Angela Me, Chief of the Research and Trend Analysis Branch at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Credit: UNODC. - Photo: 2023

Homicide Is a Bigger Killer Than Armed Conflict and Terrorism Combined

By Aurora Weiss

VIENNA | 26 December 2023 (IDN) — More people were killed due to homicide than armed conflict and terrorism combined. It is estimated that there were roughly 458,000 victims of intentional homicide worldwide in 2021, meaning that an average of 52 individuals lost their lives to homicidal violence every single hour around the world, according to the Global Study on Homicide 2023 from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). 

Recently, UNODC has left us breathless with its global reports, whether it is about human trafficking, narcotics, and now with this detailed report on homicide. We talked with the Research and Trend Analysis Branch Chief, Angela Me, about the challenges they faced while working on this report.

“It is not only about how to get the data, we also need to make it comparable. Different countries use words like homicide or murder, so we need to make sure that they are the same concept from all over the world and across countries; that is the hardest job. Some countries like Mexico and Brazil have different sources for homicide data,” Angela Me pointed out the complexity of this analysis.

Data on homicide types remain very limited in regions other than the Americas and Europe. Of the 66 countries with at least one data point on organized crime-related homicides, 25 are in the Americas, and 22 are in Europe, amounting to 70 percent of the sample. The low coverage in other regions means that regional estimates are skewed toward the homicide characteristics of the few countries with data in those regions.

Second, many countries report large shares of homicides as “unknown” or “other (unspecified)” types of homicide, which adds considerable uncertainty to national figures on homicide by type. Finland, for example, a country with a robust crime data collection system, reports roughly 50 percent of its homicides as “unknown” types of homicide.

The Global Study on Homicide offers a comprehensive examination of intentional homicide trends and patterns around the world. The study analyzes the complex dynamics behind the numbers while looking at regional and subregional trends; homicides related to criminal activities, interpersonal homicides, and socio-politically motivated homicides; criminal justice responses; and the impacts of climate change, aging populations, inequality, urbanization, and technological shifts.

The complex web of factors fuelling homicide deaths worldwide, from gender-based violence against women and girls to organized crime and gang violence to poverty and inequality, shows that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Homicide accounted for an annual average of around 440,000 deaths worldwide over 2019-2021, a higher number than conflict-related or terrorist killings combined. 2021 was an exceptionally lethal year with 458,000 deaths, a spike linked, in part, to the economic consequences of COVID-19 and a rise in organized crime and gang-related and sociopolitical violence.

“We analyzed several countries. In the first months of the pandemic, the number of homicides fell, but after a few months, when the measures were relaxed, the homicide rose again, complementing the statistics of the fall in the first months. No,  COVID-19 and lockdowns did not bring any statistical change in the long term. It had only a short effect,” Chief of the Research and Trend Analysis Branch Angela Me tells us.

Available data for 2022 shows that – despite a surge of more than 95 percent in conflict deaths between 2021 and 2022 – the global burden of homicide was nonetheless twice as significant as the burden of conflict deaths.

Organized crime is responsible for 22 percent of homicides.

Organized crime/gang group-related homicides constitute around 22 percent of intentional homicides globally and 50 percent in the Americas. Competition among organized crime groups and gangs can lead to sudden and sharp increases in intentional homicides, as seen in Haiti and Ecuador. The presence of organized crime groups does not always translate into a high rate of homicidal violence. In comparison with much of Latin America and the Caribbean, some countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe appear to have much smaller shares of organized crime-related homicide, but that does not necessarily mean there is less organized crime in Asia and Europe than in other regions. Types of organized crime such as large-scale drug trafficking can be managed in ways that may or may not promote violence, as shown by the example of the countries in South-Eastern Europe that lie on the Balkan Route, along which tons of heroin are trafficked every year, yet do not report high homicide rates.

Similarly, in some countries in Asia, well-known organized crime groups that are essential players both at home and abroad, such as the Yakuza in Japan, continue to operate in a country with one of the very lowest homicide rates worldwide (0.23 per 100,000 in 2021). Indeed, the dominance of a hegemonic organized crime group can have an impact on violent crime, mainly when it successfully exerts control over territory and criminal markets.

“In Europe, more and more violence is appearing, which is connected to organized crime. Sweden is an example where violent murders have escalated in a very short time. This should be kept under the loupe,” stressed Angela Me.

