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A mission to kill global distortions
Description: UBC professor Andrew Mack, says public perception of modern violence does not reflect reality
Date: 14 November 2005
Author: Deborah Jones
Source: The Globe and Mail
VANCOUVER -- Professor Andrew Mack can joke today about his youthful decision to join the British military, believing that recruits would, he grimaces, "see the world, meet interesting people, and kill them."

He did go on to become an expert on killing -- but not in the way he imagined at age 15, when he left school to become a Royal Air Force pilot.

Now 66, Prof. Mack is director of the Human Security Centre at the University of British Columbia's Liu Institute for Global Issues. He's receiving international attention as the author of the Human Security Report, released last month at the United Nations headquarters in New York City.

The report's findings stunned many. At a time when fear dominates world affairs, Prof. Mack concludes that the world is dramatically less violent than it was in 1992, after the Cold War ended.

Without new superpower "proxy wars" starting in the Third World, overall armed conflicts have fallen by more than 40 per cent, and extremely violent conflicts -- those with 1,000 or more battle deaths -- have dropped by 80 per cent, the report states.

International arms transfers, defence budgets, armed forces personnel and refugee numbers have also all decreased.

"We've been stunned by the extent of the reaction," the long-time sociology professor said over lunch at a restaurant near his UBC office.

Reaction to his report ranges from disbelief to relief to scornful dismissal. Those on the political right and left each accuse him of siding with the other, Prof. Mack said in an interview shortly before he left to tour Europe to present his findings.

Most people believe that the world is becoming increasingly violent, he said, but that's simply not true.

Prof. Mack readily shoots down popular notions of modern global violence: that armed conflicts are more numerous and more deadly; that genocides are increasing; that the gravest threat to human security is international terrorism; that 90 per cent of those killed in today's wars are civilians; that women are war's primary victims; that there are currently 300,000 child soldiers.

"Not one of these claims is based on reliable data, even though many of them originate from or have been repeated by international agencies. All are suspect; some are demonstrably false," Prof. Mack said.

"They conjure a picture of global security that is grossly distorted. But they are widely believed because they reinforce popular assumptions. And they often drive political agendas," he added.

Prof. Mack, whose life history includes time spent as an adventurer, a dilettante and a serious scholar, is used to being seen as a maverick.

A privileged boyhood in Surrey, England, ended when his "snotty prep school" threatened to expel him for bad behaviour.

He joined the air force for six years -- although he did not see action -- then worked as a meteorologist in Antarctica, a diamond prospector in Sierra Leone, and a ski instructor in Scotland.

In his 20s, he discovered books, and at 27 returned to school. He studied sociology at Essex University and taught briefly at the London School of Economics, but became bored and joined the British Broadcasting Corporation as a journalist, where he remained for three years.

Since then, he has held research and teaching posts at Harvard, the University of California, and in Australia, Denmark, Hawaii and Japan.

In 1998, Prof. Mack became head of the UN Human Security Office, working for Secretary-General Kofi Annan. There, he was astonished to discover that there were no reliable data on warfare.

"We have vast armies to track and measure health, education and environmental issues, but no international agencies track anything to do with political violence.

"There is nothing on wars, on numbers killed, on genocides, human rights abuses, or terrorists. The (U.S.) State Department is doing stuff on tracking terrorism, but does it incredibly badly," he said.

In 2001, Prof. Mack left the UN to set up a research institute to track wars. Instead of returning to Harvard, he decided he wanted to live in Vancouver.

"I don't enjoy living in the States. Canada . . . is more secular, more European, while America has become more conservative, more fundamentalist. The Canadian ethos is much more comfortable for me," said Prof. Mack, who lives in Deep Cove, overlooking the Burrard Inlet.

"I don't like big cities. I love water, and I am an avid sailor and boater. Vancouver is paradise."

Former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy, then head of the Liu Institute -- which does research and advocacy work on global policy issues including international relations, health and justice -- gave Prof. Mack's institute a home.

It is one of several centres at the Liu Institute, and has a staff of about a half dozen.

The project's findings, Prof. Mack said, show dramatic change wrought by the end of the Cold War.

"There are lots of UN failures," he acknowledged. "But if [UN peace projects] are succeeding only four times out of 10, remember that in the 1990s and before, it was zero of 10."

Prof. Mack plans to make his Human Securities Report an annual event, a military equivalent to the UN's vaunted Human Development Report.

He's already working on next year's report on the hidden costs of war, such as famine and disease, noting: "We have no data on the numbers of people who die indirectly in war."

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