ACLED Conflict Severity Index
A New Measure of the Complexities of Conflict
January 2023

Political violence occurred in almost every country in 2022, but it was not equally distributed.

To account for and compare conflicts, ACLED has developed a Conflict Severity Index. It has identified 46 countries and territories with severe levels of conflict.

In 2022, a total of more than 125,700 political violence events took place worldwide, leading to over 145,500 reported fatalities. More than 20% of the world's population - roughly 1.7 billion people - were exposed to political violence.

A range of countries account for the most violent conflicts by total event count, as well as the deadliest conflicts by total fatality count. While many conflicts lead to both high event and fatality totals, such as the war in Ukraine, this is not always the case. Among the top conflicts of 2022, Syria registered the second-highest number of violent events, but fewer fatalities than most other major conflicts.

The frequency of violent events is important, but can obscure how different forms of violence occur and affect countries. Conflict is experienced in various ways, and that is poorly accounted for in 'fragility' indices.

ACLED's new Index is designed to capture the complexity and severity of conflict. It uses four indicators of conflict within countries: deadliness, danger, diffusion, and fragmentation.

Countries can rank highly on one indicator or some combination of these metrics. Countries that rank highly on three to four indicators have the most severe, complex, and difficult conflicts to engage with and resolve.

Why is the 'deadliness' of
conflict important?

The fatality rate is an important indicator of the human cost of conflict. Though correlated with the number of events in a conflict, the fatality rate provides additional information about conflict intensity.

Why is 'danger' important?

Almost all armed, organized groups generate some level of direct harm against civilians. The rate at which they attack civilians can change over the course of a conflict, largely based on territorial control, how armed competition with other groups is proceeding, or how many other groups are active.

Why is 'diffusion' important?

Conflicts can be clustered or diffuse, and more or less dangerous due to the exposure of larger civilian populations to insecurity. Geographic variations present unique operational challenges for states, armed groups, and communities under threat.

Why is 'fragmentation' important?

The fragmentation of a conflict environment indicates the number of distinct threats and agendas that are accumulating in a given context and posing harm to communities and state institutions. It also indicates the number of distinct political motives and opportunities to form an armed group. A highly fragmented environment makes it more difficult to engage the necessary actors in effective negotiations and may indicate multiple overlapping conflicts that are more challenging to simultaneously resolve.

All countries are ranked on each indicator, but only those which are higher than the designated threshold are included in the list of 'severe' cases in each indicator category. This graphic notes the number of countries that are uniquely present on each indicator and each combination of indicators.

States are then aggregated by how many times they appear on multiple indicator lists. The Index finds that 46 countries and territories rank highly on at least one of four indicators. Using data from January to December 2022, the Index ranks the following countries and territories from extreme to limited severity, based on their placement in several distinct indicators.

Of the seven countries in the 'extreme' category, five experienced increasing levels of conflict severity in 2022 relative to 2018. While Syria and Yemen saw a decrease in conflict severity over this time period, these decreases were not enough to move out of the 'extreme severity' category. Conflict severity more than doubled in six countries and territories in 2022 compared to 2018 (Venezuela, Haiti, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Ukraine, and Puerto Rico).

The 46 countries on the Conflict Severity Index host a disproportionate level of conflict activity.

What is Happening in Countries with Severe Violence Levels?

Many countries in the highest severity categories share a number of characteristics:
  • They are home to multiple conflicts, often with little overlap.
  • Their conflicts involve many active groups, and these groups are fighting each other as frequently as they clash with state security forces.
  • Militias play a leading role in the violence.
  • Peace treaties and post-conflict arrangements have changed the nature of the violence, but have failed to fully resolve or reduce it.
  • They are middle-income, have relatively high rates of development, and have adopted some democratic features. The largest growth in conflict is occurring in middle-income, democratizing countries.

The involvement of militias and rebel groups in conflict events is increasing. In the 46 countries on the ACLED Conflict Severity Index, 23% of violent events involve a rebel or insurgent group; the remaining 77% of all conflict events involve other types of groups and violent interactions.

Conflicts can often involve many groups, and in some cases these groups are fighting each other as frequently as a country's security forces.

Overall, in many places around the world, political violence is shifting. It is increasingly looking more like the diffuse and fragmented conflicts in Mexico and Myanmar, and less like traditional civil wars or insurgencies, such as in Somalia, where a single insurgent group has extensive territorial control and authority.

Conflict patterns shifted significantly in the past 20 years, and in 2022 and into 2023, there is a proliferation of violence in middle-income countries with forms of democratic governments. Severe conflicts occur across the national income spectrum and are growing fastest in middle-income states, while continuing in low-income states.

Political power structures and authority shifts across the world have incentivized new forms of violence and reduced the likelihood of others: countries with 'partially free' systems according to Freedom House's classifications, which have elections, leader turnover and removal, inclusive representation and other features of democratic systems also experience a great deal of 'severe conflict.'

Shifts in economic circumstances and political systems alter violence rates, but rarely decrease them on their own.

Comparing severity scores from 2018 to 2022 demonstrates how conflicts evolve and change, instead of dissipate and disappear. It is difficult to 'develop out' of violence in the short to medium term.

Instead, it is imperative to acknowledge that political violence is taking on an increasing diversity of forms, and to identify the likely trajectories countries can take that lessen the risk of deadly, dangerous, diffuse, and fragmented types of conflict.