Mass Atrocity Endings Research

How do mass atrocities end?

The WPF program on mass atrocities, defined as widespread and systematic violence against civilians (2011 – 2021), primarily focused on studying patterns of endings. In this program, ‘endings’ includes analysis of patterns of de-escalation of direct, lethal violence and other forms of harming civilians, and the study of recurrence in the context of global trends. The focus was determined by two interests: first, the impact of organized violence on civilian populations, and second, concern that conventional narratives of ending atrocities through military intervention were inadvertently lowering the bar for military intervention by adding a human rights based argument to buttress militarism. 

The existing conventional meta-narrative for genocide and mass atrocity against civilians is empirically and analytically strong on the origins and nature of such extreme violence, but takes a strictly normative turn when considering the endings of genocide or mass atrocity. The ‘ideal’ ending, which tends to preoccupy advocates and policymakers, consists of an international military intervention leading to a settlement that includes not only an end to genocide but also the establishment of peace and democracy along with an exercise in transitional justice that may include trials, assistance to the survivors, memorialization, compensation and reparation. What debates do exist generally focus on the legality and politics of international interventions to halt genocide and measures to bring perpetrators to justice. This project explored the oft-neglected empirical study of how genocides and mass atrocities have actually terminated. The program concluded in 2021.

Key findings:

  • Endings fall into one of three typologies: as planned, defeat (primarily by domestic forces), or moderation within the perpetrator regime.
  • Since the mid-1980s, increasingly endings occur by moderation, whereas previously regimes pursued killing as planned.
  • Endings are determined by national political agendas, not international policy or interventions—although these can impact the dynamics of ending.
  • In the post Cold War era, atrocity endings are more varied than previous periods.
  • Openings to de-escalate violence can only be consolidated and maintained in places where a state has sufficient capacity (Iraq provides a counter-example).
  • Ending atrocities is not synonymous and can be at odds with advancing democracy.


Sponsored research (2011 – 2016):

How Mass Atrocities End: Studies from Guatemala, Burundi, Indonesia, Sudan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Iraq (Cambridge University Press, 2016), ed. Bridget Conley. 

Additional outputs from WPF-sponsored case study research include:

  • Claire Q. Smith and Tom Jarvis, “Ending Mass Atrocities: An Empirical Reinterpretation of ‘Successful’ International Military Intervention in East Timor” (Journal of International Peacekeeping,
  • Roddy Brett,The Origins and Dynamics of Genocide: political violence in Guatemala. Palgrave Macmillan. 2016.
  • Fanar Haddad, ‘Competing Victimhoods in a Sectarian Landscape,’ Jadaliyya, Nov 1, 2016; ‘”Shia Forces”; “Iraqi Army” and the Perils of Sect-Coding,’ Jadaliyya, Sept 8, 2016; ‘Shi’a-Centric State-Building and Sunni Rejection in Post-2003 Iraq,’ Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Jan 2016.

Database of Atrocity Endings (2017 – 2021)

WPF Policy Briefings, Papers & Interview (2013- 2016)

Research Team

Roddy Brett

Bridget Conley headshot
Bridget Conley
Alex de Waal
Fanar Haddad

Claire Q. Smith
Noel Twagiramungu