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Press Conference to Launch Report on 'Shrinking Costs of War'

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

20 January 2010

The absolute number of deaths during wartime -- people killed by violent means as well as deaths from disease or other non-violent causes that would not have occurred had there been no war -- always went down rather than up, suggesting a decline in the human cost of wars, no matter where in the world they were fought, according to a new study on war deaths up to 2007.

Presenting the study The Shrinking Costs of War today at a Headquarters press conference sponsored by the Permanent Mission of the United Kingdom, Andrew Mack, Director of the Human Security Report Project, said wars fought in 2007 had resulted in a total of 40,000 deaths, much lower than the 700,000 resulting from armed conflicts during the war-ravaged 1950s.

When taken alone, the average number of battlefield deaths in the 1950s was 10,000 people, compared to “just 1,000” such deaths in 2007, he said, adding that the lower number of casualties reflected the changed nature of wars, which were now much smaller than in the past. During the cold war, nations in conflict mobilized 2 million combatants and, using major conventional weapons, conducted long-range bombardments of cities with plenty of involvement by major Powers like China, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In addition to minimal humanitarian assistance at that time, the near-total absence of immunization explained why countless people died from disease.

In comparison, today’s wars were low-intensity insurgencies, fought by small armies that were rarely involved in full-frontal combat, he said. Troops were also likely to be poorly armed and only lightly trained. Since they used few conventional weapons, they had little ability to project power over large spaces, leaving the general population to carry on relatively undisturbed. Moreover, improved health was causing a powerful and steady decline in the world’s mortality rate that could not be reversed even by war.

That trend held fast everywhere in the world, including sub-Saharan Africa, and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) believed it was due to widespread immunization against measles and respiratory diseases, he said. It was possible that immunization during peacetime made children more resistant during periods of war. Campaigns staged in periods of calm, whereby humanitarian workers rushed to vaccinate children in rebel strongholds, could also be making a difference.

The study used the mortality rate for children under the age of five years to gauge the level of mortality in a given population, Mr. Mack explained. The trend of declining death rates was apparent across the world, including in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique and Sierra Leone, which had each endured long periods of war. While Uganda had shown higher death rates in the late 1980s, at the onset of the long-runninginsurgency in its northern and eastern regions, that rate had begun to decline during more recent phases of fighting.

Pointing out one exception to the rule, he said between 500,000 and 800,000 people were thought to have been killed with machetes and pistols in a matter of weeks during the 1994 Rwanda genocide -- almost the same number killed during the Korean War in the 1950s. “There is nothing like Rwanda probably in the history of [that] century,” he stressed.

While Governments often kept body counts of war-dead, it was harder to track data for “indirect deaths” not caused by violence, he said. Bodies might be exhumed for a count in some instances -- for example the Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian War -- but unless the cause of death was noted in a household survey or a census, there was no way to tell how the victims had died.

Mr. Mack said one reason behind the study was to collect data on the toll taken by war and insecurity, which had not been possible during his tenure as Director of Strategic Management under former Secretary-General Kofi Annan. At the time, the topic of security had been deemed too sensitive for open study at the United Nations, and while the Organization had gone on to produce a Millennium Development Goals Report, it had not created an equivalent “security report”.

Data was also being collected for conflicts fought by non-State actors, such as the one in Somalia, he said, noting, however, that because the data only went up to 2007, it did not include information on the war in Sri Lanka. Benetech, a company that collected human rights data, kept scrupulous records of deaths in the countries where it worked and was often involved in nations that ran truth and reconciliation commissions.

Noting that the study challenged death estimates provided by the International Rescue Committee in relation to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he said the Committee had conducted five surveys and concluded that since 1998, 5.4 million people had died in that country, both directly and indirectly as a result of war. He added that he and other researchers believed there had been mistakes in sampling and other methodological errors, leading them to discount the data derived from the Committee’s first two surveys. Of the remaining three, the Committee put the number of deaths at approximately 2.8 million people, while his own study estimated that it could be as low as 900,000.

However, Mr. Mack emphasized the good work that the Committee was doing, praising it for its professionalism. “They’ve been very, very successful in pressuring the United Nations, the United States Government into doing more,” he noted. “After their first report [ United States] aid increased by something like 26 times.”

Asked whether the report’s findings affected his view of the importance of the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), Philip Parham, Deputy Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom and moderator of the press conference, said: “Even if one takes what the report seems to be indicating, you’re still talking about a conflict that is causing terrible human suffering that we all need to do what we can to end.”

The report was funded by the United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.

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For information media • not an official record

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