LONDON Despite an escalating conflict in Syria and mounting civil unrest in Europe, the world became a more peaceful place in the last year, a study showed on Tuesday, highlighting particular improvement in Africa.
The Global Peace Index, produced by the Australia and U.S.-based Institute for Economics and Peace, showed its first improvement in two years. For the first time, sub-Saharan Africa was no longer the world's least peaceful region, losing that dubious distinction to the Middle East and North Africa in the aftermath of the "Arab Spring".
The survey studied 23 indicators across 158 countries, ranging from measures of civil unrest and crime to military spending, involvement in armed conflict and relations with neighbors. Aside from the deterioration in the Middle East, every other region in the world showed at least some form of improvement.
Overall, survey founder Steve Killelea - an Australian entrepreneur who created the initial index six years ago - said there appeared to be several key drivers. Overall, global military spending looked to be beginning to fall - in part a consequence of the global financial crisis - while relations between countries were broadly improving, with leaders increasingly turning to diplomacy not violence.
"The improvement in relation with the states and a greater reluctance to resort to war is very profound, particularly in Africa," he told Reuters in an interview in London. "You've seen a very significant reduction in conflict ... When I first went to Uganda 15 years or so ago, for example, they were fighting four wars. Now they are fighting none."
The sharpest deterioration in peace, the report showed, took place in Syria, with several other countries in the region falling down the list. The uprising against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has become increasingly bloody particularly in recent weeks, with several massacres reported.
Last year's report showed violence linked to the "Arab Spring" had made the world a less peaceful place, while the 2010 study showed economic hardship driving up global unrest. Those two years undid three years of improvements, with the level of global peace in 2012 now almost exactly that of six years earlier, Killelea said.
Somalia remained the world's least peaceful place, the report said, but in general African countries were amongst the surveys' fastest risers. Zimbabwe was the largest African riser, seen as stabilizing after years of political infighting and sometimes brutal attempts by President Robert Mugabe to retain power. Madagascar was also seen as improving sharply after a coup last year.
In Latin America, improving relations between Venezuela and Colombia were the most striking example of improvement, the report said. In Asia, despite worries over a growing arms race and geopolitical rivalry between China and the United States, overall defense spending appeared roughly flat and conflict slightly down.
The picture in Europe, Killelea said, was distinctly mixed. Greece in particular had been tumbling down the list, dropping 40 or so places over four years in the face of mounting civil unrest and crime as it struggles with tough austerity measures and worries over a possible exit from the euro single currency.
But Iceland, probably the country most affected by the financial crisis after its economy and currency imploded in 2008, remained at the top of the list as the world's most peaceful country.
Overall, Killelea said the mounting risk of economic malaise meant that civil unrest risks might rise again in the coming year across the board. But the reluctance to resort to armed conflict, he believed, would prove much more long-lasting.
"We can expect ... some increases in internal violence but the trends we see in reference to external conflict, I think, will prove resilient," he said. "There's a realization - perhaps particularly after Iraq and Afghanistan - that these conflicts are extremely unpredictable and extremely expensive, even if you are very powerful."
(Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)