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Genocide and related crimes against humanity are devastating in their scale and scope; in the enduring scars for survivors and their families and the long-term trauma they cause in societies; and in the economic, political, and social costs and consequences, often extending far beyond the territory in which they were committed.
Working to prevent future genocides requires an understanding of how these events occur, including considerations about warning signs and human behaviors that make genocide and mass atrocities possible.
We know from studying the Holocaust and other genocides that such events are never spontaneous. They are always preceded by a range of early warning signs. If warning signs are detected and their causes addressed, it may be possible to prevent catastrophic loss of life.
The Early Warning Project has produced a global risk assessment every year since 2014. Since then, we have seen multiple mass atrocities occur, including a genocide against the Rohingya in Burma, the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians in South Sudan, and identity-based targeted killings in Ethiopia and Cameroon. Early warning is simply not prompting enough early action.
This assessment identifies the risk—the possibility—that a mass killing may take place. On average, one or two countries experience a new episode of mass killing each year. But relative infrequency does not make the brutality less devastating for victims: a mass killing, by our definition, is 1,000 or more civilians deliberately killed by armed forces (whether government or non-state), over a period of a year or less, because of their membership in a particular group. Virtually all cases of genocide include mass killings that meet this definition.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s founding charter, written by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, mandates that our institution strive to make preventive action a routine response when warning signs appear. Wiesel wrote, “Only a conscious, concerted attempt to learn from past errors can prevent recurrence to any racial, religious, ethnic or national group. A memorial unresponsive to the future would also violate the memory of the past.”
The Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide was established to fulfill that vision by transmitting the lessons and legacy of the Holocaust, and “to alert the national conscience, influence policy makers, and stimulate worldwide action to confront and prevent genocide.” The Simon-Skjodt Center’s Early Warning Project works to fulfill this aspect of the Museum’s mandate by using innovative research to identify early warning signs. In doing so, we seek to do for today’s potential victims what was not done for the Jews of Europe.
One of the Simon-Skjodt Center’s goals is to ensure that the United States government, other governments, and multilateral organizations have institutionalized structures, tools, and policies to effectively prevent and respond to genocide and other mass atrocities. The Early Warning Project is listed in the Global Fragility Act (2019) as a source to determine where the US government should prioritize its Global Fragility Strategy, a landmark ten-year effort to improve US action to stabilize conflict-affected areas and prevent extremism and violent conflict.
The more governments and international organizations develop their own early warning tools and processes, the better our Early Warning Project can help serve as a catalyst for preventive action.
In many places, mass killings are ongoing—in countries such as Burma, Syria, and South Sudan. These cases are well-known. But this risk assessment’s primary focus—and the gap we seek to fill—is to draw attention to countries at risk of a new outbreak of mass killing. We use this model as one input for selecting countries for more in-depth research and policy engagement. The Simon-Skjodt Center focuses on situations where there is a risk of, or ongoing, large-scale group-targeted identity-based mass atrocities and where we believe we can make the most impact based on a combination of factors. These factors include the ability for Simon-Skjodt Center staff to conduct rigorous field work in the area (or a pre-existing level of staff expertise in the area), opportunities for effective engagement with the community at risk, and the need to draw attention to cases where policy, media, and public attention on the case are lower than merited by the level of risk.
Preventing genocide is of course difficult. In deciding how to respond, policy makers face an array of constraints and competing concerns. Yet, the choice to prevent one potential tragedy should not take a back seat to confronting ongoing crises. We know from the Holocaust what can happen when early warning signs go unheeded. We aim for this risk assessment to serve as a tool and a resource for policy makers and others interested in prevention. We hope this helps them better establish priorities and undertake the discussion and deeper analysis that can help reveal where preventive action can make the greatest impact in saving lives.
Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide
The Early Warning Project’s Statistical Risk Assessment uses publicly available data and statistical modeling to produce a list of countries ranked by their estimated risk of experiencing a new episode, or onset, of mass killing.
Policy makers face the challenge of simultaneously responding to ongoing mass atrocities, such as those in Burma, China, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Syria, and trying to prevent entirely new mass atrocity situations. A critical first step toward prevention is accurate and reliable assessment of countries at risk for future violence. Earlier identification of risk broadens the scope of possible preventive actions. This report aims to help identify countries meriting preventive actions.
In essence, our statistical model identifies patterns in historical data to answer the following question: Which countries today look most similar to countries that experienced mass killings in the past, in the year or two before those mass killings began? The historical data include basic country characteristics, as well as data on governance, war and conflict, human rights and civil liberties, and socioeconomic factors.
This report highlights findings from our Statistical Risk Assessment for 2021–22, focusing on:
We recognize that this assessment is just one tool. It is meant to be a starting point for discussion and further research, not a definitive conclusion. We aim to help governments, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations determine where to devote resources for additional analysis, policy attention, and, ultimately, preventive action. We hope that this report and our Early Warning Project as a whole inspire governments and international organizations to invest in their own early warning capabilities.
Figure 1: Heat map of estimated risk of new mass killing, 2021–22
Before discussing the results, we underscore five points about interpreting this Statistical Risk Assessment:
First, as a statistical matter, mass killings are rare. On average, just over one percent of countries see a new mass killing in any given year—that means one or two countries. Our risk model predicts a similar number of new episodes of mass killing, so the average two-year risk estimate produced by our model is just under two percent. Just five out of 162 countries have a two-year risk estimate greater than ten percent, and the highest-risk country, Pakistan, is estimated to have about a one in seven chance of experiencing a new mass killing in 2021 or 2022.
Second, our model is designed to assess the risk of a new mass killing, not of the continuation or escalation of ongoing episodes. Much of the Simon-Skjodt Center’s work spotlights ongoing atrocities and urges lifesaving responses. We focus here on the risk of new mass killing to help fill an analytic gap that is critical to prevention. This feature is especially important to bear in mind when interpreting results for countries that are currently experiencing mass killings, such as Burma/Myanmar and Syria (see Figure 1 and our website for a full list of these countries). For these countries, our assessment should be understood as an estimate of the risk that a new mass killing event would be launched by a different perpetrator or targeting a different civilian group in 2021 or 2022. (Our model estimates that having a mass killing currently in progress is associated with lower risk of another one beginning.) Regardless of their ranking in this assessment, cases of ongoing atrocities demand urgent action (see Figure 4 for the Early Warning Project’s complete list of ongoing mass killings).
Third, for practical reasons, we only forecast mass killings within countries (i.e., in which the perpetrator group and the targeted civilian group reside in the same country). This risk assessment does not forecast civilian fatalities from interstate conflict. Situations in which large numbers of civilians are killed deliberately by an armed group from another country are not captured in our historical data or current forecasts. This decision does not involve a value judgment about the moral or practical significance of such atrocities, only a pragmatic judgment about what we are able to forecast reliably.
Fourth, readers should keep in mind that our model is not causal: the variables identified as predicting higher or lower risk of mass killings in a country are not necessarily the factors that drive or trigger atrocities. For example, a large population does not directly cause mass atrocities; however, countries with large populations have been more likely to experience mass killing episodes in the past, so this factor helps us identify countries at greater risk going forward. We make no effort to explain these kinds of relationships in the data; we only use them for their predictive value. An important consequence of the non-causal nature of these forecasts is that actions aimed at addressing risk factors identified in the model are not necessarily effective ways of mitigating the risk of mass atrocities; this assessment does not seek to evaluate atrocity prevention policy prescriptions. For example, although our model finds that countries coded as having severely limited freedom of movement for men are at greater risk of experiencing mass killings than are other countries, this does not imply that action to improve freedom of movement for men would help prevent mass killings. This assessment is meant to be a starting point for discussion and further research, pointing policy makers and other practitioners to the countries that merit additional analysis to determine how to prevent atrocities.
Fifth, this assessment is based on available data reflecting conditions as of the end of 2020. Events that occurred in 2021, such as the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and the coup in Sudan, are not reflected in country risk estimates. Our assessment relies on publicly available data that is reliably measured for nearly all countries in the world, annually updated, and historically available going back many years. Because mass killing is rare, global data spanning decades are necessary to identify patterns. This means that some risk factors that might be useful predictors, but for which data meeting the above criteria are not available, are not included in the model (e.g., data on dangerous speech may be a useful predictor, but is not currently included due to a lack of data availability). Additionally, in situations where governments deliberately restrict access to international observers, such as in Burma’s Rakhine State or China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, existing data might not fully reflect conditions on the ground.
Our model generates a single risk estimate for each country, representing the estimated risk for a new state-led or non-state-led mass killing. Figure 2 displays the estimated risk in 2021 or 2022 for the 30 highest-ranked countries. For every country in the top 30, we recommend that policy makers consider whether they are devoting sufficient attention to addressing the risks of mass atrocities occurring within that country. Strategies and tools to address atrocity risks should, of course, be tailored to each country’s context.
