Breaking a decades-long trend, the world gets more violent

March 20, 2015
Masked Shi'ite fighters hold their weapons in Al Hadidiya, south of Tikrit, en route to the Islamic State-controlled al-Alam

Masked Shi’ite fighters hold their weapons in Al Hadidiya, Iraq on March 6, 2015. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

If you were watching the news last year, it was hard to escape the impression the world was falling apart. Now the data is in. And yes, it turns out the world’s most violent conflicts got a lot bloodier in 2014 — almost 30 percent bloodier, in fact.

According to an analysis of data from the world’s 20 most lethal wars last year, at least 163,000 people died in conflict. That compares to just under 127,000 in the 20 worst wars the previous year, a rise of 28.7 percent.

That’s a pretty disturbing spike by anyone’s terms. And if you look at the first few months of 2015, the violence doesn’t seem to be waning.

What’s even more worrying is that this seems to be part of an ongoing trend that now goes back eight years. According to the Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), global violence — as defined by a range of measures from conflict deaths, to displaced persons, to homicide rates — has been rising since 2007.

This news is in many ways surprising because up to 2007, the data suggested the world was becoming a much safer place.

According to the IEP, global violence had been broadly subsiding since the end of World War Two. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker traces it back even further. Since the dawn of prehistory, Pinker’s research suggests, mankind has been becoming less violent.

So what is going wrong now? And how bad could it all get?

Conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, not surprisingly, top the list of highest casualties, with their confrontations with Islamic State and Taliban — as well as, of course, the ongoing fight in Syria between government and opposition supporters. Nigeria’s battle with Boko Haram has sent it rocketing up the list to number four. If Sudan and South Sudan had remained united, their combined death toll would push them to the number three spot, above Afghanistan.

Of course, all this data shows is that a handful of the world’s more violent war zones are getting worse. In the developed world, by contrast, death by violence continues to fall. Indeed, British crime statistics have continued to slump despite a recession and fewer police officers.

Even within the larger wars, an increasingly small group of people — particularly the members of elements like ISIS or Boko Haram — are doing a larger amount of killing. While 20th century wars saw much of the general (male) population mobilized and fighting, today more people seem content to sit on the sidelines.

A significant and growing percent of the population in many countries feels disenfranchised and sidelined by the way the world is developing. As the Arab Spring showed, sometimes that sentiment is reflected in largely peaceful, pro-democratic action, but sometimes it isn’t.

Eight years into the global financial crisis, the rise of nationalism many feared now seems to be showing itself. In Ukraine in particular, great powers are involved in proxy conflicts with massive repercussions for those living nearby.

Added to that, some experts warn, climate shifts are contributing to the rise in violence. In Sudan, for example, changes in grazing habits and territories are at the root of at least some of the recent violence.

Yet even with the recent spike, things aren’t as bad as they were in the 1990s, when conflicts in Africa, the Balkans and elsewhere were killing tens if not hundreds of thousands of people a year. Geographically, today’s violence is very patchy. The countries I’ve highlighted reflect a relatively small proportion of the world’s surface or population.

Hopefully, things will start to improve. Already, there are promising signs that the fight is turning against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Even as those regions begin to stabilize, however, other countries such as Libya appear to collapse further into chaos.

What the U.S. and its allies can or should do remains entirely unclear. It’s hard to escape the awkward detail that many of the countries with the highest death tolls are those where the U.S. has made the strongest effort to shape events.

But we have to find a way of turning it around, somehow. And we’ve come a long way, after all. We don’t want to go back to battering each other to death with rocks.

This article appears courtesy of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). For more information visit



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Common denominator appears to be Islam…

Posted by Het_Russ | Report as abusive

Common denominator appears to be US involvement…..

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

Common Denominator is a retreating US with an untrustworthy administration. The only thing the islamists respect is strength not weakness. That hasn’t changed in 1000 years.

Posted by dwargfargward | Report as abusive

A higher level of drone strikes will allow us to propagate future increases and will be very lucrative for the weapons makers and will allow the fear mongers to remain in control. It’s a good old fashioned fascist approach.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Death in armed conflict is a symptom and not a disease. “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” – Henry Thoreau

These numbers are tame compared to 4000 deaths every day due to unsafe drinking water. Add malnutrition and in some countries childhood growth is stunted to an exceptionally high degree. I know of countries where 40% of the population is stunted and will never reach their physical or cognitive potential. Add to that very limited and substandard education and the idled youth are prime recruiting targets for extremist groups.

