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Why We Assess Risks of Mass Killing Rather Than Genocide


The Early Warning Project does not try to assess risks of genocide. Instead, we assess risks of mass killing—a closely related but broader concept that covers all of the violent episodes that most observers would consider to be genocides, along with many others in which large numbers of civilians were deliberately killed.

Our decision to focus on mass killing instead of genocide is, in part, a practical one. We use statistical models in our risk-assessment process, and these models must be trained on historical data. If the number of events of concern in our historical data is very small, those models will have a hard time discerning useful patterns. Training models on a data set with very few examples is a bit like trying to make out images in a pointillist painting with only a few dots. We need more information to see the contrasts that interest us.

As it happens, the set of historical cases that most observers would consider to be genocides is quite small. In her foundational work on the topic, Barbara Harff broadened the concept of genocide to include efforts to destroy political as well as national, ethnic, racial, or religious groups and still identified only 36 instances worldwide between 1955 and 1997. The fact that examples aren't more abundant is a good thing for humanity, of course, but it does make statistical forecasting of genocide exceptionally difficult.

Bosnian Muslim women at a Sarajevo protest on June 11, 2007 (via the Srebrenica Genocide Blog)

Politics does play a role in our decision, too, though. In a recent brief for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Matthew Kupfer and Thomas de Waal remind us that,

The word genocide has been used as a weapon of political rhetoric for more than sixty years. Since its coinage in the 1940s, in popular political vocabulary—if not in international legal circles—the term genocide has been used as a signifier for "ultimate evil.”

The intense politicization of the term "genocide" plays into efforts to prevent or mitigate its occurrences in complicated ways. In a December 2013 blog post, Louisa Lombard described how this politicization had factored thus far into international responses to the conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR).

So why use the term genocide to describe what’s going on in the CAR? The term genocide was first invoked by the French in early November. Rather than an analytical term, its use in this case always had a major advocacy component. The UN Security Council was debating whether and how to strengthen the regional peacekeeping force currently operational in the CAR, and whether the force should be dispatched under the auspices of the UN or the AU. France and Rwanda pushed for the former, but the US and everyone else preferred the AU — with funding for the UN mission in Mali coming up short, how would they drum up financing for another mission in a country that few people have even heard of, the Americans and those on their side wondered? So, as part of a bid to convince people of the need to do everything possible to help, the French called the situation in the CAR a genocide-in-the-making, and a number of journalists only peripherally covering the conflicts there snapped to attention. The crisis had been translated into language that conveyed its gravity to editors, and the genocide framework continues to be frequently invoked.

Kupfer and de Waal see similar dynamics in rhetoric around the ongoing war in Ukraine:

The word genocide has emerged as a leitmotif in the current Russian-Ukrainian crisis for a number of reasons. In eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists know that they are challenging the status quo and the international order, which places them at a disadvantage. By framing their struggle as one against a regime attempting to commit genocide, they present their actions not as a first choice but as the last resort of a people trying to protect its fundamental human rights. Meanwhile, in Russia, the most persistent exponent of the idea of a genocide against Russians, Sergei Glazyev, has framed events in eastern Ukraine as part of his broader narrative of widespread persecution of ethnic Russians in other post-Soviet states.

As these examples suggest and Lombard surmises, this labeling exercise and the arguments that inevitably ensue don't always advance the cause of preventing atrocities.

With its attention-grabbing potential, the word genocide runs the risk of hijacking the discussion of policy options, giving the false impression that it is possible to locate a victim “side” and a bad guy “side” and then intervene. In fact, the problems in the CAR are much messier than that — as they are in most, maybe all, places.

The Early Warning Project is not an advocacy group. Our expertise is technical. We aspire to inform policy and advocacy that may help to prevent atrocities by producing risk assessments that are as reliable and timely as possible.

We believe we can fulfill that warning mission more effectively if we do not entangle ourselves in acrimonious debates over which cases deserve to be described as examples of the "ultimate evil" and which do not. Our risk assessments and observations are inherently political, but calling something a "mass killing" does not invoke the same intensity of feeling or have the same international legal implications as calling it a "genocide" would. The pragmatic demands of statistical modeling already push us away from focusing on genocide, but these political sensitivities only reinforce that decision.

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