This article deals with intentional homicides which are defined as “an unlawful death deliberately inflicted on one person by another person”.1
Homicides refer to interpersonal violence. Civilian and military deaths during interstate wars, civil wars and genocides are not counted as homicides – but Our World in Data presents the evidence on deaths in the linked articles.
- More than 400,000 people die from homicide each year – in some countries it’s one of the leading causes.
- Less than 1% of global deaths are from homicide, but in some countries it’s as high as 10%.
- Homicide rates vary widely across the world – in the most violent countries, rates are more than 50 times higher.
- In many countries there has been a long-term decline in homicile rates
- Most victims of homicide are younger than 50 years old.
Interactive charts on Homicides
Homicide is a large killer globally – in some countries, it’s one of the leading causes of death.
The Global Burden of Disease is a major global study on the causes of death and disease published in the medical journal The Lancet.2 The study’s estimates of the annual number of deaths by cause are shown here. This chart is shown for the global total, but can be explored for any country or region using the “change country” toggle.
According to the Global Burden of Disease study, just over 415,000 people died from homicide in 2019. This was around three times the number killed in armed conflict and terrorism combined.
In some countries homicide is one of the largest killers. Homicide rates across some countries in Latin America are particularly high. In 2017, homicide was the third largest cause of death in Venezuela; fourth in Honduras; and fifth in Guatemala.
The scale of homicide is even more pronounced when we focus on deaths for younger adults. Across the total population homicides are a large cause of death, but are not one of the leading causes globally.
But homicides are a leading cause of death in younger adults. In the chart here we show causes of death – again sourced from the Global Burden of Disease study, published in the medical journal The Lancet – for adults aged 15 to 49 years old.3
We see that homicide ranks within the top ten causes of death globally. Using the “change country” toggle you can explore this data for countries and regions.
In Latin America homicides are the leading cause of death in 15 to 49 year olds. Twice as many young adults die from homicide as from road accidents. In Honduras, it’s four times as many.4
Globally, 0.7% deaths in 2019 were the result of homicide.
In the map shown here we see how this share of deaths varies across the world. There are very large differences between countries and regions.
Across most of Western Europe, for example, less than 0.1% of deaths were the result of homicide. Across much of Eastern Europe, North Africa, Asia and Oceania, it was less than 0.5%. In the United States it was 0.6%.
But in some countries the share is much higher. We see particularly high rates across some countries in Latin America. More than 7% of deaths in El Salvador were from homicide; more than 6% in Guatemala; and 5% in Venezuela.
Death rates give us an accurate comparison of differences in homicide between countries and over time. In contrast to the share of deaths that we studied before, death rates are not influenced by how other causes or risk factors for death are changing.
In this map we see homicide rates across the world. Death rates measure the number of deaths per 100,000 people in a given country or region.
What becomes clear is the large differences in death rates between countries: rates are high across Latin America – in particular, El Salvador, Venezuela, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico. Rates here are often greater than 30 deaths per 100,000 – in El Salvador this was over 45 per 100,000.
Compare this with death rates across Western Europe, Japan or the Middle East: homicides were below 1 per 100,000. That’s a 50-fold difference.
Homicide is therefore a problem that is very country-specific. In many countries in the world, homicide rates are very low. But for some, homicides can be a common occurrence.
How have homicide rates changed over the long run until today?
Understanding how homicide rates have changed prior to the modern era requires the help of historians and archivists. Manuel Eisner, a criminology professor at the University of Cambridge, and his colleagues published the Historical Violence Database: a compilation of data on long-term trends in homicide rates, in addition to qualitative information such as the cause of death, perpetrator, and victim. This database is limited to countries with relatively complete historical records on violence and crime – mainly Western Europe and the US.
Starting in the second half of the nineteenth century, some European regions have consistent police records of those accused of murder or manslaughter and annual counts of homicide victims. To go back further in time, reaching as far back as the thirteenth century, Eisner collected estimates (from historical records of coroner reports, court trials, and the police) of homicide rates made in over ninety publications by scholars.5
In the chart shown here, we see long-run homicide rates for five European regions.
Homicide rates – measured as the number of homicides per 100,000 individuals – up to 1990 are sourced from Eisner’s (2003) publication and the Historical Violence Database. These estimates have been combined, from 1990 onwards, with homicide rates from the Global Burden of Disease study.6
In the 1300s, homicide rates in Western Europe ranged from 23 to 56 homicides per 100,000 individuals, comparable to the current rates in Latin America. Homicide rates then fell dramatically in all five regions from the 1300s to 1800s. The magnitude of this decline was similar across countries: homicide rates fell between 78 and 98%.
Homicide rates in Europe today are much lower than in the past. England, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy reached their lowest levels in the 2000s; while the Netherlands, Belgium, and Scandinavia reached their minimum in the mid to late 1900s.
Have homicides increased or decreased in recent decades?
Homicide deaths by age
The visualization here shows the annual number of deaths from homicide, differentiated by age bracket.
This data can be viewed for any country using the “change country” option in the interactive chart.
Most victims globally are younger than 50 years old.
Homicide rates by age
According to UNICEF every 7 minutes somewhere in the world, an adolescent is killed by an act of violence. The map here shows homicide rates for children 0-19 years old, country by country.
As can be seen, there are huge regional differences. In 2015, the homicide rate in Latin America and the Caribbean was almost five times higher than the global average.
Origin and limitations of the available data on homicides
In the best cases, the data on homicides relies on vital statistics or criminal justice sources. This is often the case for more affluent countries.
But for some countries and some periods, such data is, unfortunately, lacking or incomplete and in these cases, the data providers rely on statistical modeling to produce estimates. These estimates of the homicide rates for a particular country or for particular age groups are produced by relying on available relevant measures – for example, the observed homicide data from similar countries or available data for a particular region within the country – and a statistical model.
To understand the serious limitations of the data for some countries it is advisable to refer to the publication by Kanis et al. (2017).7 The authors detail the limitations of cross-national homicide data and offer caution about their appropriate use.
The table – taken from Kanis et al. (2017)8 – gives an overview of the origin of the homicide data that the WHO published in 2014.
Comparisons of recent estimates
This chart compares the estimates of the homicide rate from two different data sources – the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s International Homicide Statistics on the horizontal axis and the IHME on the vertical axis.
It is possible to move the time slider and see how the discrepancy of estimates changed over time.
Data quality for long historical estimates
There are two very different sources for historical data on homicide rates depending on the era discussed. For the last few decades, statistical offices have recorded homicide rates as part of the vital statistics. Eisner (2003) notes that “in most European countries, data series start during the second half of the nineteenth century, although Swedish national death statistics were introduced in the middle of the eighteenth century”.
For earlier historical periods, researchers have reconstructed the long-term changes in homicide rates from historical records that often originated from some form of legal documentation of the crimes. Although there are gaps in the reconstructed data, and there are uncertainties in both the number of homicides and the size of the population, the historical record is more complete than one might assume. One reason for this is the great social importance of these crimes. Violent killings were of concern for a long time, and they were therefore often reliably registered. In some cases, or for prehistoric times, it is additionally possible to use the insights from forensic archaeologists, who can determine the causes of death from skeletal remains.