World got a little more peaceful last year, except for the US and ‘conflict areas’

North Korean soldiers turn and look towards their leader Kim Jong Un from a military parade vehicle as they carry packs marked with the nuclear symbol during a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice in Pyongyang, North Korea. File, July 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)

If you are an American, you might be excused for thinking the world is less peaceful lately. But in fact, overall, the planet is a bit more peaceful than it was last year.

Not so much for the U.S., however, or for regions embroiled in war and civil conflict.

That’s the assessment of the new Global Peace Index in its annual report based on 2016 statistics. Researchers say violence declined in 93 countries since last year, briefly reversing the trend of increased violence globally over the past decade. The organization that prepares the peace index judged Iceland most peaceful and said North America has shown the greatest deterioration largely due to increasingly violent trends in the U.S.

The U.S. was listed among the 64 countries that experienced a decline in peaceful indices last year, as compared to the 93 countries that became a bit more peaceful. The U.S. ranks 114 on the peace index overall, making it one of the worst-performing ‘developed’ countries. The U.S. experienced the fourth largest decline in peace over the past decade, the organization said, after Syria, Greece and Hungary.

At the bottom, for the fifth year running, is Syria. Its ranking has, of course, plummeted on the peace index since the start of the civil war, with years of fighting on the country and its citizens establishing a brutal toll. Alongside Syria are other countries experiencing conflict: Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya.

The organization that prepares the Global Peace Index, called Vision of Humanity, broadly measures a number of factors beyond simple conflict statistics to arrive at their assessment of how peaceful or violent a country is judged to be. This includes metrics on hunger, shelter, livelihoods and even political stability. The group evaluates the financial cost of violence as well, which they estimated to be more than $14 trillion worldwide last year.

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“Although this year’s uptick is reassuring, the world is still mired with conflict in the Middle East, political turmoil in the US, refugee flows and terrorism in Europe,” Steve Killelea, head of the think-tank Institute for Economics and Peace, said.

“When combined with the increasing level of peace inequality, whereby the least peaceful countries are moving further apart from the most peaceful, the resulting scenario is one in which further improvements in peace are not guaranteed.”

Global Peace Index 2016

European countries are at the top of the index, with Iceland followed by Denmark and Austria. Terrorism impacted the standing of wealthy countries and led Europe’s overall score to decline. Some 23 countries experienced record high terrorist-caused fatalities last year. Deaths in OECD countries caused by terrorism are up by 900 percent since 2007, says the index.

The impact pales in comparison to the ongoing conflicts and instability in countries including Syria, South Sudan, Yemen and Nigeria. All four countries are home to the more than 20 million people at risk of famine due to the combination of conflict, displacement and drought. The global number of displaced people doubled between 2007 and 2016 – leaving 9 countries with at least 10 percent of their population displaced from their homes.

Countries at the bottom of the index keep getting worse. The protracted conflicts show no sign of resolution which is why Killelea is concerned despite the global progress towards peace.

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“Although this year’s uptick is reassuring, the world is still mired with conflict in the Middle East, political turmoil in the US, refugee flows and terrorism in Europe,” he said. “When combined with the increasing level of peace inequality, whereby the least peaceful countries are moving further apart from the most peaceful, the resulting scenario is one in which further improvements in peace are not guaranteed.”

The target of reducing violence was enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 16 deals with expanding peace, fighting corruption and improving institutional justice. The first target sets out to reduce all forms of violence, which means fewer deaths caused by homicide and conflict.

Humanitarian and aid groups prioritize peace in their advocacy surrounding the four-country hunger crisis. Oxfam appealed to the leaders of the 7 largest economies to push for peace when the met in Italy in late May. The meeting did not yield any major commitments for peace, despite the advocacy effort.

It is a part of a broader challenge to prioritize support for peace-based initiatives. A separate new report analyzed the amount of money directed by foundations towards peace and security. The $357 million spent in 2014 is less than 1 percent of total foundation giving, found the researchers. On the other hand, UN peacekeeping funding reached a record high in 2016 – a positive sign for the global response to conflict around the world.

The impact of violence on the global economy is significant. Roughly $14.3 trillion was impacted by violence in the past year, accounting for 12.6 percent of the world’s GDP. The report estimates that a 10 percent decrease in the economic impact of violence will produce a peace dividend of $1.36 trillion.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.