By: Dana Wagner on
Stephen Harper, Prime Minister and Conservative MP for Calgary Southwest, on January 30, 2015
Stephen Harper said the world is getting increasingly unsafe. Not statistically when it comes to violent deaths. The world is safer today compared to previous decades.FactsCan Score: False
On the day the government introduced its anti-terrorism bill in the House of Commons, Stephen Harper spoke with reporters at an event in Richmond Hill. He said “we are in a world that is becoming increasingly unsafe, and increasingly unsafe even for free, tolerant, democratic countries like ours.”
There are two claims here: safety in the world, and safety in democratic countries. This check is about safety in the world and we’ll analyze the second part in a separate, later check.
Whether or not worldwide safety is changing can be verified using data on the incidence of violence in various forms over time. Namely battle-related deaths, terrorism-related deaths, and homicides.
Harper made the claim while speaking about preventing terrorism attacks. But we chose not to limit this check to terrorism because it’s not the only relevant threat in an assessment of worldwide safety. It’s also worth noting that the Prime Minister has conflated the two before. After the Parliament Hill attack in October 2014, he said “much of our world has become a darker place … and certainly it has become more dangerous.” At the Richmond Hill event, he said “violent jihadism is not just a danger somewhere else … it is an act of war.”
So is the world becoming increasingly unsafe? Several independent researchers answer no, it is not.
From Sweden’s Uppsala University, we have datasets on total armed conflicts and larger-scale wars. In 2013, there were 33 armed conflicts, up by one from 2012. Over the past ten years, the number of armed conflicts stayed relatively stable, moving between 31 and 37 – a drop of almost 40 per cent since the early 1990s. Wars, defined as conflicts with over 1,000 battle-related deaths, have dropped even more: by 50 per cent. There were 15 wars in the early 1990s, and seven in 2013.
Uppsala also collects battle-related death counts, and this number is more variable. A high-intensity conflict like in Syria drives the number up. There was no figure released for 2013 due to unreliable data, but in 2012, there were just under 38,000 battle-related deaths. The last time the worldwide total hit a similar level was at the end of the Ethiopia-Eritrea war in 1999-2001. However, two out of every five battle deaths in 2012 (some 14,700) were in Syria.
Using different data, Monty G. Marshall and Benjamin R. Cole at the Center for Systemic Peace arrived at a similar conclusion. There is an overall decline in worldwide conflict. In a 2014 report, they described a “dramatic decrease in the general magnitude of armed conflict in the global system since the early 1990s.”
What else did Marshall and Cole report? Overall deaths from political violence are in decline. Democracies are increasing in number, while autocracies are falling. State fragility decreased by almost 24 per cent in 2013 over 1995.
Paul Robinson, an international affairs professor at the University of Ottawa, recently wrote about the claim that the world is getting more dangerous. He refuted it, referencing Center for Systemic Peace and other data. Robinson wrote, “today’s international security environment is by all historical standards extraordinarily benign.”
Marshall and Cole also tallied terrorist attacks, specifically bombings that result in high casualties. About this type of attack, they wrote “the evidence shows that it has remained an extreme and relatively rare event, outside the centers of organized extremism in Syria-Iraq and Nigeria.”
But another source, the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) from the Institute for Economics and Peace, shows that terrorist attacks and deaths from them are rising. The 2013 figure of nearly 18,000 deaths is an increase of five times the 2000 figure. Again, the number gets inflated by a handful of countries. Eighty-two per cent of these deaths happened in five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria. Still, in the rest of the world, attacks have risen over the past decade. There was a 54-per-cent increase in terrorism incidents in 2013 over the previous year. To put the number of deaths from these attacks in context, however, the report noted “although terrorism is on the increase and a major concern compared to other forms of violence, it is relatively small when compared to the 437,000 people killed by homicides in 2012, this being 40 times greater.”
Homicides and other violence
As a greater threat to human life, homicide numbers matter to this check. According to a 2014 UN Office on Drugs and Crime report, nearly three billion people “live in an expanding group of countries with relatively low homicide rates, many of which, particularly in Europe and Oceania, have continued to experience a decrease in their homicide rates since 1990.”
In 2011, psychologist Steven Pinker published a widely-cited study in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which looked at multiple forms of violence including the non-political and non-lethal. He argued the world has witnessed a downward trend in homicides, warfare, torture, rape, and other inhumane acts like slavery.
The Human Security Report Project based at Simon Fraser University publishes an annual report on global violence. The latest report for 2013 addressed critiques of Pinker’s work and still agreed, “there are now compelling reasons for believing that the historical decline in violence is both real and remarkably large.”
As with any aggregate figures for the world, there are extreme variances by country. There are areas of intense danger with high battle-related deaths, frequent terrorist attacks, and a high homicide rate. In some countries, the trend is reverse of the global trend, and the security situation is getting worse over time. However, it remains false to say that the world at large is becoming increasingly unsafe. And even if one type of danger is getting worse, like a rise in the number of terrorist attacks, scale matters. The increased danger from one form of violence with a relatively small-scale toll does not automatically offset the gains in safety in other areas.
Using different datasets primarily on numbers and causes of violent death, a number of researchers agree the world is not getting more dangerous.
Editor’s note: Missing from our analysis is a look at what didn’t happen. The terrorism plots that were foiled, for example, or the cases of conspiracy to commit murder. We didn’t go there to avoid counterfactual thinking, and because what didn’t happen might simply have a neutral impact on safety (the threat adds to overall danger, but the effective policing adds to overall safety).