Setting the Agenda for Evidence-Based Research on Ending Mass Atrocities

WPF staff Bridget Conley-Zilkic and Alex de Waal have published a new essay on ending mass atrocities in the Journal of Genocide Research (2014, 16:1, 55-76). Some excerpts are below and the full essay may be found here.

The field of genocide and mass atrocities studies has produced significant contributions to knowledge of where, when and why campaigns of large-scale, one-sided violence occur, but offers relatively few explicit examinations of the political, social and military dynamics of the de-escalation of violence. This simple question remains unexplored: how do mass atrocities end?

Answering this question will require study of the dynamics of endings in multiple cases and will not likely produce a single theory of termination. This article serves a more modest role; it sketches out the starting point for an evidence-based study of endings. It begins with a brief overview of why both ‘mass atrocities’ and ‘endings’ need to be problematized and explores how various theories of genocide and civil war might inform a study of atrocity endings. The second half draws on short case studies to introduce three broad scenarios for endings. (1) Perpetrators change their policies because of outside influence, rise of moderates or resistance. (2) Perpetrators carry their plans to fruition; leaders decrease use of lethal violence in order to normalize conditions for a range of reasons. (3) The most rare ending is that perpetrators are defeated by interested parties or so-called humanitarian interventions.


Among the assumptions grandfathered from Holocaust studies into genocide studies, and reified by the 1948 UN Genocide Convention’s definition of the term, is that assaults against civilian groups should be qualitatively grouped, that is, selected based on assessment of the perpetrators’ intent to destroy. This is problematic for the study of endings for three primary reasons. First, it assumes a coherency among key actors involved in policies that produce atrocities that rarely adheres to actual cases. Rather than coherency, at any one moment there is often dissension within the group of decision-making elites, and over time individual leaders often change their views and policies. Second is an under- lying assumption that halting violence will have to be undertaken from outside. Furthermore, there is an inherent bias in favour of this external force taking the form of military intervention. Finally, casting violence in terms of moral absolutes confers upon those who would intervene a saviour status that pre-empts critical analysis of what interventions achieve and the effects they produce.

Recent shifts away from using the term ‘genocide’ in policy matters have not rectified these concerns. In fact, they have tended to deploy less specific definitions of the phenomena at hand while attempting to retain the moral absolutes addressed above. The Genocide Prevention Task Force (GPTF)4 draws attention to this when it argues that the definitional dilemma is ‘how to harness the power of the word [genocide] to motivate and mobilize while not allowing debates about its definition or application to constrain or distract policymakers from addressing the core problems it describes’.

Similarly, the concept of a ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P), including articulation of the conditions under which the international community might militarily intervene to protect populations, was conceptualized in relation to a small handful of cases that witnessed fairly high levels of casualties: Kosovo at 10,000 deaths, Bosnia and Herzegovina at 100,0006 and Rwanda at 500,000. Diplomats, politicians and advocates called upon the R2P framework in Libya after 1,000 civilians had died,7 and yet remain hamstrung in Syria when the numbers are significantly higher. Dramatic and highly publicized calls for a military solution have also characterized public engagement and policy towards the LRA, which, according to the Invisible Children’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) Crisis Tracker,8 has allegedly been responsible for the deaths of 2,310 civilians and 4,551 abductees between 2009 and October 2013. Compare this to the 5,137 civilian deaths in Iraq in 20099 alone (a relatively calm year), which did not spark any illusions that the US military could parachute in to resolve the problem. In short, the new vocabularies developed for situations of extreme peril to civilian groups are not measured with anything that might resemble coherent criteria.


For the individuals and societies that experience mass atrocities, endings are elusive. There are many reasons why it might be better to describe the aftermath of violence in terms of legacies and reverberations. These include matters such as the physical and mental health of survivors, their political, social and economic marginalization, protracted legal proceedings that promise closure but rarely deliver it, and the impacts of large-scale demographic changes. There are also enduring intergenerational impacts of violence, and later political deployments of history and quasi-historical narratives. The reality of these complications, the approaches to the challenges they present and the timeline for change are different from the endings we have examined.

Nonetheless, study of the ending of killing campaigns is important. Above all else, we must recognize that these campaigns do end and better understand why. How we engage the ending of specific campaigns should also be related to our ability to grasp broader trends whereby violence, including asymmetrical violence, is declining. Birger Heldt, using Barbara Harff’s data on genocide and politicide, has noted a ninety per cent decrease in the incidence of such violence since 1991.73 We may be living, as Steven Pinker argues, in the ‘most peaceable era of our species’ existence’.74 Today, international and civil armed conflicts are less frequent and less deadly than perhaps ever before in history.75 The radical extremes of genocide and mass killing that target tens of thousands, if not more, have always been rare and are becoming increasingly so.

This is not to advocate for complacency, given the enormous potential for violence as witnessed in the rarest cases. Violent episodes may indeed follow a power law, in which scale correlates with rarity. The most extreme events, however uncommon they may be, cannot be ruled out. Also, the very rarity of mass atrocities makes them all the more reprehensible: we now know that they need not occur. However, these considerations mean that anyone interested in civilian protection needs not only to focus on paradigmatic extreme cases, but also to develop ways of thinking about and responding to the challenges of more common forms of violence.

Through a study of endings, we may also improve our understanding of violence per se. Escaping the linear model that bad people escalate violence because they are evil and that ‘we’ need to stop them, we may uncover new insights into how, where and why violence occurs. Understanding endings will allow us to promote them more effectively, and avoid the perils of a public policy that ignores important facets of the phenomenon in question. Public policy made on the basis of faulty evidence and analysis, combined with moral panic, is almost sure to be bad policy and to have unintended outcomes that out- weigh the intended ones. Finally, the increasingly apparent limits and failures of the normative, interventionist ending means we need to become a lot smarter in how to deal with the problem of large-scale killing.

This article does not provide a systematic evidence-based research agenda on ending mass atrocities; it is a preliminary inquiry into the challenges of such a study. Necessary to carry this agenda forward is a much greater diversity of cases than those generally associated with genocide. These cases, however, need to adhere to a consistent definition and measurement criteria that are, as much as possible, not dominated by normative criteria. Endings must be likewise disaggregated, defined and given structure.

A sense of urgency and responsibility towards entire populations at risk of violence is no excuse for lack of rigour in studying how to end such threats and applying these insights to policy. Setting an agenda for an evidence-based study of ending mass atrocities is foremost a call to refuse to relinquish critical analysis in the name of emergency, and to marry action with rigorous research.

Complete journal article is available through the Journal of Genocide Research.

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