Without breaking the cycle of poverty there will be no peace.

Posted by JimVan | Report as abusive

Global violence started after militant Islam raised its ugly head after ther collapse of the Soviet Union. When Islam first appeared in the 7th century, its spread was made possible by indulging in beheading, murder, forcible conversion, looting and bloody wars.. When Islam was first proclaimed, Muhammad’s wife, Khadijah and daughters were his first converts. Later his cousin Ali, a freed slave named Zayd, and a wealthy friend named Abu Bakr became Muslims. Arabia at that time had 70% non-Muslim Arabs, 15% Jews and 10% Arab Christians. Non-Muslim Arabs worshiped idols, including the holy Kaaba in Mecca. After Muhammad was expelled from Mecca, he was almost remaining helpless in Medina. It was at that time he and Ali contrived a plan to attack the camel caravan of Meccan merchants. The camels and drivers were resting after a tedious journey across the desert in a oasis.This was the first terrorist attack in Islamic history. Sleeping camel drivers were taken unawares and the rich merchandise was easily captured.. It was with this money Muhammad could raise a well equipped army and brought Mecca under his control. Within a decade the entire Arabia became a Muslim country. These violent acts to spread Islam in Europe were stopped by Charles Martel in the famous Battle of Tours when he defeated the rampaging caliphate jihadists. European culture spread across the world. The early 1700’s saw the beginning of the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, another name for the Islamic Empire. During World War I and II European powers dominated the world and there were no savage Islamic acts across the world. With Obama entering the White House, the savage Islamic acts in Syria, Iraq and Libya by ISIS to spread the caliphate are not merely deliberately stopped by not allowing boots on the ground, he has fecilated the ISIS to establish a caliphate on the lines of 7th century Arabian caliphate. Quite surprisingly, these terrorists are having 21st century modern arms and vehicles which Obama foolishly supplied to a weak and faltering Iraq. One may wonder whether he is allowing the spread of caliphate without halting these barbarous acts of 7th century. If Obama is not prepared to halt these 7th century atrocities, other European powers, especially Germany, France, England and Australia, should send foot soldiers to halt these terrorists. ISIS are cowards. They can abduct and murder innocent civilians, including women, children and elderly. We have witnessed how Saddam’s well equipped and well trained Royal Guards had to flee before American soldiers. ISIS can be decimated when foot soldiers encounter them directly on the battle field.

Posted by AYeshuratnam | Report as abusive

Nah, people react differently to feeling left out. I’m more likely to blame the connected world.

Posted by Jacuzzi | Report as abusive

Some people made the mistake of thinking the Pax America represented a natural inevitable trend.

People thought Rome was eternal too.

Posted by Celebrim42 | Report as abusive

Two million people, many of them children, die each year of malaria in the developing world, numbers which skyrocketed since DDT was outlawed. Over a hundred million now. But don’t worry — white yuppies can feel smug, so all is well. Nobody they know. Nothing to see here, move on, folks.

Posted by WBillR | Report as abusive

Sure, the US is involved, but not a cause. The USA happens to be the largest and most influential country in history. The US is “involved” in nearly every political or business decision made worldwide. It’s like saying that tall people are a cause of basketball.

Posted by segesta | Report as abusive

It’s also hard to escape the awkward detail that the highest death tolls from fires are those where firefighters have made the strongest effort to shape events.

Posted by bobd999 | Report as abusive

“Sure, the US is involved, but not a cause.” Seriously? Our creating the hell hole that is Iraq right now played no part in creating the environment in which Isis was created and has gained a steady source of recruits?

Posted by ochun005 | Report as abusive

Common denominators are Islam + U.S. involvement.

Posted by noneofdabove | Report as abusive

It’s hard to escape the awkward detail that many of the countries with the highest death tolls are those where the U.S. has bailed out.

There. Fixed that for ya.

Posted by PaulRSchmidt | Report as abusive

It would have been helpful to see the author’s thoughts on how much overpopulation is a cause of increasing rivalries.

Posted by Yowser | Report as abusive

The world did not get more violent. Muslims got more violent. Let’s be be very clear where the problem is. Or else you fix the wrong thing, the wrong way. Muslims are the problem, because they do not self-police adequately. Their clerics are too busy chasing down cartoonists, and not busy enough chasing down Boko Haram.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

AYeshuratnam explains: “ISIS can be decimated when foot soldiers encounter them directly on the battle field.”

Good. Then sign up and go there. Enlist your kids too. You guys have fun with all that. Enjoy Syria.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive