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Atrocities Early Warning Q&A: Bridget Conley-Zilkic

Bridget Conley-Zilkic is research director at the World Peace Foundation and assistant professor of research at Tufts University's The Fletcher School. From 2001 to 2011, she worked on issues related to contemporary genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

With your colleague Alex de Waal, you've written about how mass atrocities end. Most work in this field focuses on how and why mass atrocities start. What spurred you to look differently at this subject?

Alex first brought up the question of endings years ago, in relation to his experiences in the Nuba Mountains in the 1990s, where, contrary to all expectations, the Nuba managed to protect themselves against a genocidal onslaught. This insight sparked the question of how do mass atrocities actually end—a question that the literature had not really asked. While there has been rigorous exploration of onset and patterns of violence, when it comes to endings most work hastily summarizes the decline in actual cases. When it comes to policy or theorizing endings the dominant approach is to focus on “us” and what we responses we ought to develop. We decided that an exploration of variation and patterns in endings would prove a fruitful avenue for research.

What did you find in that work, and what are the main implications for efforts to prevent or mitigate mass atrocities?

There are several important implications. For now, I want to draw out two related conundrums.First, we must acknowledge that overall trends in declines in mass atrocity in globally and in distinct regions do not necessarily conform with the types of actions that generally populate the “toolbox” for atrocity response. In Asia, for instance, large-scale assault against civilians declined in tandem with strenuous claims for sovereignty and non-interference. We have seen a similar pattern in many distinct cases not just in large trends. This suggests that ending atrocities should not be treated as synonymous with advancing political rights. We need to question the assumption that these two valuable goals necessarily go together.

Second, as is well-documented by a range of researchers, the most acute threats to civilians come when governments perpetrate intentional violence against them. The large-scale, systematic campaigns that catalyzed research, policy and advocacy almost all arose in the context of a governmental persecution. Bosnia is an obvious deviation from this, but even there, the Bosnian Serbs had significant backing from neighboring Serbia. The irony that our work is revealing, however, is that governments remain crucial to ending violence and consolidating peace, this can include even predatory governments.These two insights suggest that while it is very easy to designate campaigns of violence against civilians as heinous and an assault on human conscience, it is much more difficult to translate the purity of that ethical insight into action of equal ethical clarity—even if, or perhaps especially if, the goal is to halt violence.

What are you working on now?

The how mass atrocities end project involved a couple years of research and is coming to fruition. We will have some publications coming out over the next year that will document our work: in-depth research on patterns of endings in Bosnia, Sudan, Indonesia, Iraq, Burundi and Guatemala; our quantitative comparative endings project; and broader reflections on the current state of study and policy related to mass atrocities. There is a lot of work left to do to finish these up. As I imagine my research beyond these projects, I keep thinking I won’t do another atrocities related project, but who knows? As difficult a topic as it can be to study, it is equally difficult to let go of.