Archive | January, 2014

The Problem with Following Mass Atrocities: Motivations and their implications

21 Jan

I’m probably biased, but when I think about the worst suffering humans can endure, it’s hard to think any farther than mass atrocities.  Not only does it connote terrible hardship on the part of the victims, it also demonstrates a capacity for human brutality we really wish did not exist.  This extreme quality of mass atrocities makes the act of learning about the topic a potentially emotionally traumatic experience.  However many people, myself included, do choose to think about mass atrocities regularly.  The vast majority of individuals in the atrocity prevention community are neither devoid of emotion or driven solely by moral revulsion.  What motivations remain are too rarely discussed.  It is true that some carry uncomfortable connotations, but because I firmly believe the study of mass atrocities and other terrible phenomena are worthwhile endeavors, laying the driving motivations out for participating in the atrocity prevention community can help us better critically evaluate the way in which we conduct our advocacy and analysis.

I, like many others, initially became involved in mass atrocity issues because of outrage that blossomed as part of my adolescent maturation.  I had heard stories of my family’s suffering at the hands of the Nazis since I was about five, but when I became aware that seemingly similar instances of oppression and violence occurred around the world, I felt like I should be doing something about it.  Outrage can be a powerful tool, but as @Robtheidealist notes, the discourse of outrage can also fall short:

“In this context of shareability and hair-trigger publishing, outrage is one of the most reliable ways to draw attention to a story. In social justice circles, like many other places on the web, the outrage machine often operates at a fever pitch…Though cultural representation certainly matters, I can’t escape the feeling that we’re simply posturing, moving from outrage to outrage without ever building any committed practices to intervene and dismantle the systems that we claim to oppose…Outrage isn’t bad. Outrage is a weapon. When I went to Occupy Wall Street in September 2011, I was plenty outraged. For years, social justice organizers mobilized our outrage and channeled it into political movements. Yet, it seems that many social justice circles have traded mass movements for massive traffic.  Media outlets are manipulating our good intentions in order to boost their web traffic, and the aimless outrage has many social justice circles spinning their wheels and going nowhere. We can’t build transformative change that way.”

While there’s certainly an argument to be made that outrage is more powerful than he suggests, in my mind, the author is unequivocally right that outrage is not enough alone to create long-term, large-scale structural change for near-intractable problems.

Outrage is the default discourse of human rights advocacy, and accordingly, when we realize outrage’s limitations and move beyond moral impulses, we get into murky territory.  Not too long ago, I was at a conference with a friend who was similarly interested in mass atrocities.  We were in between sessions, so he flipped through his phone reading the news before commenting, “Man, it’s a slow news day.  I just want a coup, [or] something!”  Of course he wasn’t really wishing for a coup because he understood its destructive impact, but ‘wanting a coup’ is a good example of how interest in a subject is synonymous with obtaining some pleasure.  For mass atrocities, instances of political instability and/or violence are the data points that those interested in mass atrocities derive enjoyment from.  There is a certain perversity here, but it is neither possible to eliminate or uncommon in other circumstances.

First off, pure outrage does not produce measured analysis.  Value judgments do not have to be completely suspended, but stressing the moral failings of mass atrocities and ignoring their dynamics does not tell us much.  Second, when attempting to understand mass atrocities, it is not possible to comprehend each individual tragedy that comprises the whole.  Humans have inherent limited to capacity to understand what a hundred deaths each mean, let alone hundreds of thousands.  Attempting to do so impedes analysis.  Third, thinking of mass atrocities as a “horrific” topic that deserves our moral attention rather than our intellectual interest more than others places mass atrocities out of context when it comes to human suffering.  Doctors, for example, are not criticized for the their cold analysis of what causes disease.  We accept that even if their works leave out the structural facilitators of disease, many of which are worthy of condemnation, there is value in understanding the way in which diseases function.  

