UPDATE 1-Wars less deadly than they used to be, report says
* Mortality rates decline even in wartime, report says
* 5.4 million Congo death rate figure "far too high"
(Adds comment from IRC)
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 20 (Reuters) - Wars are less deadly than they once were and national mortality rates have continued to decline even during conflicts due to smaller scale fighting and better healthcare, a report said on Wednesday.
The report by a Canada-based project sponsored by four European governments also dismissed a widely cited figure of 5.4 million people killed in wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo as "far too high."
It offered no exact alternative figure but suggested the true toll could be less than half that. The group that issued the original figure, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), stood by its findings and rejected the new report.
"We believe that the costs of war, the deadliness of wars, the number of people getting killed per conflict per year, has gone down pretty dramatically," project director Andrew Mack told a news conference at the United Nations.
Since 2000, the average conflict has killed 90 percent fewer people each year than in the 1950s, said the Human Security Report Project at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University.
In 2007, the average conflict killed fewer than 1,000 people as a direct result of violence, and there had been a 70 percent decline in in the number of high-intensity conflicts since the end of the Cold War 20 years ago, it said.
Wars fought with huge armies, heavy weapons and major-power involvement have largely given way to low-level insurgencies fought mostly by small, lightly armed rebel groups, said the report, entitled "The Shrinking Costs of War."
The report noted that most deaths in wars result from hunger and disease but said improved healthcare in peacetime had cut death tolls even during wartime, as had stepped up aid to people in war zones.
LOWER MORTALITY RATE
Researchers found that in 14 out of 18 sub-Saharan African countries that experienced medium to high intensity conflict between 1970 and 2007, the under-5 mortality rate was lower at the end of the conflict than at the beginning.
In Congo, measles immunization coverage stood at 20 percent in 1998, the year the war there started, but by 2007 was at almost 80 percent, the report said.
"No one ... is suggesting that war causes mortality rates to decline," it said. "The reality is simply that today's armed conflicts rarely generate enough fatalities to reverse the long-term downward trend in peacetime mortality that has become the norm for most of the developing world."
Mack acknowledged that Rwanda, where extremist Hutus killed some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994, was an exception.
Asked about the goal of the survey, Mack said it was to emphasize the value of peacetime health campaigns and encourage the United Nations to compile an "evidence base" to judge what impact its peacekeeping operations were having.
The report was funded by Britain, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. British deputy ambassador Philip Parham told the news conference it would make a "very valuable input into analysis and policy-making," but did not elaborate.
The report said the 5.4 million Congo death toll figure calculated by the IRC was based on flawed methodology, though it praised the IRC's efforts.
It said the baseline pre-war child mortality rate used by the IRC was too low, leading the group to overestimate how many "excess deaths" had been caused by the conflict. The sample areas examined by the IRC were also unrepresentative, it said.
The report said that for the period 2001-2007, an estimate of 900,000 deaths would be more accurate than the IRC's 2.8 million. It offered no statistic for the earlier period of 1998-2001, but again suggested IRC figures were too high.
In a rebuttal, the IRC said the report was "undermined by inconsistencies, conflicting evidence and poor scholarship."
Acknowledging the difficulty of making exact estimates, the group said its figures were based on conservative assumptions and had been widely accepted by experts. The real figure could be anywhere between 3 million and 7.6 million, it added. (Editing by Cynthia Osterman)