Declining Deaths in Civil Wars and Internal Armed Conflicts, 1946-2012


11 thoughts on “Declining Deaths in Civil Wars and Internal Armed Conflicts, 1946-2012”

  1. This chart is very cool. But it does not seem particularly good evidence to me that deaths in civil wars and internal conflicts are in the midst of a long-term decline.

    There’s one big spike right after World War II, because of big things the war hadn’t quite settled (like who was in charge in China). Then things bounce around for a while with a general upward trend in intensity through the 80s, which are pretty bad. The last two decades have been quieter than the 80s, but not much different than the 50s.

    This all makes sense. A major driver in the severity of these wars is the concern and involvement of great powers. During the confrontational Reagan-Brezhnev years, there would be more violence. And I would certainly hope that, standing victorious atop the world at the end of the Cold War, U.S. policymakers would have been somewhat less prone to use violent means in their pursuit of power politics.

    But since the PRIO/UCDP numbers here only count deaths that can be directly traced or claimed by particular groups, it’s also possible that they’re just more of an underestimate for more recent conflicts where less data exists. There are Lancet studies showing 300,000 dead in Darfur (from 2004-2008) and 600,000 violent deaths in Iraq from 2003-2006, much higher than the numbers used here.

  2. I agree with Sam in that I think the number of casualties seem to be underestimated. However, the thing that struck me is that with the exception of Afghanistan, the conflicts with the highest number of casualties get the least amount of coverage. Conflicts like those in Sudan, Turkey and the Philippines are sidelined for coverage on Israel and Syria. From a political standpoint, it makes sense to focus countries like Syria and Israel because of American interests in the Middle East. However, from a humanitarian standpoint, even if casualties are going down in the world, it is troubling that awareness about many of these ongoing conflicts is low.

  3. We also need to remember that there have been great advances in the medical field since World War II, and I think that this is a definite reason as to why there have been fewer casualties in the world. Many of these countries are third-world, but that does not change the fact that medical practices/knowledge is better in nearly every country now than it was sixty years ago. That being said, I can definitely see the underestimation of these casualties. I, too noticed how many of the countries that had long-lasting issues of casualties were ones that had issues more under the radar, with the exception of perhaps Israel and Afghanistan. I had no idea how many casualties Myanmar had, nor that they had as serious issues as they apparently do. Is this because there is less/no American interests in these countries/issues? Perhaps that is the reason that most Americans are not familiar with these issues.

  4. Really awesome chart! As commented above is interesting to see how media and geographic location change people’s perspectives of conflicts and how bad situations are. Growing up Brazil, I remember hearing a lot about conflicts in Colombia and Peru. That was probably related to the fact that I was closer and was somehow more affected then some other parts of the world. Another example was when some of my cousins moved to Africa. It was fascinating to notice a change in my own perspective and interest in conflicts happening in around the area they were. Things finally became a reality instead of a story from a far away land. As we put ourselves closer to different cultures and countries we are more able to empathize to conflicts and happenings in other places.

  5. I agree with everyone else that although this chart is cool, I don’t think it can quite be taken at face value. Rather, I would like to see a statistical analysis of these deaths controlling for medical advances, technology, weapons, world events, etc. to see whether we are actually in a long-term decline. However, I hope that we are truly declining and are becoming a more peaceful world.

  6. I think part of the decline in deaths during civil wars and internal armed conflicts from 1946 to 2012 is that we have more precise weapons and better medical care. Fewer people die of infections or minor injuries, and attacks are more specific and not so widely devastating. I’m not sure that the numbers really mean that we are fighting that much less; also, we don’t have the wide spread war the way we did during the World Wars.
    These numbers make me wonder why the world is so stressed about war. It may be cruel to say, but why not just let people within their own countries fight and solve their own problems? People aren’t dying the in the mass numbers the way they used to, so why mess with them?
    Here’s some perspective: this graph doesn’t even show the American civil war, which had more than 600 thousand deaths. And we ended up being okay.

    1. Letting people fight and solve their own problems is better than encouraging them to fight and turning a small conflict into a proxy war, I suppose (see my reply to Cassidy below for examples).

      But I still think there are better choices out there somewhere.

      Also, I think I’m misinterpreting your comment on the U.S. civil war – when you say “ended up being okay”, all I can think is that everyone from the 1860’s is dead by now, and in the big picture, how bad is dying really? It happens to all of us, can’t be that bad, right?

      And I feel like that wasn’t your point…

  7. Another potential decline in deaths could come from other countries choosing to get involved within civil wars through the UN or with other countries. Receiving aid, or having an outside country help settle the dispute can often help quicken things along–causing less deaths. Not to mention that there are several other ways to rebel or oppress than outright killing other individuals, which is why I think that the number has gone down as well.

    1. I think the opposite is closer to the truth. Many of the most violent conflicts were those where outside countries were actively involved – perhaps 2 million died in Vietnam during U.S. involvement, and 1 million in Afghanistan during Soviet involvement.

      Also, a disturbingly large number of the conflicts listed were worsened by direct or indirect involvement of the great powers – France in Algeria, the Soviets in Ethiopia-Eritrea, the U.S. in Iraq, Indonesia, Cambodia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala. (I know more about U.S. involvement because I’m from the U.S.)

      So basically I think it matters how and why countries get involved; when it’s done for selfish reasons or realpolitik, that often ends badly for the involvee.

  8. Well, even though I find this very interesting but I can surely say that even if the deaths decline, wars are actually being more deadly! and that’s absolutely a very important thing to be taken into consideration. The UN is still the most important organisation for peace and arbitration in conflicts. But the dynamics of war have changed. During the Cold War we would see two clear fronts. But today we have a sundry mix of different players and this complicates peace negotiations.

  9. It is interesting to note that wars vary in how long they last, and the pattern has been declining in numbers of deaths, but that’s only because they don’t last as long. The amount of deaths that we have in wars today are more condensed than they were before, the weapons that we use are a lot more deadly than they were a couple of decades ago. There are several things to consider other than just body count. We need to analyze resources that have been destroyed, governments that have to start over from scratch, the economic loss that comes from these wars, and we will see that the impact of war is far greater today than it was in the past. There is definitely a correlation between wars today and less deaths as we can see with the data provided, but it is also important to note that there are other factors that are spuriously related to war.

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