Moreover, criminal organizations may also enter into “gentleman’s agreements” with state authorities precisely to avoid violent confrontations, even if this effectively leads to the authorities ceding control of some local jurisdictions. Such informal non-interference pacts can result in a “pax mafiosa,” a relatively low level of violence in territories dominated by criminal groups. The term “pax mafiosa” has been frequently used in Italy to describe how the leadership of organized crime groups has deliberately reduced the use of overt violence, leading to a drop in the number of mafia-related killings in the country. In Mexico, the concept of “pax narcotic” has also been applied, referring to situations of tolerance in the twentieth century towards drug-trafficking activities, which maintained low levels of drug-related violence in the country.

Homicide rates vary by region.

The Americas had the highest regional homicide rate per capita in the world (15 per 100,000 population, or 154,000 people) in 2021, while Africa had the highest absolute number of homicides (176,000, or 12.7 per 100,000 population). The homicide rates in Asia (2.3), Europe (2.2), and Oceania (2.9) fell well below the global per capita average of 5.8 per 100,000 population.

When asked which objects are most often used in murders in Europe, Angela Me pointed out that only 17 percent of murders are committed with firearms. The rest are sharp objects or other things, for example, strangling.

“A knife is used in many acts of violence. The UK has almost no firearms in dealing with criminal groups. It’s different in America, where 75 percent of murders are committed with firearms. The reason for this is the availability of firearms and the way organized groups operate. The percentage committed with a firearm and the percentage killed shows that as soon as a weapon is used as a means of violence, the percentage of homicide is much higher,” explains Angela Me, the mechanisms of homicide.

Firearms were used in an estimated 75 percent of killings recorded in the Americas in 2021. In contrast, firearms were used in 17 and 18 percent of homicides in Europe and Asia, respectively. Unlike in the Americas, no precise homicide mechanism is predominant across Europe. Firearms constituted a large share of all homicides in just a few countries in the region in 2021, most of which are located in the Western Balkans. In Albania, for example, 75 percent of all homicides in 2021 were committed with a firearm; in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the share was 43 percent; in Montenegro, 46 percent; and in North Macedonia, it was 51 percent in 2017. Sweden was a notable exception in Northern Europe, with 40 percent of all homicides perpetrated with a firearm in 2021.

No other pattern was observed within the different subregions of Europe. In many cases, the shares of homicides perpetrated with sharp objects and other mechanisms were more or less equal. Another notable observation is that 20 percent of countries in Europe with data on homicide do not report the homicide mechanism for over 50 percent of victims. In all types of fatality, identifying the cause of death is a lengthy process requiring a medical examination to be performed outside the judicial system, which may lead to challenges relating, for example, to the coordination of civil registries and police records. In France and Germany, data on homicide mechanisms are not reported by the police, and health registries contain information on the cause of death in only 50–60 percent of all homicides in each country.

Men account for 81 percent of homicide victims, but women are more likely to be killed by family members or intimate partners. 

Men are the most likely victims and perpetrators of homicide, constituting 81 percent of all homicide victims and 90 percent of suspects brought into formal contact with police for homicide. Yet, women experience a higher risk of violence at home. Although they represent 19 percent of homicide victims in total, they account for 54 percent of all killings in the home and 66 percent of all victims of intimate partner killings. Meanwhile, 15 percent (71,600) of homicide victims in 2021 were children.  

Intimate partner/family-related homicide is by far the most common type of homicide in Europe. In such cases, women and girls bear an even more disproportionate burden, accounting for an average of 7 out of 10 (71 percent) of all victims of intimate partner homicides in the 75 countries and territories with available data.

Femicide has the highest rate in Europe

Between 2010 and 2021, Europe experienced a decrease of 21 percent in the number of female intimate partner/family-related homicides, albeit with different patterns between subregions and with signs of reversals in the downward trend since 2020 in some, including Western and Southern Europe. By contrast, the Americas saw an increase of 6 percent over the same period, although in South America the trend moved in the opposite direction. Population growth in Europe and the Americas led to a decline in the rate of female intimate partner/family-related homicide in both regions between 2010 and 2021, although more markedly in Europe, at more than 20 percent, than in the Americas, at less than 4 percent.

“Europe has a different homicide profile than the Americas or Africa. Compared to other parts, the profile of the victims is mostly women. For example, in the Americas, murders are mostly connected with organized crime, and the victims are mostly young guys. Of course, there are also female victims, but for the sake of improvement. In Europe, in some countries, we have an almost equal number of men and women who are victims. This is because 70 percent of all murders in Europe are family and partner-related. I don’t want to say that Europe is immune to organized crime, but if we compare it to Mexico and Brazil, in Europe, homicides are traditionally interpersonal.

