After a downward trend in the number of people killed in armed conflicts since 2014, around 84,000 people died last year.
Since 2014, we have seen a global downward trend in the number of people killed in armed conflict, but in 2021 this trend has seen a marked reversal. New figures from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) at Uppsala University, published in the Journal of Peace Research in June 2022 show that around 84,000 people died in conflicts in 2021. The trend of previous years reversed even before Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022.
Fewer conflicts, but bloodier
The first decade of the 21st century was the most peaceful period in history, despite the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The following decade was marked by several major conflicts, including the conflict in Syria. A decline in deaths from 2014 gave rise to some optimism, which unfortunately proved unfounded.
In conflict research, we divide conflicts into three categories: state conflicts, non-state conflicts, and violence against civilians, or so-called “unilateral violence.” The number of deaths in all three categories increased in 2021, largely due to escalating violence in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Yemen, which together accounted for 80% of all war and conflict casualties this that year. Conflicts in Somalia and Nigeria also exceeded 1,000 deaths each, which is a usual threshold at which a minor conflict is reclassified as a war.
The number of wars and armed conflicts decreased from 2020. Azerbaijan won the Nagorno-Karabakh war, and casualties in the two wars in Syria fell below 1,000 dead.
Fewer conflicts in the Middle East
After the Arab Spring, the Middle East dominated conflict data for a decade. Two major contributors have been the emergence of the SI and international involvement in the region. The war in Yemen continues to be one of the most serious conflicts in the world, but other parts of Asia and Africa are now more targeted.
Asia was the hardest hit region in 2021, largely due to the escalation of violence in Afghanistan. After the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban launched a major offensive to control the country. This led to a dramatic increase in the number of victims. Since the Taliban victory, the death toll has dropped significantly.
Africa has by far the highest number of conflicts and accounts for nearly half of the global total. The wars in Nigeria, Ethiopia and Somalia represent the greatest source of concern, but other conflicts have the potential to escalate to the same level. Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Cameroon, Mali and DR Congo all have conflicts that could explode. Some of these conflicts date back to the 1940s, but continue to have disturbing explosive potential.
Since 2006, radical Islamism has been in the spotlight. There are still many conflicts in which radical Islamist ideology is a factor, including four of the five wars that were active last year. Additionally, IS is active in 15 countries, from Mali to the Philippines.
But the patterns of conflict are becoming increasingly varied. Several conflicts are animated by various forms of nationalism and one can detect the legacies of the old empires. The conflicts in Ukraine and the Caucasus, and between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, have historical ties to the former Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Long after Indonesia gained independence, the country was engaged in conflicts with areas that retained the status of European colonies. An example is the currently active conflict in West Papua.
The Ambazonia region of Cameroon was a British colony but was merged into French Cameroon in 1961. This merger led to a war that claimed 60-70,000 lives. The same conflict that erupted again in 2016 remains active. Various Kurdish rebel organizations have long fought for an independent Kurdish state, but in more recent history the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was a turning point. Three conflicts, in Syria, Turkey and Iran, were active in 2021 and a threat of a Turkish offensive in Syria was of concern.
One of the most serious post-Cold War wars was the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia at the turn of the millennium. This war is again active and now coincides with a civil war in Ethiopia. Historically, Ethiopia has been one of the most conflict-affected countries in the world, and the resumption of conflict here is a worrying development.
Not all conflicts involve states. In 2021, the UCDP identified 76 conflicts between non-state organizations, which together caused 25,000 deaths. This is an increase from 2020. Sixteen of these conflicts took place in Mexico, which accounts for more than 80% of all deaths in non-state conflicts.
Globally, the number of non-state conflicts has increased, although it has decreased in the Middle East and Africa. IS has long been dominant, but has recently weakened. In 2021, just 3% of deaths in non-state conflicts were linked to incidents in which IS was involved.
Violence against civilians
The “Violence against civilians” category recorded fewer incidents in 2021, but the total number of deaths from such violence increased. As in 2020, Africa led the statistics, accounting for 82% of deaths. Rebel groups and state actors commit violence against civilians, but state actors were responsible for the majority of such violence in 2021.
Nearly 40% of all violence against civilians in 2021 took place in Ethiopia. All parties committed human rights violations and sexual violence was widespread.
2022: Ukraine and the way forward
The picture of the conflict in 2022 is likely to be dominated by Ukraine, but it is still unclear whether the global situation in 2022 will be as bad as it was in 2021. Afghanistan is now less violent than there was. one year old; a ceasefire has been agreed in Yemen, although it is too early to assess its effectiveness; and there are also signs that the wars in the Horn of Africa are waning in intensity.
At the same time, levels of war and conflict are much higher than they were 15 years ago. One of the main reasons is that the UN Security Council no longer functions as a peace-generating force, and there is virtually no reason to believe that the situation will improve in the near future.
Norway can help by supporting existing and new peace operations and by keeping the focus on efforts to broker political solutions. Several old conflicts are reigniting – including conflicts where peace treaties had previously been reached.
Nevertheless, we believe that efforts to secure peace are worthwhile – but these efforts require patience and an international presence.
- The authors are researchers at PRIO
- This text was published in Norwegian in Dagsavis July 10, 2022: ‘2021 – eit uår for verdsfreden‘
- Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext