By Gianluca Boo and Gergely Hideg
Body count: the Global Violent Deaths database
Although 2020 will be best remembered for the turmoil of COVID-19, it was also the year with the fewest violent deaths in a decade.
New 2021 figures from the Small Arms Survey’s Global Violent Deaths (GVD) database, however, show a six percent rise in global deadly violence compared to 2020.
Such a surge hasn’t happened since the infamous 2016 peak, when the devastating conflicts in Syria and Iraq were responsible for almost a fifth of the record number of violent fatalities.
The latest figures suggest the pursuit of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Target 16.1, to ‘substantially reduce all forms of violence and associated death rates worldwide’, has hit an inflection point, which may be linked to the lifting of COVID-related restrictions.
Since 2004, the annually updated GVD database has tracked on direct conflict deaths, intentional homicides, and killings during legal interventions in 222 countries and territories, combining them into a violent deaths indicator.
The dataset is disaggregated by victims’ sex and killing mechanism, with specific focus on firearms-related killings, as specified in Target 16.1’s objectives. Every year, the GVD database reports on the reference year and the four preceding years, to allow for retroactive updates.
The 2023 figures include new data on conflict deaths and homicides from 2017 to 2021, as well as killings during legal interventions, which, in previous versions of the GVD, was estimated as a fraction of the number of intentional homicides. In the interests of transparency and to make it easier to cite, the GVD database is now stored in an open-access repository with a digital object identifier (DOI).
A troubling inversion
The 2023 GVD update reveals that about 580,000 people, including 92,000 women and girls, died violently in 2021 — six per cent more than in 2020.
This increase was chiefly driven by 27,000 more conflict-related fatalities, which took the total to 131,000. Over the same period, the number of intentional homicide victims rose by 7,000 to 371,000.
Even adjusting for global population growth, this alarming uptick curtailed a gradual five-year drop since 2016, which saw a high of 8.8 victims of violent deaths per 100,000 population. In 2020, that figure dropped to 7.0 victims per 100,000 population, before rising again to 7.3 in 2021 (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Number of global violent deaths disaggregated by indicator, 2004–21
Regional shifts in lethal violence
Within the figures, there are pronounced regional variations. From 2020 to 2021, lethal violence in Europe and the Americas fell by 1,500 and 6,000 respectively. Oceania saw an increase of 100 violent deaths, but the situation was acutest in Asia and Africa, where the numbers grew by 23,000 and 18,000.
There were also stark regional differences in terms of the victims’ sex and the methods of perpetration (see Figure 2). Though fewer overall victims of lethal violence were female, Europe recorded the highest proportion of female victims at 27 per cent of cases. In contrast, the Americas registered the lowest proportion of female victims at 11 per cent of the regional total.
As to killing mechanism, more than half of female violent deaths in the Americas in 2021 involved firearms. Of all intentional homicides in the Americas, 75 per cent of victims were killed with firearms, compared to 13 per cent in Europe.
Figure 2. Violent deaths disaggregated by sex and perpetration mechanism by region, 2021
Examining subregional lethal violence patterns uncovers further insights (see Figure 3). The biggest increase in violent deaths between 2020 and 2021 was in Asia, whose western and southern parts are beset by ongoing conflicts. South Asia was the region’s black spot for conflict deaths (53 per cent) and intentional homicides (63 per cent). Africa bore a similar pattern, with conflicts in four of its five subregions, particularly in West Africa (38 per cent of African conflict victims) and East Africa (37 per cent).
In Europe, the Americas, and Oceania, there were by far more intentional homicides than conflict fatalities. South and Central America accounted for 48 and 32 per cent of intentional homicide victims in the Americas.
Seventy-six per cent of Europe’s intentional homicides happened in Eastern Europe, while 81 per cent of Oceania’s intentional homicides occurred in Melanesia.
Figure 3. Violent deaths by subregion, disaggregated by indicator, 2021
Conflicts driving lethal violence
At national level (see Figure 4), direct conflict deaths markedly increased in almost all countries suffering active conflicts. Myanmar recorded a massive 1,600 per cent increase between 2020 and 2021, compared to Afghanistan’s 36 per cent rise during the May-August 2021 Taliban offensive.
The picture changes for intentional homicides, with 52 per cent of countries and territories seeing an increase between 2020 and 2021. However, this percentage was lower in the Americas (48 per cent), Oceania (37 per cent), and Europe (22 per cent), while 82 per cent of countries in Africa and 57 per cent in Asia saw intentional homicides go up.
These numbers indicate that these forms of lethal violence are generally more common where there is conflict, albeit a relationship between direct conflict deaths and intentional homicides isn’t always observable.
Figure 4. Direct conflict deaths and intentional homicides by country, 2020 and 2021
The Sahel, and missing Target 16.1
The likelihood of achieving a meaningful fall in global lethal violence by 2030 to meet SDG Target 16.1 looks increasingly slim. Initially, the 2030 Agenda aimed to ‘halve’ worldwide violent deaths, but this was eventually scaled back to ‘substantially reduce’.
Between 2015 and 2021, global violent death rates fell by just eight per cent, a trend that appeared to be reversing even before the outbreak of major deadly conflicts, such as in Gaza, Sudan, and Ukraine.
But despite the overall setback, some regions, such as Western Asia and Northern Africa, near halved their violent death rates between 2015 and 2021, thanks mainly to a drop in conflict deaths.
In contrast, over the same period the Sahel G5 countries — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger — experienced a 50 per cent increase in lethal violence amid generalized instability, with similar upward trends observed in the broader Middle Africa region and North America (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Difference in violent death rate per 100,000 population by subregion between 2015 and 2021, in per cent
Polarization of violence
While it’s too early to proclaim the definitive end of the post-2016 decline in violent deaths, developments in 2021 portend a growing divergence in patterns of lethal violence around the world.
Geographical disparities are widening, with conflict causing an unambiguous rise in lethal violence deaths. The world’s war zones, notably in Asia and Africa, face a perpetual instability that carries a terrible human cost.
In the Americas, Europe, and Oceania, the picture is more nuanced, with some countries signalling declining violent deaths thanks to a drop in intentional homicides, which started amid COVID-19 lockdowns but is enduring.
In the light of global events that followed, we can say 2021 began a multiyear surge in violent deaths, a fact that future GVD data will further elucidate. But the polarization in violent death patterns expressed in the 2021 data highlights how political instability, pervasive insecurity, and humanitarian emergencies are frustrating progress towards SDG Target 16.1.
The early indications of a potential, persistent rise in global violence — and not a reduction — underscore the urgency for concerted international efforts to prevent and mitigate the impact of conflict and all violence.
Gianluca Boo is a senior data expert at the Small Arms Survey, and Gergely Hideg is a survey specialist at the Small Arms Survey
Research for this blog post was made possible by the financial support of the Netherlands through the Security Assessment in North Africa (SANA) project, as well as Germany and Switzerland through the Gender-responsive Arms Control project.
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.