1. Overview and a word of caution
2. Fatal interpersonal violence, i.e. homicide
2.1. Murder rates, international comparisons
2.2. Murder rates, evolution
2.3. Murder rates, U.K.
2.4. Murder rates, U.S.
2.5. Murder rates, Mexico
3. Honor killing
4. Non-fatal interpersonal violence
4.3. Domestic violence
5. Self-inflicted violence; suicide
6. Collective violence
7. Terrorist violence
8. Judicial violence, i.e. torture and the death penalty
9. The worst atrocities in history
10. Gender based violence
Worldwide, more than a million people lose their lives to violence each year. Half of those are suicides, 1/3 are homicides and one-tenth are casualties of armed conflict (see also the World Report on Violence and Health, World Health Organization). Another tenth are unintentional homicides. Homicides and war are prima facie rights violations. (Statistics on armed conflict are here and not included in the data below. It’s perhaps surprising to note that 90% of violent deaths occur outside of armed conflicts).
Violence is among the leading causes of death for people aged 15–44 years worldwide, accounting for 14% of deaths among males and 7% of deaths among females. And lethal violence is only one of many types of violence.
In the more detailed data below, you’ll see that levels of violence are decreasing as time goes by, at least for most types of violence. However, I have to stress the uncertainty in many of these numbers, especially the numbers about premodern times. If you see how difficult it is to establish more or less correct and uncontroversial data on rape or on the casualty rate in the Iraq war for instance, you can imagine the error margin for periods without crime reporting, surveys, Wikileaks, satellite images, peer review, official documents, the internet etc.
Still, even if we assume a large margin of error, the trend is still downwards for many indicators of violence, and this is particularly the case for more recent periods for which the sources are presumably better. And yet, if we try to understand the causes of this downward trend, those may not be the ones we wish for. Instead of progress of humanity, modernity, democratic peace theory etc. one cause may be simply Mutually Assured Destruction. Hence, downturns may be temporary and can be suddenly reversed by other effects of the same causes (in this example, nuclear holocaust).
Notwithstanding these concerns, I do think that there are also more beneficial causes of decreasing violence, such as scientific rationality (allowing us to abstract from particulars and take a more general view, and hence also a view taken by others), the democratic peace theory (there are now more democracies than ever before, and the data suggest that democracies don’t fight each other), or the “widening circle of empathy”:
- people’s of the third world are no longer considered to be objects of exploitation or violent reform;
- many countries now have strong protection mechanisms for minorities;
- and economic globalization has delivered not only the realization that violence has now a higher economic cost than ever before, but has also widened and deepened understanding and affinity among nations.
Another remark: if there really is a robust and longterm downward trend in violence caused by strong and non-counterproductive causes (hence excluding things like M.A.D.), then one may be tempted to conclude that humanity as a whole is progressing. And this temptation should be resisted. There is no such thing a “human progress” in my view. History is not a whole, moving ineluctably through various stages of progress towards a certain ideal end state (perhaps with the occasional but temporary backward lapse). Humanity gets better at some things, some of the time, but then loses it, or it gets worse at other things at the same time. Ironically, the view that history is a whole progressing towards a better state has been the cause of the one of the great tragedies of the 20th century, namely communism (it’s estimated that communism has been responsible for 67 million deaths). I should also mention that one area of human progress, namely scientific progress, contributed significantly to other modern catastrophes, namely Hiroshima, M.A.D. and the Holocaust (which was in essence the first scientific and industrial genocide).
Here’s an example of data that will be discussed in more detail below:
An estimated 520.000 people were killed in 2000 as a result of interpersonal violence worldwide – a rate of 8,8 per 100.000 population, more than twice the number of people worldwide who died in wars (source). In 2008, about 300.000 died of interpersonal violence. Central America has an average rate of 29 victims per 100,000 people. El Salvador has 62 homicides per 100,000 people and is one of the most violent countries that are not at war. The murder rate in Honduras is 82/100,000, one of the worst in the world. Central America is followed by Southern Africa (27) and the Caribbean (22); in comparison, the homicide rate in the United States is around 5.
