September 29, 2023

Deaths from armed conflicts doubled in 2022. But the bloodiest war wasn’t in Ukraine

Ethiopian National Defence Forces peacekeepers marching
Ethiopian National Defence Forces. Credit: public domain image from Flickr.

War, an enduring specter of humanity, has cast its dark shadow much farther in 2022 compared to previous years. In a distressing revelation, the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) at Uppsala University has found the number of deaths in armed conflicts has surged to a staggering extent.

A Startling Surge

In 2022, the world witnessed a tragic escalation in organized violence, costing many human lives. Astonishingly, at least 237,000 lives were cruelly snuffed out, marking a shocking 97% increase compared to the previous year.

Such horrifying figures have not been seen since the dark days of the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

As we grapple with this unsettling revelation, there was also some good news sprinkled in the new report. The deadliest conflicts of 2021, namely Yemen and Afghanistan, witnessed a noticeable de-escalation.

However, this respite was eclipsed by the shocking intensification of violence in other corners of the globe. The wars in Ethiopia and Ukraine bear the brunt of the reported death toll — which is highly conservative on the low end. In reality, many more people have likely died and will continue to do so. We will only know more only once the fog of war lifts.

Together, the brutal wars in Ethiopia and Ukraine claimed the lives of no fewer than 180,000 people in 2022. The true numbers are bound to be revised significantly as additional information emerges, for they are already hauntingly larger than the global toll of the previous year.

“When people hear about violence it is generally in very small snapshots of specific incidents, whereas this report seeks to provide a summary for the past full year, in this case 2022, and relate the presented figures to its recent historical context,” Shawn Davies, Senior Analyst at UCDP, told ZME Science.

“We try to highlight that despite the intense media scrutiny of the war in Ukraine, violence has been rising elsewhere as well, in particularly in Ethiopia, which we found to be the deadliest conflict during 2022. We show that 2022 was the most violent year since the Rwandan genocide in 1994, but that this is part of broader trends.”

All manner of armed conflicts on the rise since 2011

Most people think that Russia’s war in Ukraine stood as the bloodiest conflict of 2022. But this is just a media-induced bias.

In reality, Ethiopia bore witness to even greater devastation. A bitter clash between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian army, bolstered by Eritrea’s support, has plunged the nation into an abyss of unrelenting violence since late 2020.

Both conflicts have been stuck in trench warfare, with opposing forces accusing each other of employing human wave tactics.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 marked the first large-scale interstate war in two decades, piercing through the fragile fabric of peace. Though conflicts between nations remain a relatively rare occurrence, they have experienced a worrisome upturn in recent years.

Even more disquieting is the emergence of a troubling trend—external states lending support to rebel factions locked in deadly struggles against ruling governments.

Throughout 2022, the UCDP researchers recorded 55 conflicts involving at least one state on either side or both. In stark contrast, the annual tally between 2000 and 2013 fluctuated between 31 and 39, while the numbers between 2015 and now have hovered between 52 and 56.

It is crucial to understand that while most of these conflicts may be small in scale, the number of full-blown wars escalated from five in 2021 to eight in 2022. To be classified as a war, a conflict must cause a minimum of 1,000 battle-related deaths within a single calendar year.

The report also highlights a surge in non-state conflicts. In 2022 alone, the UCDP documented a record-breaking 82 such conflicts, where rebel groups and organized factions inflicted many casualties.

“It has also become more common for external states to send troop support to rebel groups fighting against other governments, which essentially means that state armies are fighting each other,” Therese Pettersson, Project Leader at UCDP, said in a press release.

Casualties among innocent civilians on the rise

Mexico, a nation embroiled in the relentless grip of rival drug cartels since the 1980s, witnessed the bulk of these deadly clashes. Nine out of the ten deadliest non-state conflicts of the year unfolded on Mexican soil. The fires of gang-related violence have also consumed Brazil, Haiti, Honduras, and El Salvador in recent years.

Furthermore, the report highlights another disturbing trend — a rise in what experts refer to as “one-sided violence,” where civilians find themselves as the primary targets. Tragically, at least 11,800 innocent lives were lost in intentional and targeted acts of violence, carried out by 45 different states or organized groups.

Among the perpetrators, the Islamic State (IS) claims the dubious distinction of causing the highest number of civilian casualties. Additionally, states themselves were implicated in large-scale attacks on civilians in various conflicts, including Russia and Eritrea’s extensive violence in the wars in Ukraine and Ethiopia.

Graph showing increase in armed conflicts
Credit: UCDP.

Overall, these findings suggest a dangerous escalation in armed conflicts across the world. This is by no means a recent trend. According to the researchers, violence has been at historically high levels since the Arab Spring broke out in 2011 — and this trend of escalatory violence is still going strong.

“Violence has been increasing rapidly since 2021. Even without any fatalities in Ukraine, violence would thus still have increased, and would have been at very high levels for the post-Cold War era,” Davies told ZME Science.

“We argue in the article that this is partially explained by the US retreat from its role as global policeman, which has opened up the space for governments to resort to violence against each other in international disputes, either by direct interstate conflict or by supporting violent non-state actors fighting their rivals. We also warn that this trend is likely to continue if the international rivalries between the US and its allies on one side, and China and Russia on the other, continues to heat up.”

The findings appeared in the Journal of Peace Research.

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