The Costs of Violent Conflict

Posted on Wednesday, 26 April 2023
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Some 32 armed conflicts were reported in 2021, a slight decrease on the 34 reported in each of the years 2018 to 2020. The main change is because the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh was no longer considered an armed conflict (Escola de Cultura de Pau, 2022). The vast majority of armed conflicts took place in Africa (15) and Asia (9), followed by the Middle East (5) and Europe (2) (ibid). The impact of these conflicts continue to be felt by civilians, and the first nine months of 2022 were marked by a “sustained high number of grave violations against children”, including the recruitment and use of children in armed conflicts, killing, maiming, and abduction (UN, 2023).


The impact of armed conflict on civilians is not just felt in direct violence, according to the Report of the UN Secretary-General on Protection of civilians in armed conflict:

"In 2021, armed conflict in several countries intersected with intercommunal violence, violent protests, organized crime or other forms of violence, raising concerns about human rights violations and abuses, compounding suffering, and obscuring distinctions between armed conflict and other situations of violence. In some countries facing conflict, unconstitutional changes in government led to additional violence. The climate crisis also exacerbated conflict-related vulnerabilities such as food insecurity, fuelling violence and escalating humanitarian crises." 

(UN, 2022, p. 1)

The “other types of violence” includes death (a reported 11,075 civilian deaths across 12 armed conflicts), injury and psychological trauma, sexual violence, torture, family separation and disappearance. It includes damage to critical infrastructure, disruption to vital water, sanitation, electricity and health services, which exacerbates deprivation, hunger and displacement. Misinformation, disinformation and hate speech adds to further conflict, while sanctions on humanitarian efforts impedes their effectiveness (Ibid).

These conflicts have a devastating effect on the lives of civilians, on structures of governance and democracy, and on the environment.

Figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) (2022) suggest that world military expenditure was estimated at $2,113 billion in 2021, 0.7 per cent higher than the previous year. Military expenditure in East Asia increased the most of all regions, by 4.9 per cent compared to 2020 (to €411 million). North America continues to spend the most in real terms, at €827 million, however this represents a decrease of 1.2 per cent on 2020. In Central and Western Europe spending was up by 3.1 per cent on 2020 to €342 million. Spending also increased in Sub-Saharan Africa (4.1 per cent), Oceana (3.5 per cent) and Eastern Europe (2.3 per cent). The Middle East had the highest percentage decrease in military spending in 2020 (-3.3 per cent), followed by Central America (-2.5 per cent) and South East Asia (-2.3 per cent).

According to the SPIRI Report, the volume of international transfers of major arms in the five-year period 2017–21 was 4.6 per cent lower than in 2012–16 and 3.9 per cent higher than in 2007–11. The volume of transfers in 2017–21 was among the highest since the end of the cold war, but was still around 35 per cent lower than the totals for 1977–81 and 1982–86, when arms transfers peaked. The biggest importers of arms in 2017-21 were India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Australia, which together accounted for 33.1 per cent of total arms imports. The arms exporters during this period were the USA (which alone accounted for 39 per cent of exports), Russia (19 per cent), France (11 per cent), and China (4.6 per cent).

On a global basis the overwhelming majority of violent conflicts are intra-state conflicts, and their victims are mostly civilians. These conflicts are fought with small arms. The production and trade of these arms is the least transparent of all weapons systems. Ireland, as a neutral country, is in a unique position to research, challenge and advocate for tight controls in the production and distribution of weapons, rather than engaging in increasing militarisation.

In addition to the Ukrainian crisis, a number of Irish Aid’s partner countries’ neighbour nations are currently mired in conflict, such as Ethiopia (which shares a border with South Sudan and Somalia) and Uganda (which shares a border with Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan). Ireland should ensure its country offices and overseas programmes engage in mediation efforts where possible and promote positive reconciliation efforts amongst civil society groups.

Lessons learned from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT) Reconciliation Fund projects - fostering peace and community interaction within Northern Ireland, as well as between communities in Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland and Britain – would allow the DFAT to offer positive insights on reconciliation and cross-border co-operation in other settings.