Major increase in conflict-related deaths

Tanks in Afghanistan.

Tanks in Afghanistan.

New data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) at Uppsala University show that at least 119,000 people died in organised violence in 2021. This is an increase of 46 per cent compared to the previous year, and the highest number since 2015.

“Unfortunately, we see that the falling trend in conflict fatalities observed between 2014 and 2019 was decisively reversed in 2021. The increase was largely driven by escalating conflicts in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Yemen,” says Shawn Davies, Research Assistant at UCDP.

At the same time, the number of active conflicts remains at a historically high level. UCDP registered 54 different conflicts where a state was involved on one or both sides during 2021. However, most conflicts are minor. Only five of the 54 active conflicts reached the intensity level of war, meaning that they caused at least 1,000 battle-related deaths during the year.

“We observe a decrease in the number of wars, from eight in 2020 to five last year, which is the lowest number of wars since 2015. Violence in 2021 was thus concentrated in fewer but bloodier conflicts,” Davies explains.

Regional shift

In recent years, UCDP has noted a regional shift from the Middle East to the African continent, a trend that continued in 2021. Moreover, the situation in Asia got worse as a consequence of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Myanmar. In Europe, violence remained on a low level in 2021, despite the increasingly tense situation leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022.

A decisive factor in many contemporary conflicts has been the access to military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, for surveillance and attacks.

“Unarmed surveillance drones as well as armed drones have had significant effects on conflict dynamics in conflicts such as the one in Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) and the one in Ethiopia. In addition to providing real-time information on troop movements, drones also enable attacks far beyond the front lines,” says Therese Pettersson, Research Coordinator at UCDP.

Technical developments have made drones a relatively cheap and popular weapon in recent conflicts. The United States used to dominate the picture, but in the last few years several different states, as well as non-state groups such as IS (Islamic State), have made use of military drones. Since 2001, armed drones have been involved in lethal conflict events in at least 26 different countries and in 46 different conflicts, according to UCDP data. Most of the strikes took place in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Israel and Syria.

Linda Koffmar


Shawn Davies, Thérese Pettersson, Magnus Öberg (2022) Organized violence 1989–2021 and drone warfare, Journal of Peace Research, DOI: 10.1177/00223433221108428

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