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Where the UN is winning

By Gareth Evans - posted Monday, 31 October 2005

This 60th anniversary year has been a hugely disappointing one for the cause of United Nations reform. The need for change was almost universally recognised: some key institutions such as the Security Council no longer represented the world as it was; others like the Human Rights Commission were dysfunctional or worse; management systems were locked in a time warp; debating chambers were moribund; development support was lagging way behind needs; and the arms control agenda completely stalled. And blueprints for repair and reconstruction on all fronts were ready as never before.

But at last month's global summit, hopes and expectations mostly turned to dust. The embrace of the "responsibility to protect" principle, recognising limits to state sovereignty when governments put their people's lives at risk, was a shaft of light. And we do have the shell, if not yet the substance, of a new Peace-building Commission.

But of a new Human Rights Council there is barely even a shell. All movement on this, as on management reform and many other issues, remains hostage to the spoiling of a hard core of antagonistic developing states.


We have blank pages on a new definition of terrorism, and - thanks largely to the United States - on disarmament and arms control, and on principles governing the use of force. And any structural changes to the Security Council to enhance its representativeness and legitimacy have been - thanks mainly to African politics this time - indefinitely postponed.

So that's the bad news.

But there is now some good news, quite a lot of it in fact. It came last week with the launch of the long-awaited Human Security Report, sponsored by five governments and put together by a Canadian team under the direction of former Australian National University professor and UN security adviser Andrew Mack.

There has been a dramatic decrease in the number of conflicts and mass killings and a more striking fall in the number of battle deaths. Pulling together for the first time a mass of data not collected by any international agency, the report finds - quite counter-intuitively for most people - that there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of conflicts and mass killings, an even more striking decrease in the number of battle deaths and a complete turnaround in the number of conflicts peacefully resolved. And it concludes that the UN system deserves most of the credit for achieving this.

Let the figures speak for themselves. Since the early 1990s, there has been an 80 per cent decrease in the number of conflicts causing 1,000 or more battle deaths in a year. Whereas back in the 1950s, and for years thereafter, the average number of battle deaths per conflict per year were between 30,000 and 40,000, by the early 2000s this number was down to around 600 - reflecting the shift from high to low-intensity conflicts, and geographically from Asia to Africa.

Of course battle deaths are not the whole story. As the report makes clear, as many as 90 per cent of war-related deaths are due to disease and malnutrition rather than direct violence. But the trend is unmistakably positive.


On peacemaking, the report's conclusions are consistent with those of the High-Level Panel on which I served: more civil wars have been ended by negotiation in the past 15 years than in the previous two centuries. The only sour note is the dramatic increase in high-casualty terrorist attacks since 9-11, but even so casualties - so far anyway - remain only a small fraction of the annual war death toll.

There are a number of reasons contributing to these turnarounds in relation to the prevention and resolution of conflict. They include the end of the era of colonialism, which generated two-thirds or more of all wars from the 1950s to the 1980s; and of course the end of the Cold War, which meant no more proxy wars fuelled by Washington or Moscow, and also the demise of a number of authoritarian governments, generating internal resentment and resistance, that each side had been propping up.

But as the authors of the Human Security Report argue, the best explanation is the one that stares us in the face, even if a great many don't want to acknowledge it. This is the huge increase in the level of international preventive diplomacy, diplomatic peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations, for the most part authorised by and mounted by the UN, that has occurred since the end of the Cold War.

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First published in The Age on October 24, 2005.

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About the Author

Gareth Evans is president of the International Crisis Group. He was Australian foreign minister from 1988 to 1996

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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