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Global homicides hit record high in 2021 as post-lockdown stress set in

Globally, homicide is a bigger killer than armed conflict and terrorism combined.
© Unsplash/David von Diemar
Globally, homicide is a bigger killer than armed conflict and terrorism combined.

Global homicides hit record high in 2021 as post-lockdown stress set in

Law and Crime Prevention

More people were killed due to homicide than armed conflict and terrorism combined in 2021, with an average of 52 lives lost per hour worldwide, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a report published on Friday. 

The Global Study on Homicide analyzes the complex dynamics behind these violent deaths and includes a special section on how organized crime is driving death rates up in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The report examines homicides related to criminal activities and interpersonal conflict, as well as “socio-politically motivated homicides” such as the deliberate killing of human rights activists, humanitarian workers and journalists.

Consideration is also given to the impacts of “megatrends” - such as climate change, demographic changes, inequality, urbanization and technological shifts – and how they might influence homicide rates.

‘A sombre reminder’ 

UNODC chief Ghada Waly said the loss of thousands of lives each year to homicide is “a sombre reminder” of the collective failure of the international community to reduce all forms of violence by 2030, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“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,” she said.

The report revealed that during the period from 2019 to 2021, an average of roughly 440,000 deaths worldwide were due to homicide - more than conflict-related or terrorist killings combined. 

2021 ‘exceptionally lethal’ 

UNODC said 2021 “was an exceptionally lethal year”, marked by 458,000 homicides.  The spike was in part linked to economic repercussions from the COVID-19 pandemic and to a rise in organized crime and gang-related and socio-political violence in several countries.

Furthermore, despite a more than 95 per cent surge in conflict deaths between 2021 and 2022, available data shows that the global homicide burden in 2022 was twice that of conflict deaths.

Organized crime accounted for 22 per cent of homicides globally, and 50 per cent in the Americas, where competition among organized crime groups and gangs can spark a sudden and sharp rise in “intentional homicides”, as has happened in Ecuador and Haiti.

Homicide rates by region 

The Americas also lead the world in highest regional homicide rate per capita, with 15 per 100,000 population in 2021, or 154,000 people.

Africa had the highest absolute number of homicides at 176,000, or 12.7 per 100,000 population, “and available data suggests that the homicide rate is not falling, even as decreases have been registered in other regions,” the report said. 

Meanwhile rates in Asia, Europe and Oceania were far below the global per capita average of 5.8 per 100,000 population in 2021.

UNODC said the global homicide rate is projected to decrease to 4.7 in 2030, as evidenced by long-term trends. While this falls short of the SDG target of significantly reducing all forms of violence, it is still a promising trend, the agency said.

Weapons and victims

Firearms were used in most killings in the Americas in 2021, or roughly 75 per cent, whereas in Europe and Asia they were involved in 17 and 18 per cent of homicides, respectively. 

Men accounted for 81 per cent of homicide victims and 90 per cent of suspects, but women are more likely to be killed by family members or intimate partners.

“Although they represent 19 per cent of homicide victims in total, they account for 54 per cent of all killings in the home and 66 per cent of all victims of intimate partner killings,” UNODC said. 

Additionally, 15 per cent of homicide victims in 2021 were children, or 71,600 boys and girls. 

Aid workers under attack 

The data also showed that the deliberate killings of human rights defenders, environmental defenders, community leaders, journalists, and aid workers represented nine per cent 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,” the authors said. 

Ms. Waly expressed hope that the report will help inform policies and responses that will address the root causes of violence and save lives.  

UNODC expects that the effects of demographic, economic, technological, and climatic “megatrends” on homicide rates will likely vary per region.   

Projections through the year 2100 indicate that Africa will be the most vulnerable region due to its younger population, persisting inequality, and climate-related shocks and stresses, according to the report.