Political Conflicts in 2019: Persistent continuation and surprising dynamics

Note: The graphs refered to in this post have been lost and can't be shown on the new blog website. We apologise for the inconvenience.

by Mayely Müller and Michael Hebeisen

Observing political conflicts and tracing their dynamics is a complex undertaking, which requires a multilayered approach and long-term engagement. The annually published Conflict Barometer is taking up this challenge. For 2019, 358 political conflicts were recorded. The following blog article presents these recent findings and discusses how the current COVID-19 pandemic could affect the global conflict landscape.

The annual Conflict Barometer, a report published by the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research (HIIK), is dedicated to the documentation of political conflicts worldwide. This entails the in-depth analysis of violent and non-violent conflicts in all world regions. By observing the dynamics of escalation, de-escalation, and resolution of conflicts on an annual basis, the Heidelberg approach makes conflict dynamics traceable and comparable in the long term. The continuous collection of data serves as a basis for the work and research of policymakers, NGOs, IOs, and scholars. HIIK focuses on the observation of conflicts rather than on root cause analyses. Moreover, it provides a global overview of certain dynamics, such as worldwide demonstrations in 2019.

HIIK’s methodological approach

The HIIK defines a political conflict as a perceived incompatibility of intentions between individuals and/or social groups. In the realm of this incompatibility, conflict actors communicate and act with regard to certain issues, which attain relevance for a society as a whole. National power, secession, ideology, among others, display examples of a conflict issue which is known as a conflict item. The ways of communication and actions which are used to pursue a certain conflict item by an actor are categorized as conflict measures. Such conflict measures have to lie outside established regulatory procedures and threaten core state functions or the international order. With these three elements – conflict actors, measures, and items – according to the definition of the Conflict Barometer a political conflict is constituted as such.

Apart from these elements, the HIIK assesses conflict intensities which are categorized in five intensity levels. The categories dispute and non-violent crisis are allocated to the non-violent level, while violent crisis, limited war, and war are attributed as violent (see graph 1).

Graph 1: The Concept of Conflict Intensity according to HIIK’s definition of political conflict.

The assessment of a conflict intensity is determined by the usage of five proxies, which entail the means and consequences of violent conflict measures. While conflict means represent weapons and personnel, consequences are analyzed through the number of casualties, displacements, and destructions. In order to generate the category of conflict intensity, data has to be collected in the course of the year. Conflict researchers of HIIK use a variety of sources such as newspapers, expert blogs, reports by IOs, and NGOs as well as regional data banks and news services. With the collection of data through timelines, the observation of non-violent conflicts is additionally enabled. For the Conflict Barometer, the gathered information on worldwide political conflicts is transformed in qualitative conflict descriptions which encompass the dynamics of a certain conflict throughout one year.

Graph 2: The global development of political conflicts worldwide in 2019.

Conflict dynamics of 2019

Out of the 358 political conflicts worldwide, 196 were fought on a violent level. In comparison to 2018, there was a slight decrease in both the number of wars and limited wars. In 2019, 15 conflicts were fought on a war level, which either took place in the Americas, the Middle East and Maghreb (MENA) or Sub-Saharan Africa. Of these, the drug trafficking conflict in Brazil, two intrastate conflicts in the DR Congo, as well as the conflict spurred by Islamist groups in the Sahel zone escalated to wars. In total, 23 limited wars were observed worldwide. The observation of four conflicts was ended either due to active settlement by the conflict parties or two-year-long inactivity, for instance, the long-year dispute of Greece and North Macedonia about the second’s official name was peacefully resolved. The next two sections provide a brief summary of the results of the Conflict Barometer by continent.

Africa, the Americas, the Middle East, and Maghreb

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the number of wars decreased from six to five. In many cases, the fighting dramatically affected the situation of civilians and led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands. For instance, in DR Congo, where partially unidentified militant groups attacked communities and repeatedly clashed with the military-backed by MONUSCO, 300,000 people were left displaced. In the Sahel zone, the trans-state conflict between various Islamist militant groups and national and regional counter forces escalated to war. This specifically contributed to a deterioration of the political stability in the area.

The Americas faced two wars in 2019, both being related to drug trafficking and resulting in a high number of casualties. In Brazil, military police killed 2,286 persons allegedly linked to criminal organizations and militias. Despite the announcement of the Mexican president to end the so-called “War on Drugs”, Mexico’s homicide rate hit a new high. Throughout the year, several Latin American countries were shaken by large anti-government demonstrations. The protests addressed various topics, such as austerity measures and accusations of corruption.

In the MENA region, HIIK monitored eight full-scale wars, in fact, the highest number of all world regions. One of the most prominent incidents was the killing of the Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by US Special Forces. The military advance of the Syrian army resulted in the decrease of violence between militant Islamist groups, while Turkey’s progress in Northern Syria and the occupation of large shares of Kurdish-dominated areas provoked clashes with Kurdish forces, predominately the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces.

