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A chart showing war on the decline

The Good News About War

Since the end of the Cold War, the average number of people killed by war each year has gone down significantly. Worldwide, deaths caused by war-related violence averaged about 180,000 per year during the Cold War, 100,000 per year in the 1990s, and 55,000 per year in the 2000s, according to the Peace Research Institute Oslo.



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Source: Peace Research Institute Oslo

Despite the carnage in Syria, there’s no reason to think that the long-term trend is reversing.

The UN Human Rights Office announced on Friday that the Syrian conflict had killed 191,369 people over the past three years. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program’s latest dataset, in all countries besides Syria, there were 21,358 battle deaths in 2013, 22,936 battle deaths in 2012, and 21,789 battle deaths in 2011. Put all the numbers together and you get around 85,000 worldwide battle deaths per year over the past three years.  That’s 85,000 too many, of course, but the violence still isn’t nearly at the level of the Cold War.

The decline in the number of war deaths is particularly astonishing considering that world population has tripled since 1950. When looking at death rates instead of absolute numbers, the post-Cold War calm is even more apparent.

A chart showing war on the decline

So why doesn’t it feel as if war is declining? There is a vast disconnect between the findings of those who study conflict and the public perception of war. In the mainstream conflict research community, it is uncontroversial that international wars have decreased since the 1950s and civil wars have decreased since the end of the Cold War. But public perception is sometimes different.

One reason for the widespread pessimism is that the rise of television and the internet has allowed gruesome images of the casualties of war to be disseminated around the world. Images of journalist James Foley’s horrific execution spread like wildfire through Twitter. Every reporter or blogger knows that videos of explosions and dead civilians will attract more viewers than any positive news, especially when that positive news is about a long-term trend rather than a particular event. Since consumers of media can so easily bring to mind the horrors they’ve just seen on TV or the internet, they overestimate the amount of violence taking place today compared to the past. Psychologists call such a bias the availability heuristic.

While the majority of peace researchers agree that violence is trending downward, it is more controversial to theorize why exactly this is happening. The Human Security Report 2013 offers a few explanations, including the end of great power conflict and colonialism, increased economic and financial interdependence, and the gradual spread of stable democracies. International institutions have undoubtedly played a role as well. Once free of Cold War-inspired vetoes, the UN Security Council was able to beef up its peacekeeping operations and help mitigate multiple civil wars, even if it couldn’t be successful in every single case. Meanwhile, international conventions have banned non-discriminatory weapons such as landmines, cluster munitions, and chemical weapons.

Whatever the reason, we live in a relatively peaceful world today. In Winning the War on War, Joshua Goldstein writes:

“In the first half of the twentieth century, world wars killed tens of millions and left whole continents in ruins. In the second half of that century, during the Cold War, proxy wars killed millions, and the world feared a nuclear war that could have wiped out our species. Now, in the early twenty-first century, the worst wars, such as Iraq, kill hundreds of thousands. We fear terrorist attacks that could destroy a city, but not life on the planet. The fatalities still represent a large number and the impacts of wars are still catastrophic for those caught in them, but overall, war has diminished dramatically.”

Some might criticize conflict researchers for declaring a premature victory over war when so many lives are still torn apart by violence. However, these researchers aren’t trying to say that war is no longer a problem; they are just trying to understand it. A proper grasp of historical trends is essential to making the right decisions for the future. And it’s heartening to know that even though the international community has a long way to go in eradicating the scourge of war, we are making progress.


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World Food Program delivers aid in Syria in 2002 credit: WFP/Abeer Etefa

A Risky Humanitarian Relief Gambit Pays Off

Last month, the Security Council authorized the cross border delivery of aid to Syria through four border points, even if the Syrian government did not consent to the delivery of aid. This was a potentially risky move.

The delivery of humanitarian assistance is generally premised on the fact that the aid is being distributed with the cooperation, or at least consent, of the government on whose territory the aid is being delivered. You run into big problems when convoys of trucks purporting to delivery humanitarian assistance mass at a border and enter a war zone. (See: Ukraine.) So, the consent of the host country is generally considered a pre-requisite to the delivery of aid.

