again.

Although the removal of four countries from the Armed Conflicts Report this year is a positive development, a look at trends in forced displacement reveals a less hopeful story.

After dropping from record-high levels in the early 1990s, the number of displaced people across the globe has steadily increased and is fast approaching the levels seen in the wake of the Cold War. In 2009 (the last year for which statistics are available), there were a total of 43.3 million displaced people across the globe: 15.2 million refugees, 27.1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), and almost one million asylum seekers.

This upward trend in forced displacement suggests two things. First, because the top 10 refugee- and IDP-producing countries are all on the 2011 Armed Conflicts Report, it would appear that more and more civilians are being forced from their homes as a result of armed violence. Second, the fact that the number of displaced people is rising despite a decreasing number of armed conflicts suggests that it is taking years, even decades, for people to return home—if they ever do. The impact of armed conflict even after wars have ended cannot be overstated.

Another sobering observation about the 24 armed conflicts active in 2010 is the fact that the overwhelming majority of these conflicts are well over a decade old. Of the 24 conflicts active in 2010, only five were added during the last decade: Thailand, Ethiopia (Ogaden), Iraq, Yemen, and Turkey. However, earlier or different phases of the last three were recorded in previous Armed Conflicts Reports. Conflicts in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia and southern Thailand are also by no means new. Somalia and Ethiopia fought a full-blown war over the Ogaden in the late 1970s and unrest in southern Thailand dates back to the 1960s. While on the one hand it is encouraging to see that very few new conflicts have erupted in the last decade, this trend also illustrates the protracted nature of all current armed conflicts and the difficulty in bringing them to an end.

Examining Armed Conflicts Reports for the last decade reveals interesting patterns about where armed conflicts take place. While the number of active armed conflicts in both Africa and Asia dropped by two in 2010, these two regions continue to host three-quarters of the world’s conflicts. Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East combine to host the remaining quarter.

Still, both Africa and Asia have made significant gains over the past 10 years. Since 2001, 14 conflicts in Africa have come to an end. While three new conflicts emerged or re-emerged, only the one in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia is still active. Asia also saw significant net gains, with nine conflicts coming to an end and four emerging, only one of which (Thailand) is still active.

In Europe one conflict ended and no new conflicts emerged.

The Middle East has seen the least improvement: while six conflicts ended, four conflicts began or re-emerged, three of which are still active. Given the events of the “Arab Spring” that have turned violent in some countries, it is likely that the Middle East’s share of global armed conflicts will increase again in next year’s Armed Conflicts Report.

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