Scholars and activists in the human rights field, and especially those who work in the area of international tribunals, atrocity crimes and accountability, often bolster their arguments by asserting that ‘the twentieth century was the bloodiest in human history’. A related claim holds that today there are more deaths in internal armed conflict, as compared to international armed conflict.
Perhaps it is my own inherently optimistic nature, and my desire to demonstrate that there has actually been improvement in recent decades, that has made me wary of these arguments. I concede that there were more conflict-related deaths in the twentieth century than at any previous period of human history, but with the added detail that most of these deaths took place in the first half of the century, that is, related to the two world wars, and not in the second half. The point here is that the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, the prohibition of the resort to armed force to settle disputes in the United Nations Charter, and recognition of the crime of aggression at Nuremberg, have all made the world a safer and not a more dangerous place for human beings.
As for the issue of deaths in internal as opposed to international armed conflict, I suspect this is merely a way of deflected the observation that there have been many fewer deaths in international armed conflict since 1945. Prior to 1945 we didn't even pay much attention to deaths in non-international armed conflict, whereas I think that we count them now. In the past, they were an internal matter that escaped international scrutiny.
Admittedly my observations are anecdotal, and are also perhaps coloured by the result that I would like to reach. They are based on inutition, rather than hard research. More generally, I have often been suspicious of numerical claims as to the number of deaths in armed conflict. Just look at the conflict in Darfur as an example. A year ago, I heard the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court claim there were 50,000 deaths a month in the region due to 'genocide'. In February, I heard Canadian MP Irwin Cotler call for bombing of the airports and blockading the harbours of Sudan in order to prevent the 'ongoing genocide'. Yet the reports from the Office of the High Commisioner for Human Rights suggest that the conflict-related deaths in Darfur now amount to a few thousand each year. Alex de Waal has written that you are more likely to be killed from conflict in Baltimore than you are in Darfur.
I was once challenged rather aggressively by some human rights activitists while teaching a course who insisted that it was necessary to exaggerate numbers of deaths in order to mobilise support. One thing that inflated claims do is deflect our attention from the more urgent matters. A boosted estimate of deaths in Darfur takes attention away from Gaza and Sri Lanka, for example.
There are scientists at work on this, using statistical analysis to debate the matter. One of the active research groups is in Vancouver, Canada, and it has produced the Human Security Report. Here is what the website says: ‘The first Human Security Report documents a dramatic, but largely unknown, decline in the number of wars, genocides and human rights abuse over the past decade. Published by Oxford University Press, the Report argues that the single most compelling explanation for these changes is found in the unprecedented upsurge of international activism, spearheaded by the UN, which took place in the wake of the Cold War.’ (http://www.humansecurityreport.info/). Others disagree, however, and there is a very recent account of debate in the academic literature at: http://www.hsrgroup.org/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=469. Here is an article taking the view that the numbers are rather high, published in the British Medical Journal: http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/336/7659/1482 (for the answer to it, see: http://www.hsrgroup.org/images/stories/Documents/JCR_EstimatingWarDeaths.pdf). But I’m struck by the fact that even its estimates are rather low compared with some of the extravagant figures that get tossed around.
For years I have been looking for someone to do a doctorate on the statistical measurement of human rights violations. The number of deaths related to armed conflict would be one part of this. Anybody interested?