Conflicts reach highest peak globally since World War II

There are up to 56 active conflicts across the globe, with an increasingly international component: 92 countries are involved in wars outside their borders

Palestinians walk along a street where houses have been destroyed by Israeli attacks, in Khan Younis, Gaza, on June 9, 2024.Mohammed Salem (REUTERS)
Alejandra Agudo

Ukraine, Gaza, Sudan, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Syria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Colombia... and so on. There are up to 56 active conflicts in the world, the highest number since World War II. Moreover, these carry an increasingly international component, with 92 countries involved in wars outside their borders. These are data from the latest Global Peace Index produced annually by the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP), a think tank that analyzes everything from military investment and the cost of violence to military laws and deaths in combat in 163 states and territories. “Getting the information is a challenge, but it allows us to compare dynamics. And what we see is a deterioration of peace over the last decade, especially in the last five years,” says Michael Collins, executive director of IEP.

“At the socioeconomic level, the world is improving, people are living longer and better; however, we see an increase in the gaps between countries, both economically and in terms of peace,” the expert explained by video call last Friday. Thus, 97 countries worsened their peace levels in 2023, more than in any other year since the creation of the index in 2008. This means that, mainly, there has been a deterioration in their militarization indicators “because there are more arms exports and imports, more military investment, when in previous years it had been decreasing,” says Collins.

The risk of low-intensity hostilities erupting into open conflict has also increased. Moreover, Collins warns, “this year is a high-risk year because half of humanity is voting and the world is increasingly polarized. We see risk of conflict spillover. We see sparks that can start a fire,” he adds. “There are a lot of unresolved but dormant conflicts.” At any time, the report warns, these can flare up and become major wars. This has happened, the authors cite, with cases such as Sudan or Gaza, which in last year’s edition of the study were on the list of unstable territories with low-intensity hostilities and have since escalated to the category of wars.

In addition to the little attention these tensions receive, Collins recalls that the world is also “distracted” from conflicts such as those in Sudan or Ethiopia, in which “many people die, but it goes unreported.”

“It is imperative that governments and businesses around the world step up their efforts to resolve the many minor conflicts before they become major crises,” said Steve Killelea, founder and CEO of IEP.

Valentina Chernaya, 90, mourns the damage her house suffered from a bombing raid on Rozivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on June 3, 2024.
Valentina Chernaya, 90, mourns the damage her house suffered from a bombing raid on Rozivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on June 3, 2024. Alexander Ermochenko (REUTERS)

Violence has a price, both personal and economic. In terms of human losses, the increase in conflicts resulted in 162,000 deaths in 2023, the second-highest number in the last 30 years, the study’s authors note. “And 2024 is likely to be a record high,” Collins says, on the basis of data they have collected in the first four months of the year, in which 47,000 deaths have been recorded, most of them in Gaza. In addition, 95 million people are refugees or internally displaced due to violent clashes; 16 countries each host more than half a million refugees, representing a human and economic cost for both their communities and the host communities.

In terms of economic impact, the IEP highlights that the global cost of violence (from military confrontations, gang warfare, or low-intensity hostilities, for example) amounted to €17.5 trillion ($18.8 trillion) in 2023, 13.5% of global GDP. “Exposure to conflict poses a significant risk to the supply chain of governments and businesses,” the authors write. “When lives are lost due to the context of violence or conflict, productivity is lost,” Collins adds. Likewise, the more peaceful a country is, the fewer resources it requires to allocate to maintaining peace and the more it can invest in other areas such as education or health, the expert adds.

“The most peaceful countries spend 3% of GDP on containing violence, while the most violent countries spend 30%. If they reduced that violence, they would free up that budget. War does not lead to economic growth at all,” the IEP director states. “There will always be a need to invest in security, but devoting more and more to military or security technologies means that there is more violence to contain, a lack of peace.” Thus, higher spending on these items subtracts points in the ranking of the most peaceful countries, which is headed by Iceland, Ireland, and Austria, in that order.

Europe is the most peaceful region in the world, according to the study. And even with the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, Eurasia is the region that has most increased its levels of peace thanks to the improvement of the situation in the rest of the countries in the area. “All other regions are experiencing a deterioration in their peace levels, especially Sub-Saharan Africa, with 36 out of 46 countries involved in conflicts outside their borders, and jihadist terrorism on the rise in the Sahel. Only Mauritius is not involved in any internal or external conflict.” North America is, however, the worst performer in the index due to an increase in violent crime and fear of violence.

Worldwide, countries such as Mauritius “are an exception,” laments Collins. However, some nations are improving their indicators. This is the case in Afghanistan which, despite registering the worst levels of peace (occupying last position in the index), has improved its score compared to the previous study. Spain has climbed seven positions to number 23 in the ranking, preceded by Mauritius. Despite allegations of human rights abuses and the highest rate of imprisonment in the world, the report considers that El Salvador has improved by 21 places (to 107th in the ranking) by reducing homicides.

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