The Security Council resolution permitting the delivery of aid regardless of whether or not the Syrian government authorizes it was radical — and risky — because it undermined this basic premise of the humanitarian system. At first it looked like the Syrians would attack the aid convoys.  The Syrian Ambassador to the UN blatantly threatened to attack aid convoys that crossed into Syrian territory without official permission from the government.

It would seem that those threats were just bluster. As of last week, eight relief and aid shipments have crossed into Syria from four border crossings without incident. Aid was able to reach tens of thousands of stranded Syrians who had previously been beyond the reach of international aid.

This is promising start to a risky aid operation. It is also important to put this in context: there are nearly 11 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria, over half of whom live in areas not under the control of the government. Meanwhile, the number of people who need humanitarian assistance has increased for every month that the conflict has dragged on.  With the war showing no signs of abating anytime soon, we can expect that humanitarians will take on even greater risks to reach people in need.




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Meet the Face of the Fight Against Ebola

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“David Nabarro, a British physician the United Nations appointed to coordinate the global response to the crisis, was in Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown for the fifth day of a tour of the region. “The effort to defeat Ebola is not a battle but a war which requires everybody working together, hard and effectively,” he told a news conference. “I hope it will be done in six months but we have to do it until it is completed.” (Yahoo

USA Readies for Possible Syria Strikes…There are growing signs that the White House is laying the groundwork for strikes against ISIS targets inside Syria. “Defense officials said on Monday evening that the Pentagon is sending in manned and unmanned reconnaissance flights over Syria, using a combination of aircraft, including drones and possibly U2 spy planes. Mr. Obama approved the flights over the weekend, a senior administration official said. The flights are a significant step toward direct American military action in Syria, an intervention that could alter the battlefield in the nation’s three-year civil war.” (NYT


The United Nations today cautioned against flight restrictions into and out of Ebola-affected countries in West Africa, saying such limitations were preventing the transport of critically-needed health workers and supplies, as well as contributing to economic and diplomatic isolation of the region. (UN News Center

Liberia’s president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has called for creation of a board of inquiry to look into last week’s Ebola-related rioting and deadly shooting in the West Point slum of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. (VOA

The WHO said on Monday it has sent protective equipment for medical staff to Democratic Republic of Congo, where authorities have confirmed two cases of Ebola in a remote area. (Reuters

One of three African doctors infected with Ebola and treated with the experimental drug ZMapp has died in Monrovia, Liberia’s Information Minister Lewis Brown said on Monday. (Reuters

Japan said Monday it is ready to provide a Japanese-developed anti-influenza drug as a possible treatment for the rapidly expanding Ebola outbreak. (AP


South Sudan’s warring leaders signed a fresh ceasefire deal Monday vowing to end more than eight months of conflict, according to mediators who threatened sanctions should the agreement fail once again.

The cholera outbreak in Ghana has led to more than 1,000 cases in the last three weeks. Nine districts out of sixteen have recorded cases to date with Accra metro and Dadekotpon are the most affected districts and account for 87% of cases. (IFRC

Boko Haram’s declaration of a caliphate and an Islamic state in Nigeria yesterday mirrors the declaration made three months ago by the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. (VOA

Mozambique’s government and the former rebel Renamo movement have signed an accord to end two years of low-level fighting. The unrest had raised fears the southern African country would slip back into civil war, two decades after Renamo and the ruling Frelimo party ended hostilities. (VOA

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Monday on a visit to China hoping the long-time ally and economic giant can help the African nation’s ailing economy. (AP

The Tanzanian government’s system of rounding up children with albinism in state-run education centers isn’t adequately protecting them from widespread superstitious beliefs that human albino body parts will bring wealth and success or cure disease, the UN human rights office said. (AP

The government of South Sudan signed an Action Plan with the UN in 2012 to end the use of child soldiers but there is evidence the ongoing conflict is eroding any gains achieved. (IRIN


A sharp increase in fuel prices threatens to plunge hundreds of thousands of Yemenis into poverty and food insecurity in the Arab world’s poorest country – particularly if regular welfare payments to Yemen’s poorest people continue to be dispersed erratically, aid organizations have warned. (IRIN