However, it is an indication that violence related to gangs and organized crime is also growing in Europe,” stressed Angela Me, adding that globally, nearly 89,000 women and girls were killed intentionally in 2022, which is the highest yearly number recorded in the past two decades. In the same year, around 48,800 women and girls, around 55% of the estimated total, worldwide were killed by their intimate partners or other family members. This means that, on average, more than 133 women or girls were killed every day by someone in their own family (partners, fathers, mothers, uncles, and brothers).

Some countries, such as Croatia, wanted to include Femicide in the law as a particular crime that recognizes women who are killed because they are women. Some legal experts argue that it is not necessary because murder is murder regardless of whether someone is male or female and that every life is worth the same.

“Every country is different. There is no evidence that specialized law works better than non-specialized law. In some countries, Femicide is an aggravated circumstance. You have a law that punishes the homicide, but if aggravated, it means the penalty is higher, etc. It would help if you saw different circumstances during whether the current law can capture the specific circumstances of Femicide. Latin America and a specific number of countries allowed specific laws for Femicide, and the result is mixed. Some say that sometimes Femicide is easier to be prosecuted as homicide. To apply the offense of Femicide, you need to have certain proofs. You have to prove that a certain person was killed because she was a woman. Finally, you have a higher chance of convicting a person if you go for a homicide instead of a femicide – because the Femicide is harder to prove. Based on the circumstances, every country will need to see what the best legal framework is that will bring the perpetrator to justice,” stressed Angela Me during our conversation.

Out of all male homicide victims in 2021, around 11 percent were killed by intimate partners or other family members. However, the share could also be larger as in many cases there is likewise no information on the victim-perpetrator relationship in killings of men and boys. Women and girls being disproportionately affected by homicidal violence in the family is a pattern observed in all regions of the world. However, some regional differences are observable in the female and male burdens of homicidal violence within the family. In areas with overall lower levels of intentional homicide (both within and outside the family sphere), such as Europe and Asia, the share of male homicides related to violence within the family is more significant, at nearly 20 percent, than in regions with very high levels of homicidal violence such as Africa, where the share is less than 10 percent.

Journalists, human rights defenders, aid workers, and more face considerable risk 

Deliberate killings of human rights defenders, environmental defenders, community leaders, journalists, and aid workers represent nine percent of global homicides. The threat has increased for humanitarian aid workers, who witnessed a higher average number of fatalities over the period 2017-2022 than 2010-2016.

There is a blurred line between homicide and conflict death. We consider homicides as intentional killing. It is specified in conflict with that if there is an intention to kill that person. But one fact is shocking: Since Israel’s war on Gaza began on October 7, 136 staff members of the UN have been killed.

“Some people are at a certain risk of being killed, and, for example, the murder of a journalist is considered murder with intent because there is an intention of killing just because a person is a journalist. We have, for example, analyzed environmental defenders and human rights defenders. Those are intentional killings – homicides. We also analyze the data on the killing of humanitarian workers. That is the area where the blur is. Is it intentional? What you need to do is go one by one and understand if it was intentional or conflict death. It is hard to say. That is why we included the area of the humanitarian workers – because it is important to understand. People who are at the frontline have a very high risk of losing their life,” stressed Angela Me.

Between 2006 and 2021, more than 1,200 journalists were killed, with those responsible going unpunished in approximately 86 percent of cases. UNESCO figures published on December 19 show that 2023 has been a particularly deadly year for journalists who work in conflict zones, with killings almost doubling compared to the past three years. Sixty-five journalists have been killed in the line of duty in 2023, compared with 88 the previous year. The last three months of this year, in particular, have already been the deadliest quarter for journalists in conflict zones since at least 2007, with 27 deaths.

Killings due to accusations of sorcery or witchcraft and ritual attacks

Belief in witchcraft or sorcery, which is understood as the ability of people to cause harm through supernatural means intentionally, remains widespread across the globe. Intentional killings of people accused of witchcraft or sorcery have been reported by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) across 60 countries during the past decade, with most victims recorded in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Still, there have also been some cases in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, France and the United States of America. The Statistical framework for measuring the gender-related killing of women and girls counts killings of this type as “femicide.”

“Surprisingly, it is spread over all continents. It is more widespread than we think. It is hard to measure it, so we cannot say how many people were killed, but it is happening out there. It is more present in some regions, so we are monitoring Papua New Guinea as an example,” told Angela Me.