Black Brazilians are twice as likely as whites to die a violent death, and are only one-third as likely to go to university. At the other end of the spectrum: only 0.3 out of every 100.000 Japanese get themselves killed every year; in Germany, the number is 0.9; in Sweden 1; in France 1.1; in the U.K. 1.2. The U.S., although not the most murderous country in the world, is an outlier among the most wealthy countries.
Here’s a world map with the number of murders or homicides per 100.000 inhabitants during the last years:
(source, click on the image to enlarge)
And here are the same data for some selected countries:
Presented in a more interesting manner:
(source, click on the image to enlarge)
And this is the evolution over time for selected countries:
Homicide rates in Europe dropped from about 32 per 100,000 people in the Middle Ages down to 1.4 per 100,000 in the 20th century.
This is how the homicide rate in the U.K. evolved during the last decades:
(source, click image to enlarge)
The U.S. murder rate has fallen to levels not seen since the early 1960s. At just 4.7 homicides per 100,000 people, it’s less than one-half the 1993 level.
There’s a cyclical pattern to the US murder rate:
But the very longterm trend is downward:
And by gender of the perpetrator:
By gender – and race – of the victim:
The trend is downward during these last decades, but all in all we’re still talking about almost 20.000 murders a year in the U.S. Americans still kill one another at a much higher rate than do residents of comparable western European nations. This gap persists despite a roughly 40 percent drop in the US homicide rate in the last 15 years or so. Americans have been notably more violent than western Europeans since about the mid- or late 19th century. Americans are 4 times more likely to get murdered than Brits, 6 times more likely than Germans, and 13 times more likely than the Japanese. Maybe the US gun culture has something to do with this: guns are used in two-thirds of all murders in the US. In the UK that’s only one in then. There were over 11.000 gun murders in the US in 2010 (that’s 3.7 victims per 100.000 population vs. 0.04 in the UK) and over 55.000 non-fatal gun injuries.
Here are some telling data about gun ownership and murder rates:
There’s a strange cyclical patterns in the U.S. murder rate over the long run (see the graphs above). Some possible explanations: demobilization after wars (with trained, traumatized and possibly armed ex-fighters roaming the land), prohibition and resulting gang violence, economic crises etc. (More data on crime in the US are here).
Of particular concern in the U.S. is the phenomenon of mass shootings, a possible consequence of lax gun laws:
Mexico is in the news lately because of high numbers of homicides related to the drugs trade. The current number of 19 murders per 100.000 population is indeed relatively high (that’s more than 20.000 murders a year). Some Mexican states even have number higher than 60. Here’s a map that matches the murder rates in Mexico’s states to the murder rates in various countries:
One particularly gruesome form of murder is honor killing.
- The UN estimates that around 5,000 women and girls are murdered each year in so-called “honor killings” by members of their families
- “Honor” killings are widely reported in regions throughout the Middle East and South Asia, but these crimes against women occur in countries as varied as Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, Uganda, United Kingdom, and the United States.
- Like other forms of violence against women, “honor” violence against women may be considered a form of torture, whether enacted by the state or by an individual.
- While “honor” crime is committed predominantly against women and girls, “honor” crime is also on the rise against LGBT people, particularly gay men
- In many countries, the punishment for “honor” crimes are inadequate or non-existent—laws either do not recognize “honor” crime or have insufficient sentencing for such crime. And in countries where laws have been passed to curb “honor” crime (for example, in Jordan), such laws often go un-enforced.
- According to the Iranian and Kurdish Rights Organization, “Honor Killings are on the rise”, especially in Europe and the US. (source)
For every person who dies as a result of violence, many more are injured and suffer other harms (psychological, financial etc.).
Here’s a general dataset about nonfatal violent crime in the US:
One example of (mostly) non-fatal interpersonal violence is rape. The following graph shows the number of attempted and completed cases of rape in the U.S.:
A slightly different presentation:
A different dataset, not based on surveys but on actual crime reporting (which is a method that under-counts compared with population surveys that ask people whether they have been the victim of a crime, regardless of whether it was reported to police):
According to the European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics, for 32 countries in 2007, the median rate was just 5 per 100,000.