Enjoyment, or even humor, is not unique to mass atrocities. Like intellectual interest, humor provides an opportunity for engagement with the topic while dealing with the emotional consequences.  To illustrate, I’ll use the experience of another friend who worked briefly in a coroner’s office.  As a college student, he was disturbed by the callousness of some of the medical examiners towards the individuals they autopsied.  However, they explained to him that it can be difficult to see so many corpses with tragic stories, and humor becomes a coping mechanism.  While the personal trauma I endure from studying mass atrocities at a distance is significantly less than coroners, the theme remains the same.  Difficult topics require an amount of distancing, which humor can provide.  Though troublesome and often over-the-top, “gallows humor” does serve a purpose.

When I came up with the idea for this blog post, I mentioned it to my mom.  She is a public interest lawyer and deals with elderly clients, nursing homes, and elder abuse cases.  While she understood my own method of engagement with mass atrocities, what keeps her going is her personal relationships with her clients.  She said that while she enjoys the policy side of the issue, it’s not enough.  My mom is totally right that personal relationships are the second way to make interest in a traumatic topic sustainable.  Relationships allow for that initial outrage to be focused and personalized.  And for my mom’s type of work, personal relationships make a lot more sense.  The issue is physically close to home and real, immediate change can be made on individual cases.  For mass atrocities, the events tend to be physically distant, access to individual victims is limited, and immediate change is frustratingly rare.  Though my engagement in atrocity prevention via personal relationships is limited, my interest in the field, like many others, did initially blossom because of a personal influence.  Stories of my grandfather’s experience as a Holocaust survivor prompted me to become interested in human rights, even if this history alone was not enough to keep me involved.

Neither approach, enjoyment derived through interest or personal relationships, is perfect.  A purely analytic approach can veer away from thinking about the experiences of real people and become overly callous, while only engaging through personal relationships or personal accounts can obscure the deep, structural causes of mass atrocities and other horrors.  In essence, the best approach probably tries to see both the trees and the forest.  The balance can differ depending on the issue, but both are important and can contribute something.  Finally, understanding that the struggles of outside observers on tough issues are real, even if they don’t come close to the trauma of victims, is important to facilitate future work on the issues.

What Worked for MAS That Didn’t Work for the SPLM?: Party structure and its effect on conflict

6 Jan

In their Foreign Affairs essay, Alex de Waal and Abdul Mohammed outline the reasons for South Sudan’s collapse into bloodshed.  As one of the primary reasons, they note the SPLM never functioned as a real political party.  At first it was an army, and post-independence, it was merely an imaginary organization of assorted political figures.   Reading this, my mind wandered back to the research I did in Bolivia on the political structure of MAS, the country’s governing party.  Like the SPLM, MAS never had aa institutionalized structure.  MAS was founded in the 90’s during a crisis of confidence in Bolivia’s electoral democracy.  The indigenous founders of MAS were wary of traditional politics; not only were they failing Bolivia then, but they had always failed the indigenous  majority.  However, indigenous leaders felt they needed to contend for power in the political arena, and MAS was founded as the coalition’s “political instrument”.  The idea of what a “political instrument” constituted was always vague, but its lack of structure effectively allowed current President Evo Morales to gradually concentrate power around himself and a few allies.

In South Sudan, the partial result of a lack of party structure has been civil war, but in Bolivia, its been largely responsible for creating one of Bolivia’s strongest ever governments.  Why?  I think there are three central advantages that Bolivia has had over South Sudan that explain this divergence: a lack of a history of violent conflict, a more favorable dispersion of political power, and government capacity to provide services.

South Sudan has been one of the world’s most consistently war-ravaged places for the past fifty years.   Not only has the South suffered from catastrophic conflict with the north, but much of the fighting during Sudan’s civil wars occurred between southern groups.  This, along with John Garang’s refusal to develop a permanent, professional SPLA, partially caused South Sudan to become a fractured, militia-ized country.  In South Sudan, there are also just more guns in the hands of more people than there are in Bolivia, meaning it is much easier to escalate a political disagreement to a violent conflict.  Unlike South Sudan, Bolivia has only a minor history of violence between indigenous peoples (who form MAS’ social base) and the white urban elite, and essentially no history of intra-indigenous violent conflict.

