Tag Archives: Syria

2015 Mass Atrocity Forecasts

12 Jan

In my last post, I looked back on how my predictions fared in 2014. While there are a couple different ways to measure success, all in all I was a little under 50%.

Here are my predictions for 2015. Like last time, I’ll not do a simple yes/no, but rather a percentage of how likely a mass atrocity is to happen. By mass atrocity, I mean 1,000 deaths caused intentionally by a discrete combatant group against another discrete noncombatant group. I’m including more countries than I did last year, and hopefully this will offer more accurate forecasts.

  • Nigeria (95%)
  • Iraq (95%)
  • Syria (95%)
  • Pakistan (75%)
  • Afghanistan (70%)
  • South Sudan (70%)
  • Sudan (65%)
  • Mexico (55%)
  • CAR (50%)
  • North Korea (50%)
  • Somalia (30%)
  • DRC (30%)
  • Libya (25%)
  • Gaza (25%)
  • Cameroon (20%)
  • Ukraine (10%)
  • Rwanda (10%)
  • Lebanon (10%)
  • Burundi (5%)
  • Yemen (5%)
  • Chad (5%)
  • Guinea (5%)
  • Kenya (5%)
  • Ethiopia (5%)
  • Burma (5%)
  • Eritrea (5%)
  • Zimbabwe (5%)
  • Mali (5%)

Explaining my forecast for each of the 28 countries here would be tedious and probably unnecessary, so I’ll skip it. However, I’ll select a few countries where my risk prediction doesn’t generally line up with the consensus in the atrocity prevention community.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram has probably already committed a mass killing in 2015, and across the border in Cameroon, Boko Haram is also active, though the chances of a mass atrocity are lower if not insignificant.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are not countries on the traditional atrocity prevention agenda, but that has more to do with uneasy relationship between anti-atrocity advocates and the U.S. military than the countries’ risk. Their respective Taliban’s both committed atrocities last year, and it seems likely that trend will continue.

In Mexico, it’s never a question of absolute casualty figures but how those casualties are categorized. Because there aren’t clear numbers on how many cartel members die as opposed to civilians, it’s hard to know whether more than 1,000 are killed by a specific drug cartel, even if thousands will almost certainly die in 2015.

In the DRC, like Mexico, more than 1,000 are highly likely to die. However, the splintered nature of armed groups in the country’s east means I think it’s more likely than not no single group will kill 1,000 civilians. The situation’s not dissimilar in Libya, where there is rampant violence, but it is committed by a myriad of militias.

Israel probably committed a mass killing in Gaza last year, and while confrontations between Hamas and Israel seem to operate on two or three year cycles, there’s still a decent chance Israel ‘mows the grass’ again this year.

While Rwanda is often praised as one of Africa’s most efficient governments, this sheen of good governance masks a political powder-keg. Whenever the elite coalition Kagame has built fractures, the struggle to fill the resulting power vacuum will likely result in mass violence. The same principle applies in Zimbabwe and Eritrea.

Finally, Burundi and Burma are two countries that have been high on the atrocity prevention agenda that I rated at only 5%. In Burundi, it seems the government has repressed the opposition enough that ruling elites are unlikely to be threatened during the 2015 election. There are some parallels here with Burma. While the treatment of the Rohingya minority is horrendous, it seems Burma’s elites have settled on forcing emigration rather than initiating a mass killing, which would be more politically risky.

Looking Back on My 2014 Mass Atrocity Forecasts

2 Jan

A year ago, I took a stab at predicting which countries would experience mass atrocities in 2014 (defined as 1,000 noncombatant intentional deaths caused by discrete group). My predictions were fairly accurate, if not perfectly so. Here’s what I predicted. I’ve put “YES” next to places that did experience atrocities and “NO” next to the countries that didn’t. For the countries where it’s simply too hard to know, I’ve put a “?”. I don’t want to get too in-depth into how I determined whether atrocities occurred, but I have some explanations in the footnotes for countries that are hard to judge one way or the other.