In some countries, 1 in 4 men admit to rape:
Here are some data on domestic violence in the U.S.:
(source, click image to enlarge)
(source, click image to enlarge)
Globally, an estimated 815.000 people killed themselves in 2000 (source), and about 780.000 in 2008. That’s more than the combined number of victims of war, interpersonal violence and terrorism. About 10 out of every 100,000 Americans commit suicide. Suicides outnumber homicides in the United States by 3:1. In 2010 there were 38,364 suicides and 12,996 homicides (source). Over 1 million adult Americans (0.5% of the total) say they attempted suicide in the past year. The trend is rising:
It may sound strange, but suicide is more common than homicide in the U.S. (one of the more violent countries):
Assisted suicide is permitted in seven countries and states and is now being debated in New Zealand, Quebec, Australia and Britain. In Switzerland, where it has been permitted since 1942, it accounts for around 300 deaths each year. Most of the jurisdictions that allow assisted suicide make it available only for the terminally ill. Only Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands allows others—those in great psychological pain, for instance, or with “locked-in” syndrome—to take advantage of its rules (source).
This includes armed conflicts within or between states, and state-perpetrated violence such as genocide, torture, repression, some kinds of famine and poverty, and other gross violations of human rights.
Since the beginning of recorded history, around 3600 BC, over 14.500 major wars have killed close to four billion people.
During the 20th century, one of the most violent periods in human history, an estimated 191 million people lost their lives directly or indirectly as a result of armed conflict, and well over half of them were civilians. In 2000, about 310 000 people died as a direct result of conflict-related injuries – the majority of them in the poorer parts of the world. (source)
In 2008, an estimated 64.000 were killed as a result of armed conflict. Only about 10% of all violent deaths occur during armed conflicts.
More data on violent conflict are here.
It’s estimated that around 170 million people were killed in the world’s many genocides.
Some more detail about the Nazi holocaust:
The Crusades went on for more than a century and resulted in the killing of a million people, equivalent as a proportion of the world’s population at the time to the Nazi holocaust. The Inquisition killed 10,000 people over six centuries. Christians killed between 60,000 and 100,000 accused witches in the European witch-hunts that lasted for over 3 centuries. Perhaps twenty million were killed (not counting unintentional epidemics) by the European settlement of the Americas.
Lynching cost the lives of approximately 3.500 African Americans:
(source; the legend is not very clear but the main message is; what is a lynching according to this map? “There must be legal evidence that a person was killed. That person must have met death illegally. A group of three or more persons must have participated in the killing. The group must have acted under the pretext of service to justice, race or tradition.”)
One could argue that stoning is a form of lynching:
More about stoning here.
More data on terrorist attacks are here. Regarding the number of US citizens killed by terrorism:
There were just 25 U.S. noncombatant fatalities from terrorism worldwide [in 2009]. (The US government definition of terrorism excludes attacks on U.S. military personnel). While we don’t have the figures at hand, undoubtedly more American citizens died overseas from traffic accidents or intestinal illnesses than from terrorism. (source)
Makes you wonder whether the war on terror and the massive rights violations that it produces are the right price to pay, doesn’t it?
More statistics on terrorism are here.
And although the U.S. is the only Western country still applying the death penalty, at least it stopped applying it for crimes other than murder:
[I]n the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries, the death penalty was prescribed and used for theft, sodomy, bestiality, adultery, witchcraft, concealing birth, slave revolt, counterfeiting, and horse theft. We have statistics for capital punishment in the United States since colonial times. … [I]n the 17th century a majority of executions were for crimes other than homicide. In current times, the only crime that is punished by capital punishment other than homicide is conspiracy to commit homicide. … In 18th century England there were 222 capital offenses on the books, including poaching, counterfeiting, robbing a rabbit warren, being in the company of gypsies, and “strong evidence of malice in a child seven to 14 years of age.” By 1861 the number of capital crimes was down to four. (source)
And not only the number of crimes for which the death penalty could be imposed has been reduced; also the number of cases for the remaining crime of murder has gone down:
In Europe, the practice has almost vanished:
More statistics on capital punishment here.
Here an overview and ranking of the worst atrocities in history (note: I deleted deaths from civil and international war from this chart and, as a result, the ranking numbers show gaps; the deleted parts can be found here):