The Calm Before the Storm: Global Violent Deaths Update 2019–2020
By: Gergely Hideg and Gianluca Boo
Though difficult to fathom as war rages in Ukraine, the years preceding the Russian invasion actually saw a reduction in global lethal violence. According to the latest update of the Small Arms Survey’s Global Violent Deaths (GVD) database, loss of life resulting from interpersonal violence decreased substantially between 2016 and 2020. This decline suggests that the world has been making progress towards Target 16.1 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), under which states committed to ‘significantly reduce all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere’ by 2030. Yet the impact of ongoing conflicts such as in Ukraine, as well as recent increases in homicides in some countries, risk reversing this positive trend in coming years.
Drawing from multiple sources, the GVD database collates data on direct conflict deaths and homicides into a single ‘violent death’ indicator, dating back to 2004. It also keeps track of lethal violence against women, and violent deaths by firearm — as well as lethal violence against women by firearm. Consistent with the official SDG Target 16.1 indicators, the GVD database focuses on interpersonal violence but does not include suicides. The database covers 222 countries and territories worldwide (Figure 1).
The GVD update reveals that 531,000 people — including 88,000 women and girls — lost their lives violently in 2020. Intentional homicide victims and conflict fatalities decreased compared with previous years, resulting in an overall 22 per cent reduction in recorded global violent deaths between 2016 and 2020. When adjusting these figures to global population growth, the gains are even more significant: the global rate of violent deaths decreased by 26 per cent between 2016 (9.1 per 100,000 people) and 2020 (6.8 per 100,000), reaching its lowest level since 2004 (Figure 2). Global firearm-related violent deaths similarly decreased by 30 per cent, from 3.9 per 100,000 in 2016 to 2.7 per 100,000 in 2020.
The exact magnitude of this decline needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, however. More comprehensive violent death data — and especially conflict death statistics — is often published months or years after the year under consideration. This leads us to regularly update our figures retroactively in order to take into account new information, as was done in this update for the years 2016–2020. This explains why this year’s estimates are higher than our previous figures for the years 2016–2018. While the 2020 numbers might be adjusted upwards when more complete data becomes available, the overall positive trend appears to be solid, and points to a steady reduction in global violent deaths since the adoption of the SDGs in 2015.
Conflicts in Southern and Western Asia beyond their peaks
The decreasing intensity of conflicts in Southern and Western Asia accounts for a 75 per cent decrease — or 96,000 fewer victims in 2020 when compared to 2016. Iraq faced particularly high levels of conflict casualties in 2016 but they decreased sharply in subsequent years. Casualties in Syria similarly peaked in 2017 before declining. While Yemen remained the world’s second deadliest conflict in 2020 with 20,000 victims, the situation was worse in 2018 when 34,000 died in the hostilities. In spite of these reductions, Western Asia remained the sub-region most exposed to conflict deaths in 2020 with a 12.3 per 100,000 fatality rate (Figure 3). Not far from Western Asia, Afghanistan was the world’s deadliest conflict in 2020, claiming the lives of 31,000 people, down from a peak of 43,000 fatalities in 2018.
Worrying trends in Africa
Several conflicts emerged or intensified in Africa, resulting in an increased number of fatalities. Armed violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, for instance, accounted for a combined total of 18,000 conflict deaths in 2020. Conflict deaths also increased across the Sahel, while the situation in Somalia somewhat stabilised. Overall, Africa experienced 35,000 war-related deaths in 2020. Within the continent, Middle Africa (4.1 per 100,000) and Western Africa (3.5 per 100,000) experienced the highest sub-regional rates of conflict deaths in 2020. While Asia continued to be home to the deadliest wars, Africa as a whole became the region with the highest overall conflict death rate of 2020, at 2.6 fatalities per 100,000 people.
What impact for COVID-19?
Since February 2020, social distancing and lockdown measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic seem to have contributed to a decline in certain types of crime, although a decrease in the reporting of crime may also partly explain this trend. In fact, studies did not find statistically significant decreases in homicides during the pandemic. While our GVD data suggests a 3.6 per cent decline in global homicides between 2019 and 2020, the 6 per cent decrease observed between 2018 and 2019 — that is, before the pandemic — was more significant. Southern Africa is the only sub-region in the GVD dataset that experienced a trend-breaking decrease of homicides in 2020, possibly due to the effects of COVID-19 countermeasures. Indeed, both South Africa and Lesotho reported lower murder rates in 2020 following several years of increases. At the global level, however, it is unclear whether the 2020 decline in homicides was linked to COVID-19 or just a continuation of a pre-existing downward trend.
On the contrary, some countries and territories experienced notable increases in homicides in 2020 in the context of pandemic-related measures. Most prominently, the United States experienced a record-breaking increase in its homicide counts between 2019 and 2020. Similarly, 2020 saw the highest level of firearm homicides in the United States in more than a quarter century. Overall, 67 countries in the GVD database faced an increase in homicides in 2020 compared to 2019, while 155 countries and territories experienced stable or decreasing amount of murders for the same period (Figure 4).
The bear in the room
It is not yet possible to assess how many lives will be lost as a result of the current conflict in Ukraine — in spite of ongoing efforts to do so (see here, here, here, and here) — but the war’s impact on global trends will surely be significant. The already deadly 2014–15 conflict in eastern Ukraine and Russian annexation of Crimea were in fact followed by a prolonged increase in lethal violence in Ukraine: GVD data reveals that homicides rose from 2,100 in 2015 to more than 5,500 in 2019, while persisting fighting in the Donbass inflicted about 2,000 fatalities during that period. The present war is therefore not only particularly deadly in its current form, but is likely to also inflict other long-lasting human costs, including persevering high rates of violent deaths — conflict-related or not. Deteriorating and new conflicts in other corners of the world, and continuing uncertainty regarding the full impact of the pandemic on homicide levels have the potential to reverse the promising global reduction in lethal violence recorded between 2016 and 2020.
Gergely Hideg is a survey specialist and associated expert of the Small Arms Survey.
Gianluca Boo is a senior data expert at the Small Arms Survey focusing on data management, analysis, and visualization.
Blog posts are intended as a way for various Small Arms Survey collaborators and researchers to discuss small arms- and armed violence-related issues, and do not necessarily reflect the views of either the Small Arms Survey or its donors.
 ^ The database includes data from cross-national sources such as the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), , and as well as a variety of national sources on violent deaths.
 ^ Direct conflict deaths are fatalities taking place on the battlefield or due to armed military action, but do not include excess wartime mortality due to malnutrition, disease, or lack of access to health services, which can be significant.
 ^ The International Classification of Crime for Statistical Purposes defines intentional homicide as ‘unlawful death inflicted upon a person with the intent to cause death or serious injury.’ The GVD dataset also includes estimates of unintentional homicides, such as those resulting from negligence or an aggression without a lethal intent, as well as of killings that occurred during legal intervention.