  • Syria (95%) – YES
  • South Sudan (85%) – YES
  • Iraq (85%) – YES
  • CAR (75%) – YES [1]
  • Sudan (60%) – YES
  • Afghanistan (50%) – YES [2]
  • North Korea (50%) – ? [3]
  • Mexico (35%) – ? [4]
  • Nigeria (30%) – YES
  • Burma (20%) – NO
  • DRC (20%) – NO [5]
  • Egypt (10%) – NO
  • Mali (5%) – NO
  • Venezuela (5%) – NO

To judge how accurate I was, one measure is to see each case as containing 100 points. If an atrocity did happen, then I get the number of percentage points that I predicted (for example, I get 95 out of 100 for Syria) and if one did not happen, I get the result of subtracting the number of percentage points I predicted from 100 (for example, I get 80 out of 100 for Burma). Because my predictions were not just yes/no, this method helps account for the probabilistic aspect. Measuring this way, I did very well, receiving 920 out of a possible 1200, excluding Mexico and North Korea because of the inconclusive judgments. However, that score should really be 920 out of 1400, because civilian deaths in Gaza during the Israel-Hamas conflict constitute a mass atrocity. Similarly, the Pakistani Taliban committed a mass atrocity. A mass atrocity may have occurred in Somalia, but the numbers don’t seem high enough to definitively say for sure.

There are a few problems with this metric for success, though. First, my numbers success rate is considerably boosted by the very high probability (the “No Shit List”) and the very low probability cases. If I remove the cases where I predicted probabilities above 80% and below 20%, and add in Pakistan and Gaza, my score comes out to a much less impressive 375 out of 800, even though by the standards of forecasting international events, it’s not bad.

The results of my projections have both optimistic and pessimistic ramifications for the ability to forecast atrocities. On the one hand, being a little less than 50% accurate in medium-risk cases is much better than the standard 65%-80% false positive ratio that’s common even in the best performing models (though it’s easier to outperform statistical models in one year than five). Additionally, with the exceptions of Pakistan and Gaza, no episodes of atrocities occurred in countries with probabilities less than 30%. On the other hand, in every case that I listed a probability that an atrocity would happen and it did, the country had been experiencing large-scale violent conflict at the beginning of 2014. One of the two cases I missed was also the one not experiencing large-scale violent conflict then.

Therein lies the problems. It’s fairly easy to predict where atrocities will occur for countries already experiencing mass violence. While it is certainly useful to predict anywhere where atrocities will occur, the real prize of forecasting is to identify the cases where atrocities will occur that aren’t obvious to the casual observer. Because mass atrocities are such rare events, that’s frustratingly difficult.

In my next post, I’ll put up my mass atrocity forecasts for 2015.

Update (1/16/15): Earlier today I realized that in analyzing my predictions I had missed the chance to analyze whether I had been overly optimistic or pessimistic about mass atrocities in 2014. I’m particularly interested to see if I avoided the bias that generally has forecasts over-predict the likelihood of rare events, which atrocities are.

I’ll do this by adding up the percentage points I predicted in total (and divide my 100) and then compare that to the actual occurrence of atrocities. If we exclude the atrocities that happened that I didn’t predict, I predicted there would be 5.4 mass atrocities in 2014. Within my prediction sample, there were actually 6 mass atrocities. So I was pretty close. My accuracy here was helped because each country that had a mass atrocity in 2014 in my predicted list also had one in 2013.

However, if I include Gaza and Pakistan (as I probably should), I was less accurate, again predicting 5.4 atrocities when 8 actually occurred. For whatever reason, I bucked the trend and under-predicted the number of atrocities that would occur in 2014.

Clarification (1/4/15): For this post, I defined a mass atrocity as 1,000 deaths in a single year. While this is partially consistent with other definitions for a mass atrocity used by The Early Warning Project and my thesis, it doesn’t clarify the conditions for when a mass atrocity continues over multiple years. The convention is that 1,000 is required in the onset year, and then if the number of deaths drops below a much lower threshold for a few years, then the mass killing episode ends. For example, by the Early Warning Project’s definition, a state-led mass killing episode continued in Myanmar last year, even though as far as I can tell, the casualty numbers were well under 1,000. For my predictions, because I’m only looking at one year at a time, I’m thinking about whether death counts will reach 1,000 each year. Neither definition is better than the other, but for the purposes of my predictions, the 1,000 threshold every year makes more sense.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

[1] Though the numbers aren’t entirely clear, it seems very likely that more 1,000 noncombatants were killed by anti-balaka forces (and possibly ex-Seleka forces too) in 2014.