Twice in the last seven days, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have secretly launched airstrikes against Islamist-allied militias battling for control of Tripoli, Libya, four senior American officials said, in a major escalation of a regional power struggle set off by Arab Spring revolts. (NYT

The hunt for the Islamic State militant who beheaded U.S. journalist Jim Foley is focusing on British jihadists, including a one-time British rapper known as L Jinny. (VOA

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the appalling, widespread and systematic deprivation of human rights in Iraq by the Islamic State and associated forces. The violations include targeted killings, forced conversions, abductions, trafficking, slavery, sexual abuse, destruction of places of religious and cultural significance, and the besieging of entire communities because of ethnic, religious or sectarian affiliation. (UNHCR

Syria says it is willing to work with the international community, including the United States and Britain, to fight the advance of Islamic State militants inside Syria, but warned that any attacks should only be carried out in coordination with Damascus. (VOA


Adolescent girls in Bangladesh’s Mymensingh district meet once a week to discuss their rights, and topics like sanitation and personal hygiene. (IPS

Thailand’s young people are facing a new rise in HIV infections – the virus that causes AIDS. Researchers say they are finding it tougher to reach at-risk populations with messages about safer sex. (VOA

Vietnam has a nutrition problem that sounds like a contradiction: too many of its children are underweight, but at the same time, more and more children are becoming overweight every year. (VOA

The Americas

Police in Brazil say four prisoners have been killed – two of them decapitated – in a riot in a jail in the southern city of Cascavel. (BBC

While accurate figures for New York’s unsheltered homeless are hard to come by, the thousands sleeping on the streets are in addition to the 53,615 people – a record-breaking figure not seen since the Great Depression – who enrolled in the city’s shelter system in January this year. (IPS


Gaza aid worker: we have stopped feeling anything (Guardian

Inequality and the dangerous radicals (Global Dashboard

NZ aid and the New Zealand private sector’s role in Pacific sustainable economic development (Dev Policy

“We are eating grass because there is no food” (UN Dispatch

The Post-2015 Development Goals Need to Address Migration—And It Looks Like They Just Might (CGD

The Loss of Skill in the Industrial Revolution (The Growth Economics Blog

Australia has a Problem (UN Dispatch

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A woman in South Sudan picking grass to eat, credit UNICEF

“We are eating grass because there is no food”

South Sudan is on the verge of a famine. This is known. What is unknown is whether or not the people of South Sudan will actually experience a famine; or whether or not the conflict will subside and political situation stabilize and prevent the famine.

This video from UNICEF offers a rare glimpse into the life of an ordinary South Sudanese family trying to cope with a lack of food.

For a deeper analysis of South Sudan’s food crisis, and the ways in which the international community is trying to head off a famine I spoke with Tariq Riebl, the country director of South Sudan for Oxfam. He explains how we got to this point, and what can save South Sudan from being the second country on earth to experience famine in the 21st century.

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Credit: Australian government. From the website of the immigration service

Australia has a Problem

In recent years Australia has received quite a bit of criticism for its harsh policies towards asylum seekers and refugees. Last week new information on its treatment of Syrian refugees revealed the lengths Australia is willing to go to remove some of the world’s most vulnerable people from its shores. It also calls into question the ability of the international community to enforce refugee rights, even among Western governments.

Although Australia was a settler colony, the country has never been pro-immigration. This sentiment manifested for decades after independence with the“White Australia Policy” which heavily favored limited European immigration while prohibiting non-Europeans from living, working or gaining citizenship in Australia. Following World War II, the government gradually dismantled the core provisions of the policy, officially removing race and country of origin from immigration criteria in 1973. But while the White Australia Policy is no longer on the books, different government policies have taken its place with the same anti-immigrant sentiment.

Over the last 20 years, the bulk of this ire has been directed towards refugees and asylum seekers, particularly those who arrive by unauthorized boat. Australia introduced mandatory detention for unauthorized arrivals in 1992, removing pre-existing limits on how long someone could be held in favor of the option of indefinite detention if needed. In 2001, following an increase in unauthorized arrivals from Central and South Asia, the government launched the “Pacific Solution” policy that excised many of the island territories around Australia from the country’s official migration zone and established offshore detention centers on Manus Island and Nauru to house potential asylum seekers while they waited for their claims to be evaluated. Detention often lasts months, sometimes even years, as detainees wait for a decision on their asylum application.

The government claims such policies are for national security but it has also been quite vocal in recent years in support of deterrence as an official government policy. This approach ranges from using prolonged detention, whether justified or not, to advertising assurances that no matter the validity of their claim an asylum seeker will not gain resettlement in Australia. The recent treatment and return of several intercepted Sri Lankan asylum seekers – despite Australia’s acknowledgment of widespread state-sponsored torture by the Sri Lankan government and the likelihood that those sent back would face imprisonment – highlights the harshness of this policy and the depths Australia will go to deter any other refugees from trying to come to its shores.

This is all quite shameful but the revelation by The Guardian of interdepartmental emails from the Australian Department of Immigration show just how deep the anti-refugee pathos within the government has gotten. A tiny fraction of the estimated 3 million Syrian refugees in the world have successfully made it to Australian territorial waters but even that is too much for the government to handle. The emails reveal repeated attempts to coerce Syrian refugees to repatriate even though they legitimately fear they will be killed upon their return. One email recounts the options presented to Syrians detained on Manus Island – indefinite detention or return, but never the possibility of resettlement. So far it is understood that all five Syrians on Manus have elected for indefinite detention over repatriation and possible death.

However at least one Syrian detained at Nauru did elect to try to return. In order to facilitate that, Australian officials shared his identity and personal information with the Syrian government to get official travel documents. In this case, it appears the officials had permission from the Syrian to share this information with the Syrian consulate, but based on the emails it also appears officials were preparing to do this even before permission was granted. That impetus – to respect and abide by the laws of a state engaged in massive crimes against humanity against its own people while blatantly flouting commitments under international law – is increasingly the defining characteristic of Australian immigration policy.

Human rights groups and UNHCR have been vocal in their objections to these draconian measures but that is the extent of action by the international community. Last year Australia took the extraordinary step of excising the entire continental mainland from the Australian migration zone, in essence completely removing Australia from its own borders for the purposes of immigration and ostensibly their commitments under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Such measures sound insane because they are; the move is unprecedented under international law. But aside from criticism by UNHCR who stated it still considers the Refugee Convention to be binding on Australia, nothing has happened. Asylum seekers continue to be detained for months offshore or forcibly returned, in full violation of said convention.

Of course there are very real reasons to try and deter refugees from making the dangerous journey by boat to Australia; people smuggling is a brutal and exploitive industry that rarely places any value on the safety of its human cargo. But Australia’s claims that such policies are out of humanitarian concern fail in view of the country’s history and the goals openly stated by politicians. Furthermore, no other feasible alternatives are being provided that actual deter an asylum seeker from attempting to make the trip. Much like the debate over “Fortress Europe” and the US “border crisis”, the issue is not whether refugees should be protected in the abstract but rather whether the refugees risking their lives to gain the protection of these states are the “right kind” of refugees. International law does not allow for that distinction and neither should the national policies of any state.

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Ebola Comes to DR Congo

Ebola has come to the DRC. “Two out of eight cases tested in an outbreak of deadly fever in the northwest of the Democratic Republic of Congo were positive for the Ebola virus, the central African nation’s health minister confirmed on Sunday.”The results are positive. The Ebola virus is confirmed in DRC,” Felix Kabange Numbi said, referring to samples taken from people infected with the previously unidentified fever that has killed dozens since mid-August. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced on Thursday that 70 people had died in an outbreak of hemorrhagic gastroenteritis. A WHO spokesman said the outbreak was not Ebola. DRC is now the fifth African nation to confirm cases of the Ebola outbreak, which began in March. A total of 2,617 infections and 1,427 deaths have been recorded, including in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria. Liberia has seen the most deaths, at more than 600, with the disease confirmed in all regions of the country.” (DW )

