The world is less violent today than at virtually any other time in human history. Hard as it is to believe, deaths from armed conflicts between states have declined dramatically since the 1950s. And although civil-war deaths have ticked up in recent years, they have still fallen dramatically since the end of the Cold War. After increasing over the past decade, even terrorist-related killings have started to fall. Homicides, too, are on the decline in most parts of the world.
All this is cause for celebration, but it is not the whole story. Although the world has done a good job at reducing certain forms of violence, others are on the rise, particularly state violence against citizens and criminal violence from mafias, drug cartels, and gangs. Complicating matters, state and criminal killings are often intertwined. Politicians, police, and other officials may be in cahoots with criminal bosses, which makes their crimes harder to uncover and address.
This is not to say that disrupting and reducing such bloodshed is impossible. Other forms of organized killings have become less common partly because activists and policymakers crafted norms, laws, and programs to stamp them out. They also built institutions such as NATO and the United Nations to reduce the carnage of war and keep the peace. It is time to craft a new set of tools to stamp out today’s new forms of violence.
The 20th century introduced humanity to the experience of mass death. Tens of millions of people were killed during world wars. Since then, though, each peak in wartime deaths (during the Korean War, for example) has grown progressively smaller. By 2017, direct deaths from civil or interstate war were down to 90,000.
Still, the threat of warfare persists. Simmering tensions between the United States and China, for example, could boil over in Asia. Russia menaces its near neighbors, and other regional rivalries are growing deadly, too. Fighting between India and Pakistan is a near and present danger, while proxy battles between Middle Eastern powers rage on. As a result of such conflicts, interstate war deaths have risen since 2010. The increase is still slight after so large a decline, but it requires attention precisely because today’s wars are harder to extinguish.
The traditional tools of peacemaking, including cease-fire negotiations, peace agreements, and peacekeeping operations, are finding less purchase than ever before.
Meanwhile, the number of combatants in each conflict is increasing. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, roughly half of today’s wars involve between three and nine opposing groups. In Libya and Syria, hundreds of armed groups vie for control. Often, fighters are a mashup of local militia, criminal gangs, foreign fighters, criminal gangs, and terrorist organizations, defying traditional diplomatic response. (In almost half of the 47 internal conflicts counted by Peace Research Institute Oslo, external states were sending troops to at least one side.) All of these factors mean that the traditional tools of peacemaking, including cease-fire negotiations, peace agreements, and peacekeeping operations, are finding less purchase than ever before.
Since the shock of 9/11, terrorist violence has preoccupied North Americans and Europeans. Although U.S. politicians have threatened to close borders to keep would-be terrorists at bay, the country’s greatest threat emanates from homegrown white-nationalist groups, not jihadists. And although western Europe has experienced several gruesome attacks in recent years, the real terrorist battleground is not in the West.
A mere 2 percent of all terrorist-related attacks and 1 percent of all deaths occurred in European countries in the first half of 2017. The probability of dying from a terrorist attack in Europe was 0.027 per 100,000 in 2016, slightly worse odds than being struck by lightning. More than 90 percent of all terrorist attacks and related deaths occur in just seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. And according to the Global Terrorism Index, more than half of the roughly 19,000 terrorist killings in 2017 were perpetrated by just four groups—Islamic State, the Taliban, al-Shabab, and Boko Haram.
Even with such dangerous groups on the scene, deaths from terrorism have fallen by more than 40 percent over the past few years. Although terrorism will never disappear completely, it is best addressed by reducing the factors giving rise to it: exclusion, marginalization, and violent state repression.
State violence directed against citizens has persisted into the 21st century, though in less blatant forms than the gulags or the mass slaughter of political prisoners and ethnic minorities committed under Joseph Stalin or during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Governments have gotten much smarter at concealing their violent excesses.
In Mexico, for example, three-quarters of all inmates claim to have been tortured in prison.In Mexico, for example, three-quarters of all inmates claim to have been tortured in prison. In Rio de Janeiro, police committed over 1,000 of the homicides in 2018. In Nigeria, over 7,000 people have died in government detention centers and an additional 1,200 were executed without fair trials and sentencing over the past few years. Meanwhile, in North Korea, between 80,000 and 130,000 people have been held in concentration camps deemed by one Holocaust survivor to be as bad as those of Nazi Germany.
But since data about such crimes is so easily hidden or manipulated, it is impossible to really know how much violence is perpetrated by the state. Consider the recently uncovered concentration camps imprisoning hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims for “re-education.” The concertina wire stands out. Much less visible is the facial recognition and monitoring technologies creating virtual fences to control movement, debate, and protest.
