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The Global March Toward Peace

CANBERRA – If we were hoping for peace in our time, 2012 did not deliver it. Conflict grew ever bloodier in Syria, continued to grind on in Afghanistan, and flared up periodically in West, Central, and East Africa. There were multiple episodes of ethnic, sectarian, and politically motivated violence in Myanmar (Burma), South Asia, and around the Middle East. Tensions between China and its neighbors have escalated in the South China Sea, and between China and Japan in the East China Sea. Concerns about North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear programs remain unresolved.

And yet, many feared eruptions within and between states did not occur. Strong international pressure helped to contain the Second Gaza War quickly. A long-sought peace agreement was secured for the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Major strides were taken toward sustainable peace and reconciliation in Myanmar. There was no major new genocidal catastrophe. And, despite the United Nations Security Council’s paralysis over Syria, UN General Assembly member states made clear their continuing overwhelming acceptance of the responsibility to protect those at risk of mass-atrocity crimes.

The bigger story has been concealed, as ever, by the media’s daily preoccupation with current bloodshed: Over the last two decades, major wars and episodes of mass violence worldwide have become much less frequent and deadly. After a high point in the late 1980’s and very early 1990’s, there has been a decline of well over 50% in the number of major conflicts both between and within states; in the number of genocidal and other mass atrocities; and in the number of people killed as a result of them.

This “New Peace” phenomenon was first publicized by Andrew Mack’s Human Security Report Project, supported by the superb database of the Uppsala Conflict Data Program. Harvard’s Steven Pinker, in his seminal book The Better Angels of our Nature, put it in a larger historical context – not just the “Long Peace” between the major powers since 1945, but, more important, a centuries-old pattern of steady decline in the human appetite for violence.