According to OHCHR, 5,250 killings were reported in online sources during the period 2009–2019; the exact number is unknown and is likely to be significantly higher owing to under-reporting. An analysis based on the two leading local newspapers in Papua New Guinea from 1996–2021 found a total of 655 reported deaths following accusations of sorcery. The additional study of sorcery accusation-related violence in four provinces of Papua New Guinea found that most incidents are committed by large groups, with 34 percent of incidents committed by groups of more than 20 people and 40 percent committed by groups of 5 to 20 people.

In 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on the elimination of harmful practices related to accusations of witchcraft and ritual attacks. Furthermore, in 2022, the Pan African Parliament adopted guidelines on eliminating harmful practices related to allegations of witchcraft and ritual attacks.

Respond to the justice system and high impunity.

Measuring the number of people at each stage of the criminal justice system is challenging since it requires data from multiple agencies, including law enforcement, prosecution, and courts. Ideally, case records should be linked throughout the criminal justice system, but this is not always possible or permitted.

If the public prosecutor decides to press charges, suspects are brought before a court, where a judge or jury will determine if they are guilty or not guilty. As shown above, when comparing the homicide rate, suspects brought into formal contact with the police for homicide, and those convicted in different regions in 2021 or the latest year available, the number of suspects convicted of intentional homicide is not necessarily proportional to the number of victims, highlighting the varying levels of impunity across regions. Indeed, in 17 Asian countries with data, 3 out of 10 suspects brought into formal contact with the police for intentional homicide were convicted in 2021; in 35 European countries with data, the figure was 7 out of 10, and in 25 American countries with data, it was slightly more than 4 out of 10.

“When we look globally, we compare the number of victims with the people who are arrested and the people who are convicted. You see that on the global level, there is a very high level of impunity. The regions that have the highest number of impunity are the Americas, especially Latin America. The reason is that we have a very high level of homicide there. Half of these murders are related to organized crime, and organized crime is difficult to convict. There are several reasons why there is a high level of impunity in the Americas,” stressed Angela Me, adding that impunity may also be the result of high crime rates overstretching the capacities of law enforcement agencies and other institutions within the criminal justice system, making it challenging to investigate and process homicides effectively.

Climate change: Increasing number of hot days could impact homicide

Effects of demographic, economic, technological, and climatic “megatrends” on homicide rates will likely vary per region. Based on projections until 2100, Africa emerges as the most vulnerable region due to its younger population, persisting inequality, and climate-related shocks and stresses.

The overwhelming scientific consensus is that climate change and the associated shocks and stresses are increasing in intensity and frequency. Researchers have identified moderate and robust causal relationships in the United States between various types of climate-related shocks and stresses and violent crime, concluding that changes in the climate and environment could generate a sharp increase in urban criminal violence in vulnerable neighborhoods and households in particular.

There are several theoretical perspectives on the criminogenic impacts of climate change. Criminologists have long drawn on routine activity and social interaction theory to explain how weather changes can influence the behavior of would-be offenders, victims, and guardians. The “heat-crime” hypothesis proposes that temperature changes can shape the opportunity for crime. In other words, the warmer the weather, the more likely people are to be outdoors and the closer their proximity.

Several empirical studies have detected a direct positive relationship between rising temperatures and lethal violence. One study that examined over 60 countries estimated that for every change of one degree Celsius in the global temperature, there is a potential increase of six percent in the homicide rate.30 Another assessment of more than 170 countries between 2000 and 2018 noted not only a direct positive relationship between higher temperatures and homicide but also an indirect pathway between more rainfall and homicide.

“Climate change directly affects homicide rates in two ways. One direct way is resources that show that the temperature affects the level of violence. More heat days mean there is more violence. We have done the analysis, projecting the future where there will be more heating days and how this will affect the homicide. It was not a precise analysis, but it has an idea of the parts of the world that will be directly affected by climate change.

Africa is more affected than Europe and other regions because Africa is projected to have a much higher increase of the heaty days, particularly in some regions more than in others. There are also indirect impacts because, with climate change, the accessibility to natural resources will change. It will be issues of water and land resources, which are already visible, particularly in Africa. There are conflicts within communities, but different ethnicities are also overall related to changes in the availability of natural resources,” concluded Angela Me. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: Angela Me, Chief of the Research and Trend Analysis Branch at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Credit: UNODC.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

Related Posts

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top