Contrary to popular belief, the world will continue to get safer
Fewer people are dying as a result of war now than at almost any time since the 1920s. According to the forthcoming Human Security Report (to be published by Oxford University Press), there were some 27,000 deaths from all forms of political violence in 2003, the most recent year for which we have data. During the 1990s the average annual figure was more than five times as high, mainly concentrated in Africa-Angola, Congo, Sudan and, of course, Rwanda. The 1980s were bloodier but the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were the deadliest decades, with most of the fighting and dying concentrated in East and South-East Asia.
As war goes down, peacekeeping goes up, at least for a while. Most peacekeeping operations-more than half-take place as old wars go out of business. As more wars end, with fewer new ones breaking out, as is happening now, there is a short-term surge in peacekeeping activity.
The number of UN peacekeepers will reach a peak in early 2005, when peacekeeping forces deployed in Haiti and possibly Sudan come to full strength. Their number will then decline slowly as nations with peacekeeping operations become gradually more stable. UN peacekeepers will probably leave East Timor and Sierra Leone later in 2005. These two countries can then join a list of states, from El Salvador to Mozambique and Namibia, which have successfully managed to move from war to peace.
The current surge has stretched the UN's capacity to its maximum. By mid-2004 there were more than 60,000 men and women wearing the United Nations blue beret in the field, compared with 38,500 four years earlier. Almost half the UN's 17 peacekeeping missions are in Africa, with the remainder on three other continents, covering 12 time zones. The costs of all this are increasing, too, and now run at more than $3 billion a year.
But this current wave of peacekeeping is an exceptionally good investment. Recent research by Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler of Oxford University looked at the challenge of reducing the global incidence of civil war, which presently costs the world some $128 billion per year. Five options were considered, including aid as conflict prevention and aid post-conflict to reduce the risk of sliding back into war. Among the cases examined, by far the most cost-effective was external military intervention under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter to enforce peace and to maintain it throughout the prolonged period-up to a decade-during which the risks of reversion to conflict are very high.
The research looked, in particular, at Sierra Leone. Thanks to a timely intervention from Britain and a good follow-on from the United Nations, the limb-hacking Revolutionary United Front is out of business. There is an enduring human cost, to be seen with the thousands of armless children, and there is no magic solution for the country's future economic development. But a horror has been stopped and people have returned, as far as they can, to normal life, planting crops, fixing their homes, educating their children.
Recent evidence from Liberia makes the same point. More than anything else, Liberians have reported to pollsters, they value the security that the UN force has brought them since it deployed in October 2003. In 17 operations around the world peacekeepers are working to create a halfway house of stability between the chaos of war and the rule of law. While the conditions for ultimate peace vary in each case, one aim remains constant-to allow people who could otherwise be trapped in hopeless conflict to get on with their lives and contribute, themselves, to an enduring peace.
None of this is to say that there are not major lessons to be learnt in conflict management. Getting both the timing and level of forceful intervention right, for example, has too often proved to be an inexact science. Sometimes, as happened in Rwanda, we use no force at all, even in the face of genocide. Sometimes we intervene too early, when there is no peace to keep, or use the wrong tools altogether, as we did with lightly armed peacekeepers in Bosnia. Sometimes, as in Congo, the scale of the international effort is simply not proportional to the scale of the place or the problem. Iraq, too, offers a whole range of lessons, including that of planning for post-conflict operations.
Some of those lessons are being learnt. The European Union's quick intervention in eastern Congo in 2003 interrupted a cycle of violence that would almost certainly have claimed thousands of lives. Buoyed up by that success, the EU is now expanding the concept and aims to have up to nine "battle groups" available for deployment in support of a UN mandate by 2007. The robust United Nations force in Liberia has enough military muscle to ensure that rebels won't overrun it, as they nearly did a much lighter force in Sierra Leone in 2000.
Effective peacekeeping can help lay the foundations for the future. But where war has torn apart a state, lasting peace depends on the emergence of a framework for security, justice and economic development that is both functional and legitimate. This takes time. To help, the outside world has to stay the course with diplomatic stamina and financial commitment. We don't yet have all the tools needed to help rebuild broken legal, financial and security systems, and we need to invest in developing them. After all, one of the lessons of September 11th 2001 is that weak states can incubate strategic threats with global implications.
It would be premature to predict that current efforts to "manage down" the level of conflict in the world will continue. Major drivers of conflict-under-development, weak governance, systemic corruption, plunder of natural resources, closed markets-continue to be very present both in Africa and in the greater Middle East. But where there are conflicts, and conflicts ripe for settlement, we do seem to be getting slowly better at stabilising them.
Jean-Marie Guéhenno: under-secretary general for UN Peacekeeping