Finally, there’s organized crime. Virtually every part of the world has experienced an uptick in this kind of violence in recent years—from cartel clashes in Mexico, to killings by gangs in Brazil, to election-time thuggery in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to reprisal murders between farmers and herders in Nigeria.
Organized crime, like warfare, is as old as human civilization. Although it used to occur primarily in rural areas, where highwaymen and bandits could harass citizens, it has increasingly taken root in urban settings. Modern organized crime often involves intentionally gory and flagrant violence used to send messages to rivals.
Organized crime flourishes where nation-states are unable or unwilling to guarantee a minimum presence or provide basic services. But it would be wrong to treat organized crime as a signal that the state is missing. To the contrary, politicians, police, and prison guards frequently collude with mafias, cartels, and gangs, mutually profiting from predation and the extraction of ill-gotten gains.
In the ensuing mayhem, governments may posture as being tough on crime through repressive tactics and military interventions. These tactics tend to win elections. But they supercharge criminal groups. Scores of suddenly jailed young men strengthen the gangs that control prisons. Brutal policing encourages criminals to respond in kind with even more violence. Citizens grow to fear both the police and the gangs. Repressive policies thus backfire every time, leaving greater numbers of dead and a more fragile state.
There are better ways to prevent and reduce violence. Rather than ramping up military and police repression, governments, businesses, and civil society groups need to double down on what works. To start, easing the recent surge in interstate warfare requires renewed investment in U.N. conflict-prevention efforts.
It is true that the U.N.’s track-record in preventing mass violence is uneven. Even so, peacekeepers have, on the whole, contributed positively to stability. According to a U.N. study, the organization has helped prevent violent conflict from breaking out in Guinea (2008-10), Sudan and what is now South Sudan (2010-11), Malawi (2011), Lebanon (2012-17), and Nigeria (2015). Rand Corp. has likewise found that not only is the body successful at reducing the likelihood of war, it is considerably cheaper than the most of the alternatives.
But as violence transforms, so must the methods of preventing it. No one, not least the U.N. Security Council, is going to authorize blue-helmeted peacekeepers to patrol the streets of Caracas or Karachi, Pakistan. Nor are human-rights observers going to be easily dispatched to China to monitor repression of minorities.
International agencies associated with the United Nations, the World Bank, and its sister institutions will need to get savvier (and less risk-averse) when it comes to engaging with states that willfully repress citizens and partner with organized crime.International agencies associated with the United Nations, the World Bank, and its sister institutions will need to get savvier (and less risk-averse) when it comes to engaging with states that willfully repress citizens and partner with organized crime. Nascent efforts to reduce corruption, promote transparency, and shine light on public security budgets are steps in the right direction.
Meanwhile, relevant organizations should carefully research ways to promote diplomacy and mediation between governments and criminal groups. El Salvador’s infamous gang truce contributed to a short-lived drop in lethal violence, but ended in failure after politicians got cold feet. Researchers need to learn more about the conditions that enable truces and pacts to succeed, and the circumstances under which they will make matters worse.
Agreements between criminal groups don’t solve the problem of predatory governments—and they can even deepen societal mistrust of government leaders. What’s really needed is the creation of more inclusive and responsive institutions.
Ultimately, better governance must emerge from within a country. The surest route to preventing killings today is by reducing the factors giving rise to them. This requires focusing on political, social, and economic inequality and exclusion. Countries that offer young people, especially women, more opportunities for political and economic participation and encourage social mobility tend to experience less violence. Likewise, those registering lower levels of gender inequality and gender-based violence are less vulnerable to civil war. In all cases, citizen engagement in governance is crucial. We know a great deal about the kinds of policing and military reforms needed to foster stability. But it takes active citizens to force their governments to choose proven techniques over tough-on-crime posturing that research shows will backfire.
International actors can help, first by acknowledging that tackling state repression and organized crime cannot be reduced to technical quick fixes. Success lies in helping the middle class build social momentum for political change. Donors can help support a free media and empower local civil society organizations that can bring citizens together across polarized, divided countries.
The private and social sectors also have an important role to play. International business hubs such as New York and London, as well as offshore havens, should tighten their financial systems and property markets, which currently allow criminals and politicians to launder ill-gotten gains with impunity. Large investors and shareholders of major companies would also do well to review their portfolios to be sure they are not intentionally dealing with bad actors.
Violence is down from its modern peak in the mid-20th century, but it is ticking back upward from the lows of the post-Cold War era. Equally importantly, it is adopting new forms that are harder to eradicate. The intellectual effort and elbow grease expended to contain interstate war must now be deployed toward today’s challenge: organized crime and criminally violent states. The payoff for the one in six people worldwide affected by global violence—and the countries buckling under the influx of migrants fleeing bloodshed—is worth the effort.