Russia’s invasion of Ukraine resulted in at least 82,000 deaths in 2022, the study estimated. But even more deaths were reported in Ethiopia — over 104,000 — in that conflict between the national government and regional forces in Tigray.
That latter figure, the study stated, was the worst single year for conflict deaths in one country since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The report also found that there had been startling increases in conflict deaths in a variety of countries, including Mali and Myanmar.
It’s important to note that counting the dead in any conflict is an imprecise task, loaded with not only practical difficulties of data collection in a war zone but also political pressure from numerous angles. There are a variety of other estimates out there for death tolls in major conflicts that differ from those in the Global Peace Index.
Many use different definitions and methodologies, often resulting in higher or lower estimates. The U.N. human rights agency announced in June that it had recorded 9,083 deaths among civilians in Ukraine since the conflict began, for example, but noted that the real toll is probably significantly higher than the number it is able to adequately document.
Meanwhile, researchers at Ghent University estimated last year that the war in Tigray may have led to the deaths of up to 600,000 since it began in 2020, including not only deaths directly caused by conflict but also ones caused by related issues such as starvation and a loss of access to health care.
What’s particularly worrying about this latest figure, however, is the trend line. The Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace has been producing the peace index since 2009. Its index, which ranks countries based on their peacefulness, has found rising levels of conflict around the world in 13 of the last 15 years. The data on conflict deaths is taken from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, however, which goes back much further.
This Swedish-based conflict data-tracking program has data going back decades, which it also sub-categorizes to reveal further details. The number of conflict deaths spiked to almost 800,000 in 1994 as a result of the Rwandan genocide, for example, which is labeled as one-sided violence. (Again, some estimates of the deaths caused by that violence, which saw militant members of the dominant Hutu target the Tutsi minority and others, are higher — some near 2 million.)
But what surged last year was state-based violence, according to the UCDP data, such as that seen in both Ethiopia and Ukraine. Here, one or more governments are a direct party to a conflict between warring sides.
These sorts of state-based conflict deaths increased significantly at the start of the 2010s, according to the UCDP data. That timeline follows the large number of deaths seen in Syria as government forces fought a variety of other groups, often putting civilians in the middle. As that conflict had died down, the total number of conflict deaths had been in decline.
This rapid surge in deaths in 2022 related to state-based conflict — ultimately, what we most often talk about when we talk about global war — suggests a big change in the global picture of violence and a move away from the era of terrorism and nonstate violence, which was terrifying in its own way but often smaller in scale.
There are some bright spots in the global picture. Some countries, such as Libya and even Afghanistan, have made major improvements, with the latter reporting a 91 percent decline in conflict-related deaths last year. Some nations are persistently peaceful, according to the study: Iceland has held the top spot for the most peaceful country in the world since the index began.
But the rising number of conflict deaths is just one of the signals of a bloody new era. The number of countries involved in some kind of conflict outside of their borders had risen from 58 in 2008 to 91 in 2022. The Institute for Economics and Peace put this down in part to increasing geopolitical competition, with the United States no longer the only country willing to project its power far outside its region: Russia, China, and even smaller powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran are all part of the trend.
The Tigrayan conflict in Ethiopia formally came to an end in November after two long years of fighting, but the peace deal that ended it is fragile and there are other conflicts still lingering, including a long-running insurgency in the sprawling region of Oromiya. Massive theft by the government and its allies has led the United States and United Nations to suspend the delivery of food aid to the country, despite the needs of millions going hungry in the country.
Ukraine continues to see fighting and regular attacks on civilian buildings, including one strike this week on a pizza restaurant popular with journalists and aid workers that left at least 11 dead. Ukraine’s counteroffensive is ongoing and Russia came alarmingly close to being at war with itself. And this year has already seen one new conflict — a disastrous civil war in Sudan that began in April has already caused an estimated 3,000 deaths, according to the United Nations — suggesting global conflict deaths could still rise further yet.