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The most -- and least -- peaceful countries in the world

The Hallgrimskirkja church stands tall in Reykjavik, Iceland, the most peaceful nation on Earth. Tania Fuentez / AP

In 2011, world peace improved for the first time in three years. Incidents of terrorism fell and the global economic downturn decreased violence by reducing the amount countries spent on military budgets. However, while many parts of the world improved, others got worse as the result of rising commodity costs, increased protests and internal conflicts.

Recently, The Institute for Economics and Peace released the sixth edition of their annual Global Peace Index. The report examines 158 third-world, developing and developed nations around the world based on 23 separate indicators that, combined, measure the relative level of internal and external conflict in a country.

According to the report, “peace is notoriously difficult to define,” but in its most basic form it is “harmony achieved by the absence of war or conflict.” According to the IEP, those countries that can avoid military or diplomatic conflict with other nations and maintain stability and safety within their own borders are peaceful.

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The 23 components that comprise the Global Peace Index, or GPI, are broken into two categories. Internal conflicts, which accounted for 60 percent of the total score, included measures of criminality, violent demonstrations and terrorism in each country, as well as the presence of violent internal political conflicts. According to chairman and founder of the IEP, Steve Killelae, “Internal indicators measure the internal peace of a nation. So to describe a perfect nation, there would be no crime, no one in jail, and no need for police. The most peaceful nation would have the least of all three.” The other category, external peace, included military capability, the importing and exporting of weapons, and diplomatic relations with bordering nations.

According to the report, the most peaceful nations in the world are primarily in Europe, including several Scandinavian countries. New Zealand, Japan and Canada are also among the most peaceful. The countries with the greatest levels of external and internal violence are primarily in Africa, Eastern Europe and the tumultuous Middle East.

Of the components that make up the index, some were much more likely to correspond with high levels of peace or the lack of peace than others. Countries with easy access to small arms were much more likely to be violent. The most violent countries in the world, including Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan, are all rated by the Economist Intelligence Unit as having the greatest access to small arms.

The level of political terror in a country is also a major indicator for overall violence there, according to the report. Of the countries with the highest GPI score, all have among the highest levels of politically sponsored oppression, which comes in the form of imprisoning and murdering dissidents. The worst in this category include countries like the Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and North Korea, all of which are scored as the least peaceful in the world. The countries with the highest peace ratings, including New Zealand and Canada, all have the lowest possible levels of political terrorism.

The IEP also considers several socioeconomic factors that are not themselves part of the rank, but that they measured as possible drivers of violence and peace. The data suggeststhat while a country’s GDP, adult literacy and unemployment do not appear to have a strong impact on peace, others appear to be directly related. The presence of civil liberties and freedom of the press have much closer relationships to peace, according to the report.

The clearest among these are political factors such as corruption. According Killelae, the relationship between corruption and the lack of peace is profound: Slight increases in corruption do not appear to affect slight increases in peace, but he says that once a tipping point is reached peace “just disappears.” While the IEP is not exactly sure why corruption is such a powerful indicator, Killelae suggests that it is near perfect measure of “just how well functioning the level of government is.”

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According Transparency International’s measure, which IEP also considered, all but one of the most peaceful countries in the report has very low levels of corruption. Most of the least peaceful countries, including Somalia, Sudan and North Korea, have among the highest levels of corruption.

The Institute for Economics and Peace compiled more than 50 separate sets of data from a variety of sources, including the Economist Intelligence Unit, the World Bank, UNESCO, the World Economic Forum and Transparency International to measure aspects of peace. Using IEP’s original sources, 24/7 Wall St. reproduced data for the factors the report determined to have the strongest correlations nationally to the 23 measures of peace. Most of the measures, including the political terror scale, access to small arms, relations with neighboring countries, and likelihood of violent demonstrations, are on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 representing the least peaceful and 1 the most peaceful.