Probably the most crucial element in explaining Bolivia and South Sudan’s varying fates is the distribution of political power in each country.  Despite an indigenous majority, Bolivia’s white right had long been a potent political force in the country.  That is, until 2009.  That year, the right spectacularly imploded following a failed secession attempt in the wealthy and conservative Santa Cruz department.  This allowed Evo Morales to dispose of allies he had little in common with but were needed to maintain a majority over right-wing parties.  MAS was always quite centralized, it has never been more so than it is today.  It’s unlikely Evo could have been so successful in eating up power within MAS had it had formal institutions that checked his power.  And though Evo has marginalized large parts of his original coalition, he does have a trump card.  Any opposition indigenous bloc would be unable to seize power itself and would present an opportunity for the right to reemerge.  The right failed indigenous Bolivians so badly for so long that Evo has become the only game in town.  Though Evo’s hegemony is not necessarily positive for every indigenous group, it has created a stable political system.

Unlike in Bolivia, there is no single faction strong enough to unilaterally control the government.  The north has also faded as an adversary to unite against.  Perversely, oil revenue accounts for most of the country’s economy and is controlled entirely by the state.  When combined, the lack of a hegemonic power and the oil revenues form a strong incentive to seize the state.

The final advantage I think Bolivia has had over South Sudan is its capacity to deliver resources to its population and subsequently form a national identity.  Though MAS has not been as successful in transforming the lives of Bolivians as it claims to be, it has done a fairly good job.  Its economic policies have also stoked an economy that avoided the 2009 financial crisis and saw large growth rates.  Therefore, it has been able to deliver real benefits to large, previously neglected swaths of the country.  These successes have helped legitimate its use of indigenous-ness as a unifying national identity.  South Sudan hasn’t been so lucky.  South Sudan’s economy stops and starts as relations with the north vacillate, while Kiir has had to use more than half the national budget to pay off militias.  Even with billions in international assistance, Juba’s ability to actually provide services to its population (like paved roads) has been quite limited.  It’s easy to see then why ethnic patronage networks have proved more powerful in obtaining allegiance than the national government.

In both cases, the lack of a fixed party structure has allowed an opportunity to seize power.  In Bolivia, Evo took that chance and created a sort of hegemonic stability.  In South Sudan, however, the lack of political institutionalization provided numerous incentives for conflict and Machar capitalized.

I’m Not That Great a Forecaster: Looking back on my past predictions and learning how to improve

2 Jan

In early January of 2013, I wrote two posts that outlined six conflicts to watch for civilian protection advocates in the coming year.  Without any concrete methodology, I picked out Sudan, Afghanistan, Mali, Kenya, Syria (specifically violence in a post-Assad Syria), and Central Asia.  Arguably, I was wrong in five of the six cases if the criteria is that the violence had to get significantly worse from 2012 to 2013 in the manner that I predicted  (it gets even worse when you think about all 2013 conflicts I omitted; Nigeria, Egypt, CAR, and Iraq all experienced episodes of mass killing that have intensified since 2012).  I’ll briefly outline how I did country by country, address what I did wrong, and because it’s that time of year again, propose predictions for 2014.  If you don’t want to read the whole thing, feel free to skip to the bulleted predictions.

Sudan had a turbulent year, but it’s nothing really out of the ordinary for the troubled country.  #SudanRevolts returned in September and October and prompted a fairly superficial cabinet reshuffle, but not much else.  Violence continued to rage in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile.  Although violence increased in Darfur and perhaps South Kordofan, it was not a radical departure for 2012.  In my last sentence of my Sudan section, I briefly mentioned South Sudan.  While the violence in Jonglei between the Lou Nuer and Murle ebbed slightly in 2013, any progress made in the country was obliterated by the crisis that began on December 15th and has enveloped the country.  It’s unclear how many people have died, but it probably constitutes a mass killing. Mali has certainly experienced some violence in 2013, but there is no way that it was worse than 2012.  The French-African intervention was fairly successful at expelling the jihadist-Tuareg alliance from Northern Mali.  Fairly successful elections went ahead and the leader of the initial coup, Amadou Haya Sanogo, has been arrested and will be put on trial.

