Genocides don’t just happen – they develop, sometimes slowly and laboriously, sometimes in rapid downward spirals. Studying and comparing past cases of genocide has allowed social scientists to track patterns in the process leading up to genocide.
The JWW policy staff conducts an annual review of world crises to determine which conflicts worldwide are in danger of escalating into genocide. JWW checks in on the conflicts most at risk of escalating into genocide consistently. We post our findings in our World Crisis Updates, published quarterly.
JWW bases its analysis on the genocide risk assessment model first laid out by Dr. Barbara Harff in 2003, which tracks seven risk factors:
- Prior Genocide:
Several historical cases of genocide have happened in “repeat offender” nations – that is, nations in which genocide has occurred more than once in their histories. State authorities become “habituated” to genocide; that is, they may begin to see the extreme of genocide as a justifiable – at points even necessary – solution to dealing with a real or perceived threat.
- Political Upheaval:
Political upheaval is a necessary but not sufficient risk factor of genocide. Nearly all cases of genocide or politicide since 1955 have occurred soon after or during an episode of political upheaval. Episodes of political upheaval include, among others, violent conflict, redrawing of state boundaries, or defeat in international war. The greater the magnitude of political upheaval in a state, the more likely it is that the authority of the state will resort to genocide as a solution to that upheaval.
- Ethnically Polarized Elites
This risk factor measures whether the ruling elite in a given state disproportionately represents one segment in a heterogeneous society. Groups that feel under-represented by a political elite are more likely to challenge that elite. Also, when elites fear such challenges they are even more likely to define both their interests and security in communal terms, often designing and implementing exclusionary policies.
- Exclusionary Ideology
Not all states experiencing political upheaval, or with past genocides, or with a minority in power resort to genocide. A major spurring force is ideology. When a ruling elite adheres to an ideology that excludes a segment of the population from protection by the state, it can spell major danger for the targeted group. Once a government feels it is under no obligation to protect a certain group, it is not so far a step for that same government to perceive the group as a threat that must be removed.
- Type of Regime
The age-old adage “absolute power corrupts absolutely” plays heavily into discussions of conflict in general, and genocides specifically. An unchecked regime has exclusive control over the ways and means of dealing with opposition or perceived threats, and can be virtually unstoppable once it decides to resort to genocide. Autocracies and partial democracies are much more likely to choose genocide as an option for dealing with a perceived threat than democracies.
- Trade Openness
Another significant factor in the development of genocide is the degree to which states are connected to each other economically. If a country has strong international economic ties, it may be less likely to act in violation of international humanitarian norms. Conversely, states with few economic ties may believe they can commit crimes outside of the international public eye.
- Targets of State-Led Discrimination
Countries that have state policies and practices that deliberately restrict the economic and/or political rights of specific minority groups are at higher risk of genocide. Discrimination by the state lays the groundwork for perceiving a specific group as a threat to its existence – and therefore, as a target for elimination.