[2] By July, more than 1,500 civilians had already been killed, with 74% of those caused by anti-government forces (mostly the Taliban). The total number had risen to over 3,000 by November, with the Taliban responsible for 75%.

[3] Obviously, the North Korean regime isn’t releasing data on its prison camps, but investigations by Amnesty and the OHCHR makes it seem very likely more than 1,000 civilians died in 2014. However, the lack of data makes it impossible to know for sure.

[4] Like North Korea, there’s just not enough data to say. It’s not that we don’t know that huge numbers of people were killed by organized crime, but it’s unclear how many of those count as civilians (cartel members are combatants in this case). It seems likely, but one can’t be sure.

[5] While the civilian death toll almost certainly exceeded 1,000 in 2014, to my knowledge, no one single group can claim to have killed more than 1,000 noncombatants.

The Lesser Evil: When does it make sense to intervene on behalf of incumbents?

17 Aug

*This piece was first published in the SSR Resource Centre’s The Hub and is republished with permission from the Centre for Security Governance.

A few weeks ago, Edward H. Carpenter came out with two compelling posts (here and here) in the Duck of Minerva. In his first article, he notes that the Islamic State’s (IS) advance in Syria and Iraq is only one example of recent victories by mobile, non-state Islamic fundamentalist groups organized as networks. In his second, he argues that while the governments these insurgencies seek to topple may not meet international standards of good governance:

“No population has benefited from the long-running civil wars or instability that has resulted from an existing state government being overthrown by networked opposition elements; and few regional governments are able to beat these networks quickly and decisively on their own. Thus, the West should consider making short-term, limited intervention on the side of existing governmental bodies the norm.”

These interventions, Carpenter writes, would combine airstrikes and ground forces comprised of government and international troops. Interventions would only occur when a conflict meets a threshold of a few pre-determined conditions, “Such a threshold would probably need to specify level and pace of conflict, presence (or lack) of diplomatic avenues of resolution, and several other measures beyond a simple casualty count.”

In response to Carpenter’s article, Rachel Strohm wrote a response piece teasing out some of the argument’s problems. Strohm uses the Rwandan Genocide as an example of a case when a state’s violent overthrow led to an improvement in the lives of its citizens. Because it is hard not to improve on a regime that kills a huge percentage of its population, there is a good argument that when a state is that brutal, seeking to crush any armed resistance will only allow the state to continue attacks on civilians.

Strohm’s point is a good one, and gets at something Carpenter’s argument seems to imply, but does not come out and say. The issue is not really with network insurgencies in general, but their relative capability to create a new stable new government. The ability of violent groups to create positive and intentional change is frequently overstated, and only in rare cases of extreme states weakness or government brutality does a rebel group’s ascent to power potentially offer a less violent future.

Determining when this is the case is difficult, but Carpenter’s own analysis of the nature of insurgent groups offers one potential avenue. He notes that they tend to be organized in networks rather than hierarchies, allowing for battlefield success. However, networks are less effective in performing governance than hierarchies because they lack the centralization and chain of command necessary to perform activities like tax collection, consistent law enforcement, and paying civil servants. As Weinstein argues, when commanders lack control over their soldiers, these soldiers are more likely to abuse civilians. Therefore, one metric for determining whether or not to support a non-state actor is their level of hierarchal organization in comparison to the state’s. In Rwanda, the state’s devolution of violent power to the Interahamwe, a non-state actor, meant it more closely resembled a network than the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels.

Following up on Strohm’s post, I see five additional implications of Carpenter’s argument that are worth fleshing out. First, Carpenter’s proposed interventions would follow the example of the French intervention in Mali, where superior airpower and ground troops were able to halt the insurgents’ advance. Carpenter hints that a similar policy would have been the right choice in Libya. However, these two countries share two characteristics that most others lack. Libya and Mali contain huge swathes of desert between cities and a correspondingly low population density. Rebels wishing to overthrow the state must traverse these areas, and in the process, become easy targets for a competent air force.

In many other countries this isn’t the case. In Syria, which Carpenter also mentions, putting down the rebels early would have required significant numbers of international ground troops due to western Syria’s population density. Assad has already tried, and failed, to crush the rebellion with superior airpower. While there is a good argument that Carpenter’s template approach would work against IS, there are many other insurgencies around the world where it would not.

Second, Carpenter doesn’t fully account for the possibility of failed interventions, which could happen in several ways. Had an international coalition attempted to intervene in Syria for example, its probable failure to crush rebel forces would have likely entrenched the conflict even more rapidly. Additionally, even if responses are pre-planned in the way Carpenter envisions, they may suffer from poor coordination, or a lack of financial and human resources. If the intervention fails to crush the rebels quickly, they may end up prolonging the conflict and supporting an abusive government.

Third, a norm that provides for consistent international military support of incumbents would provide abusive regimes with perverse incentives. Leaders wishing to crush a rival or gain domestic support could provoke a violent confrontation with opponents, leading to an international intervention in the incumbent’s favor. For states like Sudan that chronically make war against internal opponents, consistent international support for incumbents against military challengers could encourage persistent aggressive behavior.

Fourth, Carpenter perhaps underestimates the enormity of the normative shift that he prescribes. Widespread international armed support for incumbent regimes would effectively de-legitimize armed resistance as a way to force concessions or overthrow oppressive authorities. Subsequently, it would bring states closer together by putting each one, regardless of its behavior, on equal footing. While decreasing the overall legitimacy of armed challenges to states would likely be a positive development, the few potential exceptions outlined above stand out clearly. It would also be very difficult to convince powerful states to work together to defeat all armed insurgents. Powerful states are not the ones that tend to face armed challengers, while various non-state armed groups often further their interests. Therefore, it is highly unlikely the norm would be enforced consistently, even if this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Finally, the de-legitimization of armed struggle that would occur through Carpenter’s proposal would mean a likely increase in the number of nonviolent insurrections against incumbents. As Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth have shown, nonviolent campaigns that overthrow the government lead to more stable and more democratic subsequent governments, so this change would be unquestionably positive.

Carpenter’s argument has its merits, and his somewhat controversial support for incumbents makes sense in some circumstances. However, before taking the proposal seriously, as I hope some policymakers will, it makes sense to give the argument a stronger theoretical background and identify exceptions. Doing so might lead to an exceptionally promising if somewhat unconventional way to think about international violence prevention.

Complexity and Proaction: A sincere hope for the (perhaps distant) future

27 Mar

What do civilians do to survive conflict?  This sounds like a fairly straightforward question, but it’s not.  Until very recently, scholars of violence and practitioners of  violence prevention saw civilians as entirely reactive parties that did little to shape the course of conflict.  While there have been some major steps in recent years in understanding what decisions civilians make to survive and their role in influencing the course of conflicts, the field is still taking its first steps (if you’re interested in further reading let me know).  The burgeoning consensus is that civilians are major players in shaping conflict, though academics and practitioners are only beginning to imagine the limits of civilian agency.  If there is indeed significant work to be done, what might the future of civilian self-protection look like?

To be blunt, we’re pretty clueless about civilian self-protection.  Few empirical accounts exist, and no work that I’ve come across directly ties empirical findings to broader theories of how civilians survive multiple types of conflict.  Because of this major theoretical gap, Casey Barrs, the most prolific author on the idea of civilian self-protection, argues for a limited survival-approach that ignores the rights-based programs that characterize many NGOs’ work.  For Barrs, whatever works, be it bribing combatants or fleeing at the first hint of conflict, should be encouraged and aided.  Civilians are more likely to understand this and therefore react to conflict better.  NGO’s should allow them to become ‘owners’ of their own survival.  In sum, we don’t know enough to prescribe strategies to civilians facing the prospect of mass atrocities.  Trying for anything more than bare survival is not only presumptuous on our part, but also dangerous.

Lamentably, Barrs is right for the moment.  If analysts do not really understand how civilians influence conflict, let alone how their actions during conflict determines both their lives and the condition of society post-conflict,  average civilians are unlikely to think about these issues.  Civilians are not expected to act with the broader conflict in mind, but there’s some potential that scholarship could permeate aid practices, which could perhaps diffuse a norm that sees civilian agency in conflict as extending beyond individual survival.

Could this imagined future become a reality?  It is possible that we’ll reach a point where we have a strong understanding of conflict dynamics, have strong norms of civilian protection, and have institutions in place able to react quickly and decisively to conflict that it will be possible to imagine a wider conception of civilian self-protection?  Could future civilian self-protection strategies be not only proactive but even emancipatory? And for me, perhaps the most exciting question is could civilian protection strategies be designed not only to save the civilians enacting them but to positively mitigate violence in the broader conflict system?

For now, these questions sound like overly ambitious and hard to even conceptualize.  For example, will civilians ever really feel secure enough to think beyond their immediate survival to their role in the broader conflict?  There are some reasons to be hopeful.  Complexity theory for one offers a medium through which we may be able to understand how conflict functions, and more specifically, civilians’ roles in it.  Complexity theory imagines conflict as a complex system in which agents interact with many other agents in multiple ways, which are ultimately too complex for humans to understand.  Randomness is inherent in the system.  So complexity theory helps explain why conflicts develop in surprising ways, often beyond the comprehension of analysts.  To read complexity theory as a accepting defeat in our attempt to understand conflict would be a mistake, however.  Rather, while creating a framework for dealing with complexity, it also accepts that some developments in conflict are indeed beyond our ability to predict or explain.  Some analysts are beginning to see conflict through a complexity-inspired lens.

Early warning technology is another reason to be optimistic.  While the idea of early warning has existed for a long time, practitioners and scholars are starting to imagine how these systems can serve local communities rather than analysts far removed from the conflict.  At the same time, many regional governmental organizations are in the process of implementing conflict early warning systems.  This marriage of theory and institutionalization could one day provide many civilians with the ability to learn of conflict before it physically confronts them, and develop more proactive strategies.

I would like to be hopeful that this is all possible, but there are also some harsh realities that can’t be ignored.  While I am very hopeful that complexity theory will offer a new and improved method for imagining the complexity of conflict, we can’t forget that complexity theory was designed to help us understand why we can’t understand certain systems.  Yes, complexity theory is probably a step up, but there’s a limit to our analytic ability.

Another problem is how civilians will actually understand their role in determining conflict, and in turn, be able to make constructive changes to their behavior.  It’s possible, but by no means for sure, that academic knowledge on how civilians act during conflict will imbue at-risk communities.  However, civilians would then have to not only accept that validity of this theory, but also be in a place in which they could enact it.  While it is simply difficult to imagine the confluence of developments in early warning technology, norms of civilian agency, and the dynamics of mass atrocities in the future, but it is also difficult to imagine with all these mitigating factors, civilians will act considerably differently in the future than they do now.  This speaks to broader questions to how civilians have reacted to conflict over the course of history, but to my knowledge, civilians dealt with the Peloponnesian War in a similar way as Syrians do today.  My vision puts significant stock in the power of globalized humanitarian discourse.

The last problem is that by the time techniques that expand upon current civilian protection practices are developed and implemented, it may be too late.  As Jay Ulfelder writes, it looks as if global patterns of unrest will cause a short-term spike in mass atrocities, even if broader trends point to a slow reduction in the amount of worldwide conflict.  If he’s right, then civilian protection infrastructure will likely appear only after the period in which it is most needed.

Predicting mass atrocities is hard enough, and so I realize that predicting civilian response in the distant future, which we in fact barely understand at the present, is pretty much impossible.  However, the prospect for an expanded view of civilian self-protection can at least function as something to strive for.  I do think there’s hope because just in the last few years we’ve seen changes in how NGO’s think about with self-protection.  Both Casey Barrs and L2GP have written about the need for NGO’s to help civilians protect livelihoods (thus shaping the post-conflict environment), and in the relatively small prevention practitioner community, their words will soon have an impact.  From where I stand, the future is exciting.

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.

The Responsibility to Do What We Can: Understanding and strengthening local, nonviolent strategies for civilian self-protection in the context of mass atrocities

9 Dec

*The Sentinel Project has published my final report on strategies for civilian self-protection during mass atrocities.  This blog post summarizes my report and you can find the report itself here.

The Responsibility to Protect doctrine, instituted in 2005, exemplifies the dominant paradigm for action during mass atrocities: international intervention.  While R2P places the primarily responsibility on states, the international community is nonetheless positioned as the final authority on issues of civilian protection.  This approach has many benefits, but suffers from an inherent response gap.  The international community is simply unable to react effectively to every mass atrocity scenario because of structural constraints.  Therefore, most civilians that survive mass atrocities do so with little organized or institutionalized help from anyone beyond their immediate communities.  But exactly how civilians manage this is a severely understudied phenomenon even within the larger (already neglected) subfield of mass violence against civilians.  The lack of empirical work on civilian self-protection makes drawing concrete solutions on how to improve future civilian protection strategies difficult, and therefore a more apt approach combines theory on how mass atrocities function with non-comprehensive empirical work.

There are many schools of thought on why mass atrocities happen and how they work.  Despite the many legitimate points scholars have made over the years, one seems beyond challenge: mass killing is an instrumental process.  For political leaders, mass atrocities serve some other political goal and only occur after other attempts to accomplish the goal fail.  Another point of agreement among scholars is that mass atrocities are much more likely to occur during war; the upheaval caused by war gives extremist leaders a better chance of seizing power.  A point more contested among scholars, but no less convincing, is that beyond the leadership directing mass atrocities, ideology plays only a peripheral role.  Perpetrators of mass atrocities are not bloodthirsty killers, but rather more like, as Christopher Browning termed it, ordinary men.  For the most part, they are more convinced to kill by in-group coercion than ethnic hatred or sadism.

Broadly, there are two types of mass atrocities that commonly occur today: counterinsurgent (COIN) and communal mass atrocities.  Many mass atrocity scenarios, such as the violence we see today in Syria, has an element of both.  Strategies for civilian self-protection are significantly different between COIN and communal mass atrocities.  Therefore, for the purposes of understanding them, categorically separating the two types is necessary despite the potential analytic simplification.

During counterinsurgent mass atrocities, civilians have the best chance of escaping violence by attempting to remove themselves from the conflict.  If they can gain the trust of armed actors that they are not providing information or aid to either side, they may be able to avoid conflict altogether.  During communal mass atrocities, the task is similar, but the tactics are different.  Instead of simply removing themselves, civilians must change the logic that makes them targets in the first place.  Misinformation and social myths are rampant in every communal mass atrocity, and countering these rumors is crucial in preventing the outbreak of violence.  Secondly, leaders manipulate information to whip up ethnic hatred and instigate attacks.  Therefore, either discrediting these leaders or removing them from power can have positive effects.  Research on civilian self-protection during communal mass atrocities is still in its infancy, and scholars could do practitioners a huge hand by emphasizing the topic more in the future.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of instances in which nonviolent, local civilian self-protection strategies don’t work.  Violence during mass atrocities is an escalatory process, and the more entrenched cycles of violence become, the harder it is for civilians to bargain their way out of trouble.  This happens for multiple reasons: the collective action problem intensifies, psychological pressures harden combatants’ violent instincts, and lines of command falter.  Finally, armed groups with inflexible ideological commitments or significant economic incentives are much harder to work with for civilians in mass atrocity contexts.

NGO’s are in an ideal position to improve civilian self-protection strategies because of their ability innovate and their relative lack of institutional constraints.  NGO’s should always seek to work with existing community structures rather than inventing new ones, because in mass atrocity scenarios, nearly every social structure serves a protective purpose.  NGO’s should also be pragmatic, refrain from making moral judgments, and place civilian survival above every other consideration.  NGO’s have the ability to provide and disseminate crucial information communities often lack and should focus their efforts here.  Once civilians have this information, NGO’s should assist civilians in their efforts to protect themselves, but ultimately defer to civilian choices.  Civilian self-protection does not present a comprehensive strategy for ending mass atrocities, but understanding and aiding the process could go a long way in filling the atrocity response gap.

Why “Genocide” Had To Come First, And Why “Mass Atrocities” Should Come Next

19 Nov

In 1943, Polish resistance member Jan Karski secured a meeting with American Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.  Karski was desperate to find a sympathetic audience for the intelligence he had obtained by sneaking into Nazi concentration camps.  At the time, there was little understanding in United States or Western Europe of the scale and intensity of Nazi atrocities.  In Samantha Power’s telling of the encounter, Frankfurter waited for Karski to finish before saying, “I don’t believe you.”  Karski protested, before Frankurter responded, “I do not mean that you are lying.  I simply said that I cannot believe you.”  Frankfurter was unable to comprehend the scale of atrocities Karski was accurately describing.  Frankfurter wasn’t alone.  At the time, the concept of massive violence directed at civilians didn’t exist.  Civilian casualties were certainly accepted as a part of war, but no specific word or phrase existed to fully encapsulate the deliberate targeting of civilians.

Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer who had narrowly escaped the Holocaust, fought hard for years to make the world fully appreciate the realities of mass killing.  Beyond his personal experience during World War II, he was also fascinated by the horrors of the Armenian genocide and other episodes of mass killing.  Lemkin had a keen understanding of the capabilities of governments to murder civilians on a large scale.  To help others gain the same understanding, Lemkin placed in faith in language, feeling that if there were just a distinct word to describe the extent of the crimes of the Holocaust, societal rejection of future potential mass killing episodes was more likely.  In A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power describes Lemkin’s quest:

“Ever since Lemkin had heard Churchill’s 1941 radio address, he had been determined to find a new word to replace “barbarity” and “vandalism,” which had failed him at the 1933 Madrid conference. Lemkin had hunted for a term that would describe assaults on all aspects of nationhood-physical, biological, political, social, cultural, economic, and religious. He wanted to connote not only full-scale extermination but also Hitler’s other means of destruction: mass deportation, the lowering of the birthrate by separating men from women, economic exploitation, progressive starvation, and the suppression of the intelligentsia who served as national leaders…Lemkin saw he needed a word that could not be used in other contexts (as “barbarity” and “vandalism” could). He self-consciously sought one that would bring with it “a color of freshness and novelty” while describing something “as shortly and as poignantly as possible.” But Lemkin’s coinage had to achieve something Eastman’s did not. Somehow it had to chill listeners and invite immediate condemnation.”

The word Lemkin chose was “genocide” which combined the Greek root “geno” (meaning “race” or tribe”) and the Latin root “cide” (meaning “killing”).  Lemkin’s persistence assured the word was in fact ingrained in international law, and almost single-handedly, Lemkin planted the notion that governments can and do kill huge numbers of civilians in the world’s collective conscience.

At the time, Lemkin’s success was revolutionary.  However, it’s time to move on from using the word “genocide”.  “Genocide” simply doesn’t cover all episodes of mass killing because its legal definition excludes political groups from potential victims and genocide and stipulates that there must be an intent to destroy “in whole or in part” the victim group.  The definition is too focused on the specific experience of Jews during the Holocaust, which problematizes the generalization of “genocide” to other episodes of mass killing with different characteristics.  The Khmer Rouge’s action in Cambodia and counterinsurgent mass atrocities (the Syrian conflict) don’t count as genocides, but one would be right to question why certain types of mass killing are any worse than others.  Does it really matter if something constitutes genocide if large number of people are dying as a result of an intentional policy?  The use of “genocide” privileges certain types of killing over others, and as activists seek to draw attention to mass violence by using the word “genocide” whether or not it’s accurate, the meaning of the word is simultaneously diluted.

Ironically, Lemkin’s success in promoting the word “genocide” allows us now to abandon it.  The idea that “genocide” exists and is something we as a global community should fight is a well-diffused norm.  From my anecdotal experience telling people what I’m interested in, regular Americans with no connection to politics or academia understand the basic tenets of a genocide.  Now that the concept of “genocide” has been successfully propagated, there is a perfect opportunity for civilian protection advocates to diffuse a new norm that leads to a more complete understanding of the nature of mass killing.  “Mass atrocities” is the most widely used term in the academic and activist discourse on episodes of mass killing, and adopting it  in place of “genocide” to describe various types of intentional mass killing makes sense in the future.

For various reasons, “mass atrocities” makes the most sense in the present historical moment to serve as a catch-all term for different variations on mass killing.  Unfortunately, it is not without its flaws.  From my own personal experience, different people have different interpretations of what “mass atrocities” implies.  In my personal view, it’s limited to lethal attacks, but a very reasonable argument could be made that rape and mutilation should also be included.  Even if we decide that rape and mutilation are a potential component of mass atrocities, can a death-less mass atrocity exist?  Do a certain number of rapes and mutilations equate to a death?  Therefore, perhaps “mass killing” is more appropriate, but it suffers from a lack of use outside of certain academic circles.  Another problem is that both “mass atrocities” and “mass killing” suffer from not fully conveying that the killings must be a part of a fairly coherent and intentional plan, rather than an aggregation of totally unrelated violence.  Perhaps in the future, another time will present the need to diffuse another norm.