Peace is spreading: the troubling thing is we don’t really know why

Is the world becoming a more peaceful place? After a week of carnage in Iraq that may seem a rather idiotic question. And yet there is strong evidence that the amount of conflict in the world as a whole is going down.

There are significantly fewer wars in the world today than there were 10 years ago. After a peak in around 1990 - when the end of the Cold War seemed to have unleashed a New World Disorder - the number of wars in progress has fallen to just 20. And many of these are rather small-scale affairs.

According to the University of Maryland's Centre for International Development and Conflict Management (CIDCM), "global warfare has decreased by over 60 per cent since peaking in the mid-1980s, falling. to its lowest level since the late 1950s". In the past three years alone, 11 wars have ended, in countries ranging from Indonesia and Sri Lanka in Asia, to Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Angola and Liberia in sub-Saharan Africa.

The two most striking features of war in our time have been, first, the decline of traditional inter-state warfare and, second, the rise and fall of civil war. Since the end of the Cold War there have been just a handful wars between separate states, and most of these were of very short duration: Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent war to liberate it; the border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the various American-led interventions to topple "rogue regimes" in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Far more common in recent decades have been civil wars; the number of these steadily rose from the early 1960s to reach a bloody peak in the early 1990s. Amazingly, over one third of all the world's countries were affected by civil war at some point in the aftermath of the Cold War. But in the past 10 years there has been a sharp decline in the amount of internal strife. Only eight "societal wars" are still listed by CIDCM as "ongoing".

In the past three weeks I have visited two of the late 20th century's worst civil war zones, Bosnia and Guatemala, and next week I shall be in the former killing fields of Cambodia. These three countries used to be bywords for horrific internecine violence. Yet the killing in each of them has stopped.

It is a strange sensation to walk across the magnificent bridge on the River Drina at Visegrad where, between 1992 and 1994, scores of Muslims were slaughtered by Serbian militiamen who had once been their neighbours.

I felt a similar shudder as I stood by Lake Atitl

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