The most peaceful countries 

1) Iceland

  • GPI: 1.113
  • Political terror scale: 1
  • Access to small arms: 1
  • Relations with neighboring countries: 1
  • Likelihood of violent demonstrations: 1

Iceland, a country with only about 320,000 residents, takes the top honors for the most peaceful country for the second year in a row. The small country recorded the best possible score on all but four of the criteria that determine levels of peace, including the best scores on the homicide rate, imports of major conventional weapons and the likelihood of violent demonstrations. Ironically, Iceland’s continued fiscal belt-tightening helped the country lower its score from last year. The Icelandic Defense Agency, which had a budget of $20 million in 2008, now has been disbanded, according to the IEP. The country has no standing army, and military expenses total just over 1 percent of GDP.

2) Denmark (tied for 2nd)

  • GPI: 1.239
  • Political terror scale: 1
  • Access to small arms: 1
  • Relations with neighboring countries: 1
  • Likelihood of violent demonstrations: 1

Denmark moved up two places this year, due in part to government budget cuts that decreased military spending, according to the IEP. The biggest strike Denmark has against its level of peace is the moderate sophistication and capabilities of its military. Denmark has the world’s smallest Gini coefficient -- 24.7 -- which means the country has a high level of income equality. With extremely low levels of violent crime and conflict, paired with political democracy and equality, the Danish enjoy a very high level of general peace. Denmark also has a notably high level of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

3) New Zealand (tied for 2nd)

  • GPI: 1.239
  •  Political terror scale: 1
  • Access to small arms: 1
  • Relations with neighboring countries: 1
  • Likelihood of violent demonstrations: 1

Every year since 2007, the IEP has ranked New Zealand as one of the world’s five most peaceful. This year, New Zealand tied with Denmark as the second-most peaceful of the 158 countries studied. A small proportion of its population in jail, limited military capacity and sophistication, and strong relations with Australia all help its score. New Zealand receives the best score possible on the Cignarelli and Richards (CIRI) Political Terror Scale. New Zealand also received the highest score in Amnesty International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, indicating there is little suspicion of corruption in the country.

Click here to read the rest of 24/7 Wall St.'s rankings of most peaceful countries

The least peaceful countries 

1) Somalia

  • GPI: 3.392
  • Political terror scale: 4.5
  • Access to small arms: 5
  • Relations with neighboring countries: 5
  • Likelihood of violent demonstrations: 5

The war-torn nation of Somalia has been dubbed “the world’s worst humanitarian disaster” by the UN. The country has “not had a nationally functioning state government since its descent into civil war in 1991,” according to the IEP. And there has been violent confrontation between Islamist rebel groups in an effort to gain power. The power struggle between the warlords, specifically the Hizbul Islam and Al-Shabaab, as well as the counterinsurgency by the Transitional Federal Government, have led to the death, displacement and human rights violations of millions of Somali citizens. Because of the constant warfare, an average of 3.25 percent of the population left the country each year between 2000 and 2005.

2) Afghanistan

  • GPI: 3.252
  • Political terror scale: 4.5
  • Access to small arms: 5
  • Relations with neighboring countries: 3
  • Likelihood of violent demonstrations: 4

In 2011, according to the United Nations, 3,021 Afghani civilians were killed as a Taliban-led insurgency has grown more active and violent. The high level of domestic conflict in Afghanistan has turned 3 million people into either refugees or internally displaced people. Ongoing domestic conflicts likely have done considerable damage to Afghanistan’s economy as well. At $506 per person per year, the country’s GDP per capita is lower than all but five of the 158 countries studied by the IEP. On June 14th, the 2,000th death in the U.S.’s Operation Enduring Freedom was recorded.

3) Sudan

  • GPI: 3.193
  • Political terror scale: 5
  • Access to small arms: 5
  • Relations with neighboring countries: 4
  • Likelihood of violent demonstrations: 4

According to the IEP, refugees and internally displaced persons accounted for 10.5 percent of the population of Sudan, worse than all countries except Afghanistan, Bhutan, Cyprus, Iraq and Somalia. The Sudanese government has been accused of assisting janjawid militants and several other groups in Darfur, while simultaneously combating the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement-North in the country’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile regions. Further violent disputes have arisen with the new nation of South Sudan over the Abeyi province. Additionally, the country was given the worst possible score by the IEP for ease of access to small arms and light weapons. In 2009, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir, alleging war crimes.

Click here to read the rest of 24/7 Wall St.'s ranking of least peaceful countries