Five myths about war and terrorism
Ode Editors | November 2006 issue
If we believe what we see in the media, the world is on fire. The conflict in the Middle East is at the boiling point, African tribes are fighting bloody feuds, terrorism is spreading everywhere. The impression we get is that conflicts are increasing all around the globe while the stockpile of deadly weapons constantly expands. All this is very troubling—and quite untrue.
At a time when wars dominate the headlines, it’s not only comforting but also important to note that the exhaustive Human Security Report offers a very different picture of our world. Produced by researchers at the University of British Columbia who looked at much of the available data on wars and terrorism, the 2005 report finds clear evidence that the world is becoming a more peaceful place. The information journalists and activist groups present as facts are often rough estimates unsupported by thorough research. For example, the number of child soldiers is likely much lower than the 300,000 figure usually quoted by human-rights organizations—a figure that is falling sharply in any case because there are simply many fewer conflicts.
The findings of the Human Security Report incited Amnesty International to review the facts itself. In the magazine published by its Dutch branch Wordt Vervolgd (February 2006), the group lists a series of myths that the author, Daan Bronkhorst, believes even this well-respected human-rights organization perpetuates.
Myth 1: War is spreading
Yes, the number of armed conflicts increased sharply after World War II, but has just as sharply declined since 1991. In the last 15 years, as media attention on tragedies like Rwanda and the Balkan conflicts gave the impression of a planet exploding in ethnic violence, the number of armed conflicts and wars actually fell at least 40 percent. The number of genocides and political murders declined by no less than 80 percent compared to 1988. And the number of victims per conflict also dropped precipitously: In 1950, the average conflict claimed the lives of 38,000 people, while in 2002 that figure was 600, a decline of 98 percent.
Myth 2: The weapons arsenal is increasing
The proliferation of small weapons—guns and machine guns—is spiralling out of control, claim human-rights organizations. Precise figures are lacking, but a close look at recent developments in the weapons industry tells a different story. International arms trade fell 33 percent between 1990 and 2000, and as a percentage of the value of the world economy, defence spending declined from 4.2 to 2.7 percent.
Myth 3: Civilians are the vast majority of war victims
During World War I, it is widely reported, 5 percent of victims were civilians, while civilians accounted for 50 percent of the deaths during World War II and 90 percent in current conflicts. Wordt Vervolgd calls this “a very persistent position, a mantra” voiced by Amnesty International and other groups. The Human Security Report contends that the figures are attributed to only two sources, both of which have been inaccurately interpreted. In the most recent wars, civilians account for somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of deaths. And the total death-toll figures are often greatly exaggerated, the report states.
Myth 4: Women are the primary victims of war
As recently as 2004, Amnesty International claimed, “Women and children suffer most from war, both directly as well as through ‘incidental damage.’” The Human Society Report reports soberly that war continues to be waged by men, against men. Ninety percent of the victims are men, as are some 90 percent of the perpetrators. In wars in Kosovo and Iraq, approximately two-thirds of victims were men.
Myth 5: Terrorism is the biggest threat in the world
Over the past 30 years, an average of slightly less than 3,000 people have died at the hands of terrorists each year. That number has increased since 1998, yet the chance of being a victim of terrorism remains exceptionally small. The Human Security Report points out that people living in safe countries often report more fear of political violence than those in war-torn countries. And that, Wordt Vervolgd says, may well be the best illustration of the lesson the report teaches us: Between alleged and real threats, there is often little correlation.