Share on Facebook and Twitter for a chance to win SFU 50th anniversary swag!


War Narratives in the 21st Century


War Narratives in the 21st Century


War Narratives in the 21st Century

For over a decade, research by the Human Security Report Project has been challenging prevailing media narratives about global security

The “If it bleeds, it leads” ethos of mainstream media reportage creates the impression that we are living in an increasingly violent world. However, the SFU-based Human Security Report Project (HSRP) has shown that there is often better news lurking behind the headlines.

Challenging dominant media narratives about global security since 2005, the HSRP is the brainchild of Andrew Mack who has been working on peace and security-related issues for over forty years. A research associate at SFU’s School for International Studies, Mack moved the project there from the University of British Columbia in 2007. “The School has been a congenial home for our project,” he says. “Not only because its scholars are collegial, engaged, and extremely smart, but also because the school is committed to interdisciplinary research.”

While working as an advisor to the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the late 1990s, Mack was struck by the dearth of reliable data on global warfare trends. This raised an obvious question for him: how could the UN determine whether its conflict prevention and peace-building strategies were working without rigorous baseline metrics? And so, Mack embarked on the ambitious project of filling in these knowledge gaps by putting together the HSRP team. 

“This was hugely challenging initially, not least because the collection of data on political violence was still in its infancy and was highly politically sensitive,” Mack says. “But we were helped enormously by our remarkable collaborators at Oslo’s Peace Research Institute and Uppsala University’s Conflict Data Program.”

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, in light of disasters in Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda, the UN was perceived as failing in its primary mission of “preventing the scourge of war.” Indeed, in the new millennium wars were still erupting around the world–however, few noticed that more wars were quietly ending rather than beginning. This was the story told in the inaugural Human Security Report in 2005.

The period between the early 1990s and the mid-2000s witnessed a dramatic drop in overall conflict numbers, and high-intensity conflicts that killed at least 1000 people per year declined by some 70 per cent. The report credited this remarkable change primarily to UN-led efforts in mediation, peacekeeping and peacebuilding. A decade of subsequent research has confirmed these findings.

The HRSP (now partnered with the Denver-based One Earth Future Foundation) has released a series of reports since, many of which question common assumptions about the nature of conflict in an increasingly globalized world. For example, the 2012 Report challenged the widely held belief that conflict-related sexual violence had increased dramatically. It argued instead that, while the reporting of such violence had certainly increased, its incidence had declined–just as with the number and deadliness of armed conflicts around the world.

The 2016 report, however, will feature disturbing news. The latest data demonstrates that the two-decade-long trend toward fewer and less deadly wars has reversed. According to Uppsala, global war death tolls rose an extraordinary 600 per cent between 2010 and 2014. In the majority of these wars, radical Islamist extremists were one of warring parties. Still, Mack is quick to point out that claims along the lines of “Islam is a religion of violence” are supported by neither logic, history, nor evidence, and he argues that when thinking about global violence there is an excessive focus on terrorism and insurgencies. “We tend to forget that homicides kill far more people than wars and terrorism combined, and Muslim societies have remarkably low murder rates. Indeed, in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, the murder rate is just one seventh that of the United States.”

Mack emphasizes that reliable data matters not just for its own sake, but because governments and international agencies are increasingly demanding that policies to reduce the risks and costs of violence be evidence-based. He says, “The Human Security Report has helped provide the data and analysis necessary to sort fact from myth, to create the foundational evidence that is critical for effective policymaking.” 


Andrew Mack is the Director of the Human Security Report Project (HSRP) at SFU and a Research Associate in the School for International Studies. He has also held research and teaching positions at Harvard, the University of British Columbia, Australian National University, among many other academic institutions. From 1998 to 2001 he was Director of the Strategic Planning Office in the Executive Office of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. His pre-academic career included six years in the Royal Air Force (as an engineer and pilot); two and a half years in Antarctica as a meteorologist and deputy base commander; a year and a half as a diamond prospector in Sierra Leone; and two years with the BBC’s World Service writing and broadcasting news commentaries and producing the current affairs program, The World Today. He has written and edited some 16 monographs and books and his 60-plus scholarly articles have appeared in a wide range of journals. He is also widely published in mainstream print media.    

Q & A with Andrew Mack

If you could sum up the value of university research in one word, what would it be?


What motivates you as a researcher?

An insatiable curiosity, a conviction that current levels of violence around the world can be reduced, and a belief that our research can make a modest contribution to making that happen. 

How important is collaboration in advancing research? 

Huge. We work with international agencies, NGOs, foundations, and researchers on three continents. Each bring different types of knowledge and fresh perspectives, they let us know when we are off track and they help keep us honest.