Few conflicts ended in 2021, and many intensified, with levels of political violence remaining steady, according to a new report by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).
In a 2021 review, ACLED stated that where conflict declined last year, fragile ceasefires often obscured the growing risk of escalation — such as now seen in Yemen and Ukraine. And where long wars ended, such as in Afghanistan, new risks have emerged for civilians. Indeed, civilians have borne the brunt of conflict, with increases in both violence targeting civilians and civilian fatalities.
Against this backdrop, social unrest continued to build during the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a rise in demonstrations all around the world, from rallies against public health restrictions to mass pro-democracy protest movements. Authorities responded violently in places like Myanmar and Colombia, leading to a spike in demonstrator fatalities.
As the world struggles to come to grips with a third year of the pandemic — as well as the potentially devastating consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — global insecurity is likely to only deepen and evolve throughout 2022, ACLED stated.
One of ACLED’s key findings for 2021 was that political violence remained at similar levels relative to 2020. Political violence decreased by less than 2% — or 1 449 events — in 2021. In total, ACLED recorded 94 833 political violence events in 2020 and 93 384 in 2021. While regions like Central Asia and the Caucasus, Europe, and South Asia experienced significant decreases in violence, Southeast Asia saw an increase of 190%, driven by the military coup and ensuing crisis in Myanmar.
Reported fatalities rose significantly. Fatalities from political violence increased by 12% — or 15 740 deaths — compared to 2020. In total, ACLED recorded 131 370 fatalities in 2020 and 147 110 in 2021. Political violence was deadlier in 2021 in every region except for Europe and the Middle East. Fatalities in Central Asia and the Caucasus increased by more than 11%, despite a decrease in political violence events.
Civilian targeting and civilian fatalities increased. In 2021, civilians were more frequently targeted by political violence than in 2020, with far deadlier consequences. ACLED recorded a 12% increase in civilian targeting overall last year, with 33 331 events reported in 2020 compared to 37 185 in 2021. Civilian fatalities too increased by 8%, with 35 889 reported fatalities in 2020 compared to 38 658 in 2021. The greatest increases in civilian targeting were recorded in Myanmar, Palestine, Colombia, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso.
Anonymous armed groups, as well as state forces, remained the most active perpetrators of violence targeting civilians. For the second consecutive year, anonymous or unidentified armed, organized groups top the list of most active perpetrators of civilian targeting, responsible for the largest proportion at 46% of all events reported in 2021. Of identified actors, state forces continued to pose the greatest threat to civilians last year, responsible for 16% of civilian targeting and 14% of civilian fatalities, ACLED reported.
Despite the continued rise of violent non-state actors, including rebel groups and political militias, state forces remained the most active conflict agents. While overall state engagement in political violence fell substantially — by 18% or 10 195 events — for the second year, state forces remained the dominant conflict agents globally, ACLED stated. State forces engaged in 46% of all political violence events in 2021.
Ceasefires obscured persistent fragility in 2021. The greatest decreases in political violence took place in contexts where ceasefires and power-sharing agreements were reached in 2020 and early 2021. These include: Azerbaijan and Armenia over the breakaway Artsakh Republic; Ukraine and Russian-aligned separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk; Pakistan and India along the disputed Line of Control (LoC); and rival governments in Libya.
Similarly, in Yemen, a decrease in violence in 2021 was driven by the formation of a power-sharing cabinet between the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the Hadi government in the southern governorates in late 2020, alongside international engagement in peace negotiations on the Houthi conflict. Despite the declines in violence, each context remains deeply fragile and susceptible to further outbreaks of violence. In both Yemen and Ukraine, this fragility was readily apparent as fighting continued throughout 2021 and ultimately escalated in early 2022.
Demonstration activity continued to increase in the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Demonstrations rose by 9% — or 13 104 events — in 2021, compared with 2020. While this growth was driven by a range of movements, mass anti-government demonstrations were particularly prominent in those countries that registered the greatest increases in demonstration activity. These included mass demonstrations against health, education, social, and economic policies in Colombia; anti-coup demonstrations in Myanmar; water and wage-related demonstrations in Iran; and, demonstration movements against COVID-19 restrictions in France and Italy.
In its 2021 review, ACLED touched on conflict in Africa, including the insurgency in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado, and other conflicts. In Somalia, ACLED pointed out that al Shabaab killed more than twice as many people in suicide bombings against civilian targets in 2021 than in 2020 as the threat remained the same but consequences were far deadlier in 2021.
ACLED stated that the breakdown of negotiations between Burkina Faso’s government and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) in late 2020 drove a resurgence of JNIM activity in 2021. In response, state forces increased counter-insurgency operations, further driving up political violence and triggering counterattacks by militants. At the same time, JNIM militants and Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland (VDP) fighters carried out ethnically motivated tit-for-tat attacks on civilian populations, with VDP fighters launching multiple attacks on Fulani communities. Meanwhile, resurgent military activity in Mali in the latter half of 2021 pushed militants across the border into Burkina Faso, further exacerbating political violence in the country.
The outbreak of the Tigray war between the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) — and the later established Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) — in November 2020 drove a dramatic increase in political violence in 2021. Fighting between TPLF/TDF forces and Ethiopian state forces operating alongside regional forces continued throughout the year, shifting between the Tigray, Amhara, and Afar regions. The conflict also led to the proliferation of mass killings and sexual violence targeting civilian groups by all sides. While the majority of international focus remains squarely on heavy fighting in the north, anti-government insurgencies and communal violence have also spread across the country, further driving the increase in political violence in 2021. Anti-government militants have been active in Oromia; Benshangul/Gumuz; the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR); and Amhara in 2021, with ethnic militias active across multiple areas of contested territory.
In South Africa, violent demonstrators targeted civilians at much higher rates than in 2020, driven by an outbreak of violent demonstrations following the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma in July 2021. Dozens of people were killed during the violence, prompted by Zuma’s arrest for contempt of court following his refusal to cooperate with investigations into alleged corruption during his time in office.