No full-scale wars in Asia and Europe

For the second consecutive year, HIIK observed no conflicts on war level in Asia and Oceania while five limited wars were documented. A number of conflicts were related to government actions against religious minorities, most notably Muslims, such as in China, India, and Myanmar. In other cases, Islamists continued their insurgencies, for example, the militant groups Maute and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. The newly-escalated Papua conflict in Indonesia, ongoing tensions between Pakistan and India as well as violence in Rakhine State in Myanmar marked conflicts on the level of a limited war.

In Europe, no wars were recorded. Despite decreased international attention, the limited war in Ukraine’s Donbas remained on a constantly high violent level. Other conflicts continued as violent crises, such as the xenophobia conflicts in Germany and Sweden. For the fourth year in a row, HIIK monitored violent attacks by right-wing extremists against migrants, refugees, and religious minorities in both countries. However, almost 70 percent of the conflicts in Europe remained non-violent, making it the least violent world region.

The focus of global attention: opposition conflicts

Throughout the year, a number of socio-political conflicts gained international attention. Protests were triggered by unpopular legislative projects, such as the announced introduction of the taxation of WhatsApp messages in Lebanon, or Hong Kong’s Fugitive Offenders amendment bill. Other demonstrations focused on general system deficits, such as youth unemployment (Iraq) or the lack of democratic structures (Sudan). The demonstrators’ demands appeared as diverse as the participants. While in Ecuador and Lebanon large shares of the society mobilized, protesters in Hong Kong and Iraq were mainly composed of younger persons.

It was interesting to observe which disputes dominated international coverage. In the case of Bolivia, HIIK’s measured numbers of protesters and fatalities were significantly higher than for instance in Hong Kong, but gained way less attention by western media. In a ZDF interview, HIIK’s long-time member of staff Jason Franz explained this media bias with the socio-economic background of the protesters. In view of the high number of national protest movements, press coverage tends to focus on actors communicating in familiar patterns. The publication of political demands in English, regardless of the protesters’ respective national languages, and the use of social media networks like Twitter, reduce the effort for external observers to analyze and cover the demonstrations. This effect influences the actors, who usually intend to provoke international pressure on their respective governments, but also the public perception of global developments. The increased media coverage of protests in 2019 does not mean that this year faced an outstanding peak of social conflicts. In fact, the number of similar demonstrations is constantly rising since 2009 on a global scale as well as the learning process of grassroots organizations in regard to how to address successfully international journalists.

Outlook on the global conflict landscape 2020

The final consequences of the global COVID-19 pandemic on the conflict landscape are not yet predictable. Nevertheless, several 2020’s hot spots and systematic challenges can be identified which are already challenging the respective conflict actors and therefore should be observed closely. In Europe, the domestic policies in regard to COVID-19 limited the range of action of pro-secession activists. The Donbas also remains a hot spot. In March 2020 alone, almost as many ceasefire violations as in the whole prior year were recorded. In the MENA region, the coordinated military engagement of Turkey and Qatar on the side of the internationally recognized Libyan government draws considerable attention. The strengthening of this alliance, confronted with forces supported by Egypt, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, will also influence Turkey’s possibilities for action for other conflict countries. In South America, the global pandemic impacted drug wars, when the supplies of chemicals for drug manufacture from China came to a standstill. The economic consequences of COVID-19, and in addition, the decrease of the oil prices in Brazil and Venezuela, might limit the governments’ financial means to implement important social reforms and to avoid wide-ranging protests like the ones in 2019. In Asia, the restrictive policies of the governments of China, India, and Myanmar against Muslim minorities are overlaid by the dramatic effects of the global pandemic, but nevertheless continue on a worrying level. The fragility of governments may also open new frames of actions for political as well as religious motivated insurgencies, very notably al-Shabaab in Somalia and Islamist groups in the Sahel Zone. Moreover, the situation in South Sudan remains unstable, intercommunal violence has already resulted in the death of hundreds. Other, often under-documented, hot spots remain in Chad, Mali, and Niger.

The roots of these conflicts lie not in the global pandemic, but they will certainly be impacted by its social and political effects. HIIK’s Conflict Barometer 2020 will focus on these effects and interdependencies and compare them on a global scale.


About the HIIK

The HIIK, associated with the Institute of Political Science at Heidelberg University, is a registered non-profit association. Deriving from the research project on conflict simulation which has been financed by the German Research Foundation (DFG) at Heidelberg University, various young professionals and scholars contributed to the systematic documentation of conflicts and the methodological development since 1991. Today, around 200 conflict researchers work on the annual publication of the Conflict Barometer.

About the authors

Mayely Müller was a member of the board of directors of HIIK for two years. She was further engaged in conflict research as head of the working group for Asia and Oceania, focusing on political conflicts in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Maldives. Currently, she pursues a Master’s in Peace and Conflict Studies at Magdeburg University.

Michael Hebeisen was the co-editor in chief of HIIK’s annual Conflict Barometer in 2020. His previous fields of work as head of the working group covered political conflicts in North Africa / West Asia. He holds a Master’s degree in Political Science and Islamic Law from Heidelberg University and works currently as an analyst for political extremism online.