100 Years of Peace & Conflict

Last week I was privileged to represent the Institute for Economics and Peace at the Global Education Conference at the University of Tasmania. As part of the conference I participated in a panel discussion on the topic of 100 years of peace and conflict. Other panellists, including Professor Rupert Maclean, Professor Damien Kingsbury, Mr Alopi Latukefu, Mark Baker and John Williamson gave mind-blowingly interesting responses.

In preparing to answer rather big questions on 100 years of peace and conflict, I pulled together a few notes. While this by no means addresses the entirety of topic (which one could write several books about), it does give a brief overview of how far we’ve come and what we’ve learnt.

Comments on 100 years of peace and conflict

To talk about 100 years of peace I will focus on what data says about the current state of peace and where that fits in historically, and I want to make two main points here: firstly that the world has become less peaceful over the last seven years and what is causing it, and secondly, that we are talking about the world as less peaceful, which means something different to less wars or less conflicts.

The Global Peace Index dates back until 2008 and shows us short term trends in peace. An argument in long term trends in peace put forward by Steve Pinker in his book The Better Angels of our Nature states that we are living in the most peaceful era in human history; since 10,000BCE the world has become more peaceful, marked most significantly by the end of colonialism.

What the Global Peace Index shows us is that the last seven years has seen a reversal of this trend. Since 2008 the world has become slightly less peaceful every year and the nature of violence and conflict is changing.

The Global Peace Index is a measure of negative peace, which is the absence of violence or the fear of violence. It uses 22 different indicators to gauge the state of peace in 162 countries. This allows us to capture multiple types of violence, rather than just focusing on homicides, battle deaths and the number of wars.

Taking a more holistic approach we see that decreasing levels of global peacefulness are not just the result of one off spikes in violence like the conflict in Syria, or the escalated violence in Mexico as a result of the drug war, rather the decline in peacefulness over the last seven years has occurred in both  the majority of countries on the Global Peace Index as well as across the majority of indicators- meaning that different types of violence are plaguing a wider range of countries.

Most specifically the biggest changes to peace we have seen over the last seven years are:

An increase in terrorist activity; over the last year alone we have seen a 61% increase in the number of people killed in terrorist attacks. The homicide rate has also increased over the same time.

An interesting sidenote to think about here is that we often hear a lot about terrorism and how it impacts peace, but we don’t hear the same discussion about homicide. Take this example, in 2012 there were 11,000 people killed in terrorist attacks, and 437,000 people killed in homicides.

Other causes of the decline in global peacefulness show an increase in the likelihood of violent demonstrations, as well as the perception of criminality in a society. The latter reflecting that peace is more than just the absence of violence, but also includes the fear of violence.

While the Global Peace Index can’t show us changes in peace over the last 100 years, it can show that the last seven years has seen an alarming trend and decline in levels of peace. Moreover it gives us a more holistic approach to understanding the state of peace, not just as the absence of war or conflict, but many different dimesons that make a society peaceful.

As we look to the next century, or even the next year of peace, we should remember that in striving for more peaceful societies, we are striving not just for the absence of war, but for the presence of the many dimensions of human development and progress that lead to peaceful societies.


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