CJ Werleman digs into the findings of a new report detailing acts of political violence around the world in 2020

If you were asked to name the countries in which the most number of citizens were targeted in acts of political violence during the previous year, it is likely that you might include war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen at the top of your list. However, a newly published report by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) has uncovered some startling results.

The countries home to the most civilian targeting during 2020 do include Syria and Yemen, but also – somewhat surprisingly – India, Mexico and Brazil.

In fact, more civilians were targeted in acts of political violence in India, Mexico and Brazil than in Yemen – a country mired in a six-year-long civil war. And both Mexico and Brazil registered more civilian casualties than in Syria – a country now in its second decade of armed conflict.

While Mexico recorded 5,963 events with direct civilian targeting, resulting in 6,589 civilian fatalities; Brazil recorded 2,978 such events and 2,570 civilian fatalities; Syria 2,141 such events and 1,957 civilian fatalities; India 1,423 such events and 465 fatalities; and Yemen 1,273 such events and 1,268 civilian fatalities.

Civilians are targeted by violent attacks, including killing, forced disappearance and rape; explosions/remote violence, including air/drone strike, shelling/artillery/missile attack; riots, including mob violence and violent demonstration; protests, including excessive force against protestors. These attacks are carried out by an array of state and sub-state forces, including militias, terrorists, gangs and rioters.

“Civilians continued to come under attack in a variety of contexts, from conventional conflicts in Syria and Yemen, to gang wars in Mexico and Brazil,” observe the authors of the report. “In some spaces, civilians came under multiple concurrent threats, such as in India, where they faced persistent mob and communal violence as well as conflicts in Kashmir and the Red Corridor”.

While most of these countries are home to conventional and protracted wars, the inclusion of Mexico at the top of the list underlines how narco-gang violence has turned the Latin American country into a very real ‘war zone’ – a reality emphasised by the fact that more than 300,000 Mexicans have been murdered in drug gang-related violence since 2006, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. It has become the most dangerous country in the world for politicians, journalists and students.

India finds itself listed among the most dangerous countries in the world for civilians because of the way in which the Government has sown anti-religious minority hatred to mobilise and seize political power – resulting in a year-on-year increase in majoritarian mob violence since 2014, particularly against Muslims. This culminated with the New Delhi riots, which left 51 Muslims hacked, shot and burnt to death by violent Hindu extremist mobs last February.

The Indian Government is also responsible for an increase in violence against civilians in Indian-Administered Kashmir, having stripped the disputed territory of its semi-autonomous status on 5 August 2019, before re-imposing ever-more aggressive military rule over eight million Muslim residents, resulting in protests against the Government and a violent military response against protestors.

Curiously, the report does not mention China, where more than three million ethnic Uyghur have been detained in network of concentration camps in Xinjiang (or what was twice independent East Turkestan in 1933 and 1944, respectively). It is an omission presumably made because of the difficulty in gathering information from the highly secretive Chinese Government.

To that end, state forces remain the most powerful and deadly of all conflict actors, responsible for 52% of all political violence in 2020, despite the continued rise of violent non-state actors and the decades-long decline in inter-state wars.

“Three of the five most active groups were domestic state forces: the military of Ukraine, active largely in the Donbas region of the country; Houthi military forces, 15 which control large swathes of Yemen; and the military forces of Azerbaijan, which increased their activity during the Nagorno-Karabakh war,” says ACLED.

While there was an overall decline in political violence in 2020, the authors fret for the years ahead, attributing a 22% reduction in violent events and civilian fatalities during 2020 to the global COVID-19 pandemic, which subjected more than half of the global population to lockdown and social distancing measures.

“The health crisis has had major impacts on worldwide conflict and disorder patterns, contributing to an overall decrease in political violence levels last year even as it fuelled an increase in demonstration activity,” observes ACLED. “And while the pandemic’s effects have been global in scale, they have not been felt equally across conflict contexts: although violence declined on the aggregate level, it rose in nearly half the world’s countries. As vaccine distribution accelerates and countries relax public health restrictions, conflict levels are expected to increase throughout 2021.”

This is a grim warning given that intelligence agencies throughout the world are focused on either a continued or approaching wave of domestic violent extremist attacks, carried out by groups espousing nationalist and racial-ethnic supremacist ideologies.

Of equal or greater concern is the violent crackdown on pro-democracy protestors and human rights activists by increasingly illiberal and authoritarian governments, as witnessed recently in Myanmar, Hong Kong, Belarus, Russia, Venezuela and Brazil.

The global pandemic may have made the world a little less violent in 2020, but there is sadly no reason to believe that it is responsible for starting a downward trend in incidents of political violence or civilian casualties around the world.


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