The chilling sights and sounds of war fill newspapers and television screens worldwide, but war itself is in decline, researchers report.
In fact, the number killed in battle has fallen to its lowest point in the post-World War II period, dipping below 20,000 a year by one measure. Peacemaking missions, meantime, are growing in number.
"International engagement is blossoming," said American researcher Monty Marshall. "There's been an enormous amount of activity to try to end these conflicts."
For months the battle reports and casualty tolls from Iraq and Afghanistan have put war in the headlines, but Swedish and Canadian nongovernmental groups tracking armed conflict globally find a general decline in numbers from peaks in the 1990s.
The authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in a 2004 Yearbook report obtained by reporters in advance of publication, says 19 major armed conflicts were under way worldwide last year, a sharp drop from 33 wars counted in 1991. The Canadian organization Project Ploughshares, using broader criteria to define armed conflict, says in its new annual report that the number of conflicts declined to 36 last year, from a peak of 44 in 1995.
The Stockholm institute counts continuing wars that have produced 1,000 or more battle-related deaths in any single year. Project Ploughshares counts any armed conflict that produces 1,000 such deaths cumulatively.
The Stockholm report, to be released next month, notes three wars were ended as of last year -- in Angola, Rwanda and Somalia -- and a fourth, the separatist war in India's Assam state, was dropped from the "major" category after casualties were recalculated.
It lists three new wars last year -- in Liberia and in Sudan's western region of Darfur, along with the US-led invasion of Iraq. These joined such long-running conflicts as the Kashmiri insurgency in India, the leftist guerrilla war in Colombia, and the separatist war in Russia's Chechnya region.
Other major armed conflicts listed by the Stockholm researchers were in Algeria, Burundi, Peru, Indonesia's Aceh province, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Israel and Turkey. Their list also includes the US war on al-Qaeda, mainly in Afghanistan; the unresolved India-Pakistan conflict, and two insurgencies in the Philippines.
"Not only are the numbers declining, but the intensity" -- the bloodshed in each conflict -- "is declining," said Marshall, founder of a University of Maryland program studying political violence.
The continuing wars in Algeria, Chechnya and Turkey are among those that have subsided into low-intensity conflicts. At Canada's University of British Columbia, scholars at the Human Security Center are quantifying this by tackling the difficult task of calculating war casualties worldwide for their Human Security Report, to be released late last year.
A collaboration with Sweden's Uppsala University, that report will conservatively estimate battle-related deaths worldwide at 15,000 in 2002 and, because of the Iraq war, rising to 20,000 last year. Those estimates are down from annual tolls ranging from 40,000 to 100,000 in the 1990s, a time of major costly conflicts in such places as the former Zaire and southern Sudan, and from a post-World War II peak of 700,000 in 1951.
The Canadian center's director, Andrew Mack, said the figures don't include deaths from war-induced starvation and disease, deaths from ethnic conflicts not involving states, or unopposed massacres, such as in Rwanda in 1994.