University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Ernesto Verdeja

This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by a world traumatized by the horrors of World War II. And yet, in spite of a long though uneven decline in armed conflict and political violence since then, governments and insurgents continue to terrorize and kill civilians, with massacres, forced deportations, torture and other atrocities committed across the globe. A continuing challenge for policymakers and human rights practitioners is to prevent, and where necessary, respond to mass atrocities. Aided by advances in scholarship, we now have a much better understanding of the primary causes and triggers of mass atrocities.

What are Mass Atrocities?

Policy analysts often use the term “mass atrocity crimes” to include the “big three” crimes under international law—genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes—as well as ethnic cleansing. The crimes are related, but differ in important ways.

Genocide refers to intentional group destruction—specifically, racial, ethnic, national or religious groups—in whole or in part, through a variety of methods ranging from direct killings to denying access to the means of collective survival (such as starvation, death marches and the like), as occurred in the Ottoman Empire, the Holocaust, and Rwanda, among other cases. Proving intentionality in real time is often difficult, though coordinated and destructive (rather than repressive) violence against all or most members of a group is normally sufficient indication of genocide.

Crimes against humanity include murder, extermination, enslavement, forcible population transfers, torture, rape and other forms of extreme sexual violence, persecutions on political, racial, religious or other collective identity grounds, enforced disappearances, and other “inhumane acts” that cause great suffering. These can be either systematic or widespread, emphasizing that crimes against humanity are large-scale, violent behavior, evident today, for instance, in Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, Karen and other minority groups.

War crimes involve serious violations of humanitarian law or the laws of war. These consist of murder (outside of regular warfare), starvation, the ill-treatment or forced removal of civilian populations, the destruction of population centers not justified by military necessity, the ill-treatment of prisoners of war, and the use of banned weapons (most sides in the Syrian civil war have committed war crimes). Ethnic cleansing, which entered into popular lexicon during the civil wars in Yugoslavia, refers to the forced removal of civilians through terror and killings; it is not formally codified into law, though the other crimes above cover it.

In essence, mass atrocity crimes constitute sustained, severe and widespread attacks against civilians, and this is how most policy analysts in government, the United Nations, and human rights organizations understand them in practice.

General Conditions, Triggers and Warnings

Researchers have identified a cluster of general enabling conditions for mass atrocities. The first is a history of unpunished violence against vulnerable groups. Where past violence has gone unpunished, perpetrators will enjoy continued impunity to use illegitimate force.

A second enabling condition is severe instability, such as through a coup or armed conflict. Instability can exacerbate fear and hatred of enemies, reinforce in-group solidarity, and incentivize the use of violence against “threats,” whether by states or insurgents.

An additional important factor is elite and popular support for radical ideologies, which undermines the ability of political discourse to facilitate compromise and integrate plurality. Radical ideologies can justify many practices, with consequences ranging from the limitation of civil rights to systematic harassment, widespread incarceration, occasional killings, forced displacement, and in their most extreme forms, massacres and even genocide.

Fourth, autocratic regimes are more likely than democracies to commit atrocities. Autocracies are typically accustomed to the use of violence, they have extensive security forces, and they are not restrained by the rule of law or democratic norms. Autocratic regimes that are unevenly democratizing or liberalizing are especially likely to commit atrocities, as internal power struggles may lead hardliners to use repression, including killings, to hold onto power.

Finally, the regional and international context matters a great deal. On occasion, external interventions can intensify and prolong conflict, as in the internationalized civil wars of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and more recently, Syria and Yemen.

These general conditions do not necessarily result in mass atrocities, but they do make them more likely. Under such circumstances, policy analysts look for signs that may indicate impending atrocities, such as increased hate media and discrimination against vulnerable groups; the deployment of security forces or militias in civilian areas; the suspension of the rule of law; the arrest or assassination of high-profile opponents or moderates; and rapid changes in the security condition (for example, a fluid or collapsing military frontline). Warning signs might also include upcoming and highly contested elections (a major concern in the DRC), divisive national holidays or commemorations, or spillover of conflict from neighboring countries (an issue in Africa’s Lake Chad region, for example).

Knowing the causes of these terrible crimes is an important, but incomplete, element of atrocity prevention. We also need greater resources, streamlined response processes, and the political will to step in before warning signs turn into something far worse.

Ernesto Verdeja is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Peace Studies and Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.