As more groups have become involved in armed conflicts, there has also been a significant shift in the way conflicts end.

The number of deaths from armed conflict is now at a 30-year high, however, the total number of deaths remains considerably lower than at many points since the Second World War as the nature of conflict changes.

The steep decline in battle deaths coincided with the end of the Cold War in 1991. There were more than 200,000 battle deaths in 24 of the years between 1946 and 1999, compared to just one year so far in the 21st century.

The average number of deaths per year between 1946 and 1999 was almost 210,000, compared to just under 69,000 per year between 2000 and 2022. However, the trend is on the rise again. Increasing big power rivalries imply a real risk of a return to the level of fatalities seen in the Cold War era.

Although the average number of deaths so far in the 21st century is much lower than in the preceding 50 years, the total number of conflicts is now higher than at any point since World War II. This implies that there is more potential for major conflicts to erupt. As examples, the Russia-Ukraine, Israel-Palestine, and subnational conflicts in Ethiopia wars were minor conflicts in 2019. They constitute major conflicts today. A major conflict is defined as one where at least one year of the conflict had over one thousand deaths.

Regional Conflict Trends

Regionally, more and more middle-power nations across multiple regions are becoming involved in external conflicts. 

The most striking example of this is in sub-Saharan Africa, where 36 of the 42 countries in the region were involved in at least one external conflict between 2018 and 2022, compared to just seven countries for the period from 2002 to 2006.

The Emergence of Conflict Dyads

In the 21st century, the overall number of conflicts has increased, but the number of fatalities and intensity has not increased at the same rate. There are more conflicts, many of which now involve some form of external intervention.  

The average number of conflict dyads per conflict has almost doubled. A conflict dyad is defined as a pair of opposing armed actors, such as a government and a rebel group, that are engaged in armed conflict. To count as an armed conflict, there must be at least 25 deaths in a calendar year. 

The increase in the number of dyads per conflict reflects a shift in the nature of conflict, wherein more armed groups are involved in a single conflict event. This could be due to external combatants becoming involved in a civil conflict, but also multiple rebel groups opposing a government, or even fighting against each other, all within the same conflict. As one rebel group is defeated or merges with other groups, new groups might emerge to continue fighting and prolong the conflict. This makes solving conflicts much more difficult.

How Conflicts End

As more groups have become involved in armed conflicts, there has also been a significant shift in the way conflicts end. The biggest shift that has occurred over this period is the increase in the percentage of conflicts that end through being classified as low activity but having no negotiated outcome, leaving the possibility of further escalation. The number of conflicts ending in ceasefire has remained steady, which points towards many conflicts being left unresolved. The percentage of conflicts that end through a clear victory to either the government or the non-state side has also decreased. This holds true for both major and minor conflicts.

The change in the way conflicts end can partially be explained by changes in the geopolitical landscape. During the Cold War, conflicts more often concluded with decisive military victories, frequently influenced by the support of either the US or the USSR.

However, the post-Cold War era marked a significant shift. This period was dominated by the US as a singular global power. The strong influence of a single power saw a rise in peace agreements and a fall in decisive victories, as negotiations became more common for ending conflicts throughout the 1990s. In the last decade, the US has shown a reduced inclination to intervene, and with rising competition for global influence, conflicts have become more complex, increasingly supported by external actors.

Due to these shifts, the percentage of conflicts that end due to being classified as low activity has risen from around 20 per cent in the 1970s, to nearly 70 per cent in the 2010s. These conflicts may become “frozen conflicts” which are likely to erupt in future years.

Even in conflicts where one side wins a decisive victory, the aftermath often brings little peace. With negotiated settlements or peace agreements becoming less common, clear victories are often only obtained after the use of extremely destructive or brutal approaches to conflict.  

— Download the Global Peace Index 2024 press release here.
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— View the Global Peace Index 2024 interactive map here.



Ria Utz

Communications Assosciate

Vision of Humanity

Vision of Humanity is brought to you by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), by staff in our global offices in Sydney, New York, The Hague, Harare and Mexico. Alongside maps and global indices, we present fresh perspectives on current affairs reflecting our editorial philosophy.