The number of conflict-related deaths worldwide grew to some 176,000 in 2014, a substantial increase from 113,000 in 2013. The higher death toll resulted almost exclusively from an intensification of violence in existing conflicts.

By Hanna Ucko Neill, Global Conflicts Analyst, and Jens Wardenaer, Research Analyst, Armed Conflict Database

The number of conflict-related deaths worldwide grew to some 176,000 in 2014, a substantial increase from 113,000 in 2013, according to data collected by Armed Conflict Database (ACD) researchers. The number of recognised conflicts did not increase, meaning that the higher death toll resulted almost exclusively from an intensification of violence in existing conflicts.

The largest increase was in the Middle East, where the internal conflicts that resulted from the societal upheavals associated with the Arab Spring intensified. The Syrian civil war took some 80,000 lives, compared with some 49,000 in 2013. The rise to prominence of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) was a significant reason for the increased death toll in Iraq, which more than doubled from around 8,000 to nearly 20,000. Following the failure of the post-revolutionary Libyan state, fatalities there climbed sharply as regional and Islamist militias vied for power.

Fatality figures have spiked in Europe for the first time in more than a decade. The UN estimates that at least 5,358 people have been killed since April 2013 in Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists are fighting government forces in the east of the country. More than 1,000 of these were killed after a ceasefire was signed in September 2014, and heavy fighting continues.

African conflicts also contributed to the rise in fatality figures. In 2014, violence in South Sudan, Nigeria and the Central African Republic (CAR) reached new heights. Between 7,000 and 10,000 lives were lost because of the brutal Islamist insurgency in Nigeria. In the CAR more than 5,000 people were killed in sectarian violence between the predominantly Muslim Séléka rebels and the Christian and animist anti-Balaka militia. UN estimates from South Sudan in early January 2014 alone were in the range of 1,000–10,000 deaths. The lack of political progress in resolving the causes of the above conflicts can lead to more bloodshed in 2015.

A rise in conflict-related displacement has accompanied the increase in fatalities during the past two years. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently reported that conflict in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere uprooted an estimated 5.5 million people during the first six months of 2014. Of these 5.5m newly displaced people, 1.4m fled across international borders while the rest remained displaced within their own countries. By mid-2014, the number of displaced people stood at 46.3m.

State challenges

The high death toll in Mexico and Central America – about 15,000 in both cases – is caused by transnational criminal groups. Many of these groups lack political objectives, but they often control territory and have prompted the deployment of national armed forces in response to their activities, resulting in armed conflict on a scale that threatens state stability.

In Asia, conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s northwest killed around 10,000 people, a significant increase on 2013 that in Afghanistan is probably related to the drawdown of western forces in the country. Meanwhile, fatalities related to the insurgency in China’s Xinjiang region nearly doubled to almost 400 – probably an underestimate – following a significant increase in terror attacks and security operations. The figure is small in absolute terms compared with other conflicts, but is emblematic of the increase in conflict deaths around the world.

Finding reliable fatality figures has inherent difficulties, particularly without ground presence in conflict areas. Even when present in conflict areas, obstacles make it difficult to assess the scale of violence, as highlighted in a recent BBC article. There was a vast discrepancy in fatality figures reported from Baga, Borno state, Nigeria, after one of the most gruesome Boko Haram attacks, in January 2015. International news outlets suggested that up to 2,000 people were killed in the attacks, while the Nigerian military said that number stood at around 150.

ACD estimates err on the side of caution and the fatality figures contained in the database are conservative. Figures related to military, insurgent and civilian lives lost as a direct result of armed conflict are derived from open-source materials, including international, national and local media. Reports of conflict fatalities often vary considerably according to the source, and for some conflicts there are no reliable statistics. In such cases, estimates are made based on the available information. Overall fatality figures may therefore be revised as new information emerges. The ACD works within these constraints. By producing data every year, it allows researchers to follow fatality trends within and between conflicts.

This article originally appeared in ACD News

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