Afghanistan is probably the only case I got right.  Civilian casualties increased in the first half (and possibly the second) of 2013, marking a reversal in 2012’s trend.  For every success there’s a failure, and Kenya is that failure.  The March elections went off smoothly, and so I was really wrong.  I was right to predict that 2013 would be worse than 2012 for Syrians, but it didn’t happen in the way I thought.  At the time, it seemed very likely Assad would fall, initiating a mass killing of Alawites in and around Latakia.  That didn’t happen.  Instead, massive violence continued against civilian populations throughout Syria mostly with the exception of Latakia.  Finally, like Kenya, I really got Central Asia wrong.  There was not significant violence in any Central Asian country (excluding Afghanistan) this calendar year.  Regime change could have potentially caused conflict, but those pesky autocratic regimes just won’t go away.

So how can I improve?  First, it would have helped if I had had a concrete measurement for what constituted conflict.  Second, it would have made sense to have had a constant metric for assessing why I thought conflict would occur in certain places.  Figuring out what my predicted conflict zones had in common and why they were different from other potential conflict zones would have improved my methodology, even if creating a model from a hunch isn’t the best social science (if someone wants to pay me to blog I promise my methodology will be more robust).  My analysis also would have improved if I had laid out specifically what changes I was looking for and how they fit into a larger historical narrative.  For example, while there was both a history of and a potential for political instability in Central Asia, my only data points were the 2005 massacre in Andijan, Uzbekistan and the 2010 violence in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

So moving into my predictions for 2014, rather than creating a complete methodology of my own, I’m going to borrow two of Jay Ulfelder’s crowd-sourced forecasting projects as points of reference.  The first is the Center for Genocide Prevention’s online opinion pool (password needed).  The opinion pool aggregates the opinions of currently fifty individuals interested in atrocity prevention to create averaged probabilities about the likelihood of a particular event.  The questions are generally phrased like this, “Before X date, will an episode of state-led mass killing occur in Y country.”  The second is a wiki survey also originating from the Center for Genocide Prevention.  The results demonstrate how much more likely any particular country is to experience an episode of state-led mass killing than other countries during 2014.

In order and with percentages, these are the countries that I think are most likely to experience a mass killing (defined as more than 1,000 civilian deaths) in 2014:

  • Syria (95%)
  • South Sudan (85%)
  • Iraq (85%)
  • CAR (75%)
  • Sudan (60%)
  • Afghanistan (50%)
  • North Korea (50%)
  • Mexico (35%)
  • Nigeria (30%)
  • Burma (20%)
  • DRC (20%)
  • Egypt (10%)
  • Mali (5%)
  • Venezuela (5%)

My predictions are largely based on the crowd-sourced forecasts from Jay’s two projects, aren’t identical.  I’ll explain why, country by country, below.

Obviously, the chances that a mass killing will happen in Syria are very, very high (the wiki survey is definitely wrong in placing Syria 6th).  However, the opinion pool’s average probability that there will be a mass killing of Alawite civilians in Latakia province stands at 43%.  I think this is too high, and the real probability stands nearer 15%.  For a mass killing of Alawites to happen, the Assad regime would have to collapse or severely weaken.  Demonstrated by my false prediction of his doom in early 2013, Assad has proven surprisingly durable.  Civil wars tend to last a long time, so especially with the increasing fragmentation of the opposition, it’s doubtful Assad will be defeated anytime soon.

South Sudan, Iraq, and CAR all have ongoing conflict that will almost certainly include a case of mass killing, committed either by government or rebel forces, in 2014.  Iraq and CAR definitely experienced a mass killing episode in 2013, and South Sudan probably did, but the concrete numbers to confirm it don’t exist.  I pegged the chances of a future mass killing as slightly lower in CAR only because of the combination of the peacekeeping force and the higher potential for resolution than in South Sudan.