Libya on the Brink…The country’s main international airport has been overrun by Islamist militants. “The Islamist groups, led by a militia from the western city of Misrata under the umbrella of “Operation Dawn,” said they had captured the airport in Tripoli on Saturday after more than a month of fighting against the liberal Zintan militias, who have been assigned by the government to guard the airport since 2011…Neighboring Egypt is set to host a regional meeting on Monday to discuss the Libyan crisis. The meeting is expected to include foreign ministers from Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan and Chad, as well as representatives of the Arab League and the African Union’s envoy to Libya.” (LAT


A Royal Air Force plane carrying a British healthcare worker who contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone - the first Briton to catch the deadly virus – took off from the capital Freetown on Sunday bound for Britain. (Reuters

When disaster strikes a poor country, aid workers from all over the world normally flood the zone. This time, fear of the virus is keeping experts from answering West Africa’s calls for help. (NPR

The Philippines is pulling out almost 3,500 workers from three West African states due to the Ebola outbreak, the foreign ministry said on Sunday, a day after Filipino troops in Liberia were ordered to go home. (Reuters

Sierra Leone’s parliament has made the harbouring of Ebola victims a crime punishable by two years’ jail in an attempt to stop the spread of the deadly virus, the justice minister said. (Reuters

A meeting of African health ministers scheduled for early September in Benin has been postponed because of the Ebola epidemic, an official said Sunday.

The worst-ever outbreak of the Ebola virus is taking a heavy toll on west Africa’s economy as crops rot in the fields, mines are abandoned and goods cannot get to market.


Amnesty International is accusing Mali of holding children  accused of belonging to armed militias in Mali and participating in the country’s ongoing unrest in jails and being held alongside adults. (ABC

A member of an East African regional body monitoring a ceasefire in South Sudan died of a heart attack after some monitors were detained by rebels to the north of the country, further complicating a peace process. (Reuters

Niger’s agriculture minister has been arrested on suspicion of involvement in a baby-trafficking network, a spokesman for his political party and legal sources said. (Reuters


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Palestinian civilians on Sunday to leave immediately any site where militants are operating, one day after Israel flattened a 13-storey apartment block in Gaza. (Reuters

The US government says an American held hostage for about two years by an al-Qaida-linked group in Syria has been released. (AP

In a country where civil liberties remain the prerogative of the powerful and wealthy, the Lebanese gay scene is to be treaded carefully. The recent arrest of 27 members of the LGBT community shows that those not so lucky – those belonging to the more vulnerable tranches of society – are always at risk. (IPS

Italy’s maritime search and rescue service saved 3,500 migrants and found 19 corpses in the Mediterranean since Friday as thousands attempted to cross to Europe by boat over the weekend, the Italian navy said. (Reuters


The authorities in Xinjiang, the ethnically divided region in far western China, said on Saturday that eight people had been executed on charges related to separatist violence, including an attack last year in which a car plowed through tourists near Tiananmen Square in Beijing and erupted in flames. (NYT

In Sri Lanka’s poverty-stricken Northern Province, residents say they must stretch the few resources they have in order to survive. (IPS

A new UN report points to a sharp increase in numbers of boat people mostly from Myanmar and Bangladesh.  Activists fear a further surge of refugee boat people, especially ethnic Rohingya fleeing squalid refugee camps and persecution in Myanmar. (VOA

The Americas

Venezuela used to be a world leader in managing malaria, but is now the only country in Latin America where incidence of the disease is increasing. Around 75,000 people were infected last year, and according to government figures, 60% of cases were in Sifontes, a tiny region of the country where gold mining – where workers drill for gold in mosquito-friendly standing water – is booming, and healthcare is scarce. (BBC


The Islamic State’s media logic (The Interpreter

A New Focus on Peaceful Conflict Resolution at the UNSC? (UN Dispatch

Development blog: Does Banning Child Marriage Really Work? (CGD

A Bold New Way of Measuring A Country’s REAL Wealth (UN Dispatch

Conflict and disaster reporting: Does the public still care? (ODI

If It Looks Corrupt, It Is Corrupt (Global Anticorruption Blog

Win $20,000 to be part of the problem? (Chris Blattman

Which is more important – changing policies, or changing social norms and behaviours (and how are they connected)? (From Poverty to Power

A Storm in a Bucket: Lessons from the Ice Bucket Challenge Controversy (Policy Innovations

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