Food distribution at a UNHCR station, Sudan. (UN Environmental Program,

Human costs of war declining: study

January 21, 2010

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Wartime mortality—from disease and malnutrition as well as war-inflicted injuries—is decreasing in most of today’s armed conflicts according to a new study from SFU’s Human Security Report Project at the School for International Studies.

The Shrinking Costs of War also disputes claims of enormous death tolls in Iraq, Darfur and Democratic Republic of the Congo, citing serious errors in methodology used to generate statistics such as 5.4 million dead in the Congo.

War death rates have been driven down by:

  • A 70 per cent decline in high-intensity conflicts since the end of the Cold War
  • More than 30 years of effective peacetime health interventions such as childhood immunization
  • A dramatic increase in the level and effectiveness of humanitarian assistance to people in war zones

"No one is suggesting that war is good for people’s health," says Andrew Mack, director of the Human Security Report Project. "But the reality is that the death toll in most of today’s wars is too small to reverse the steady decline in peacetime mortality that developing countries have been experiencing for more than 30 years."

The study cites the changing nature of war as the most important driver of the dramatic decline in war-related deaths. It notes a shift from large conventional wars fought with heavy weapons during the Cold War to "low intensity insurgencies" in the past two decades fought mostly by small, lightly armed rebel groups seeking to avoid major battles. While often noted for their savage attacks against civilians, these conflicts kill relatively few people.

The cumulative effect of all of these changes has been profound, says Mack. "The average war in the new millennium generates 90-per cent fewer battle deaths than did the average war in the 1950s."

The Shrinking Costs of War will appear in the forthcoming Human Security Report 2009 to be published by Oxford University Press. It is also available at


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