Jay Ulfelder, in his review of mass killing in 2013, wrote of Sudan, “…where the uncertainty is not whether the regime is engaging in mass killing but in how many parts of the country at once and targeting how many different groups.”  He’s right, and unfortunately civilians in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile will likely continue to suffer in 2014.  In the opinion pool, a question asks the probability that Sudan will carry out a mass killing of anti-government activists will occur in 2015, and places the average at 31%.  I think this is far, far too high.  Despite significant anti-government protests, the body count has always remained low.  The Sudanese regime is intelligent in this respect, instead opting for mass arrests of protest leaders.  The scarcity of bloody street confrontations decreases the potential of igniting the paradox of repression.  It is also telling that the bloodiest anti-government protest this year happened in Nyala, South Darfur.  Khartoum is happy to take the fight to enemies in the periphery, but remains wary of the threat from the center.  If the government were to significantly weaken, there’s an increased chance it would unleash lethal violence against anti-government activists.  However, despite increasing organization from the political opposition and calls that the regime was about to fall, the NCP remains in power.

Afghanistan probably experienced a mass killing with the Tailban as the perpetrators in 2013, and there aren’t a lot of positive signs for the future.  In North Korea, it’s basically impossible to tell how many people are dying each year in giant concentration camps.  50% is simply a wild guess.

Drug violence in Mexico is out of control, but I’m hesitant to peg a high probability of a mass killing because it’s unclear what share of civilians vs. cartel members are killed in drug violence (in a tweet, Jay confirmed that cartel members count as combatants).  Bottom line: a lot of people will die in Mexico in 2014, but it may or may not constitute a mass killing.

Nigeria experienced a classic case of a counterinsurgent mass atrocity last year, and despite some international attention on the issue, there is still a decent chance it happens again.  Nigeria is 14th on the wiki survey for the chances of state-led killing (too low in my opinion) for 2014 but doesn’t appear as a question in the opinion pool.

Burma is a country that is very much in the news for people interested in atrocity prevention, but I’m more optimistic than other analysts about the prospects for 2014.  Burma’s counterinsurgencies against ethnic-minority armies are long-running, but have recently had quite low body counts.  I see no reason for that trend to stop.  The opinion pool predicts there is a 35% chance of a mass killing of Rohingya in 2014.  No single rioting incident has yet escalated to widespread killing (the Meiktila incident killed dozens, not hundreds).  Despite the massive persecution the Rohingya face, the levels of lethal violence have remained relatively low.  Without an obvious trigger, I think more slow-motion ethnic cleaning is far more likely than a full-blown mass killing in 2014.

DRC placed fourth in the wiki survey.  Perhaps this is a bit excessive, but not completely unwarranted.  The combination of a country in transition from autocracy to democracy, the prevalence of armed groups in the Kivus, and intrusive neighbors means the risk of a mass killing in the DRC remains relatively high.

Egypt also suffers from an unfortunate history.  Last year, the government undertook a mass killing in response to pro-Morsi demonstrations.  A similar scenario could repeat itself, violence in the Sinai could rapidly increase, or even less likely, a civil war that involves mass killing could erupt.  All of this is plausible, if not incredibly likely (Egypt is 15th in the wiki survey).

The situation is not absolutely analogous to the DRC’s, but Mali also suffers from a somewhat unstable post-major conflict environment.  The opinion pool average for a state-led mass killing rests at 13%.  I think this is too high (probably suffering from the bias that comes from forecasting rare events) because of the progress Mali has made since 2012, but not terribly so.  In the wiki survey, Mali is 3rd, which strikes me as overly pessimistic.

Finally, Venezuela is a bit of a stretch, but I decided to include it anyways.  Few atrocity prevention advocates are paying attention despite the high political instability and absolutist rhetoric coming out of the Maduro administration.  Though Venezuela appears 82nd on the wiki survey and isn’t in a region of the world that has been prone to mass killing recently, I think a political crisis resulting in a government mass killing is plausible if still very unlikely.

Correction: Jay Ulfelder wrote this in a comment, “One point of clarification about Syria and some of the other cases you discuss: in both the statistical modeling and the wiki survey, we’re looking at the risk that a *new episode* of mass killing will start, not the risk that the one(s) we’re seeing now will continue. So Syria could hypothetically get a very low predicted probability or rank if the models or crowd deemed it unlikely that the state would begin deliberately killing large numbers of civilians from a discrete group it isn’t already targeting now. Hence the question in the Syrian case about Alawites but not one about the groups the regime is killing in large numbers now.”  I didn’t realize that when I wrote the post.