Further qualitative analysis is needed to understand the specific drivers of risk in a given situation, the mass atrocity scenarios that could be deemed plausible, and the resiliencies that could potentially be bolstered to help prevent future atrocities. This kind of deeper qualitative assessment is exemplified in Early Warning Project reports on Côte d’Ivoire (2019), Mali (2018), Bangladesh (2017), and Zimbabwe (2016). Concerned governments and international organizations should consider conducting their own assessments of countries at risk, which should suggest where adjusting plans, budgets, programs, and diplomatic strategies might help prevent mass killings in high-risk countries. Because these qualitative assessments are resource intensive, policy makers should prioritize that type of analysis on countries whose risk estimate is relatively high according to this Statistical Risk Assessment, and where opportunities for prevention exist.
Note: * Indicates ongoing state-led mass killings; ° indicates ongoing non-state-led mass killings. Some countries have multiple ongoing episodes of one or both type (e.g., Burma/Myanmar has two ongoing state-led mass killings; Nigeria has an ongoing state-led and an ongoing non-state-led mass killing). Risk-based ranking is in parenthesis. The probabilities displayed here are associated with the onset of an additional mass killing episode. See the full list of ongoing mass killings on our website. For more information on crimes against humanity in China, see later section on “Unexpected results.”
In the paragraphs below, we discuss each country’s risk according to our statistical model, and note any instances of ongoing violent conflict, group-targeted human rights abuses, and significant events that pose risk for major political instability. These brief summaries include information that goes beyond the data in our statistical model, but they are not intended to provide a comprehensive analysis of factors contributing to atrocity risk. Rather, they are intended to serve as starting points for those who are interested in deeper qualitative analysis. For each country, we also identify the specific factors that account for the risk estimates from our model (see “Methods” below for more detail on the risk factors in the model) and note whether the country is experiencing an ongoing mass killing.
The results of this risk assessment should be a starting point for discussion and further analysis of opportunities for preventive action. For countries in each of the following categories, we recommend asking certain key questions to gain a fuller understanding of the risks, adequacy of policy response, and to identify additional useful lines of inquiry.
Countries in the top ten that are not discussed in this year’s report are Nigeria and Sudan. To learn more about the factors that contributed to the high-risk estimate of any of these countries, visit the country pages on our website.
In addition to Pakistan, India, and Yemen, a few other countries have appeared near the top of our rankings for several years.
Some readers may be surprised that a country like Syria, where the scale and intensity of the war crimes and crimes against humanity are well-known, does not rank among the highest-risk countries in our assessment.
The percentage risk and ranking for each country represents the estimated probability that a new onset of mass killing begins in that country—that either a new perpetrator group emerges and kills more than 1,000 civilians of a specific group, or an existing perpetrator group begins targeting a new group of civilians—not that an existing mass killing continues. This decision follows the project’s goal to provide early warning before large-scale killings begin, while opportunities for prevention are greatest.
In Syria, there are two ongoing mass killings: a state-led mass killing against perceived political opposition since 2011, as well as a non-state-led mass killing perpetrated by IS and its affiliates against perceived opposition since 2012. In the case of Syria, it is difficult to imagine the state or IS targeting a new group of civilians, as the current parameters of the target groups are so broad. That means that Syria’s risk and ranking (5.6 percent risk and 14th rank) is the likelihood that a new perpetrator group emerges in 2021 or 2022.
See the Museum’s website for more information about the crisis in Syria and efforts to bring it to an end.
We highlight three countries that moved up in our rankings substantially between the 2020–21 and 2021–22 assessments.
Global statistical risk assessments can help by identifying countries whose relatively high (or low) risk estimates surprise regional experts. In cases where our statistical results differ substantially from expectations, we recommend conducting deeper analysis and revisiting assumptions. The purpose of this analysis is not to pit qualitative analysts and statistical models against one another, but rather to deepen our understanding of risk in the country in question. We highlight three countries that, in our informal judgment, fall into this category.
The data used to produce this assessment is from 2020 (published by most sources in early- to mid-2021). This means that changes that occurred in 2021 are not captured in this risk assessment. To enable users to explore how such changes might affect a country’s risk estimate and ranking, our online platform has an interactive data tool that allows users to explore how changes to a country's risk factors would affect its risk of mass killing, holding all other variables constant. Users may want to:
For example, in 2021–22, Afghanistan ranks fourth, with a 10.9 percent estimated risk. This assessment is based on 2020 data. However, someone following events in Afghanistan may suspect that events over the course of 2021—namely the fall of the Afghan government in August—may have an impact on that risk.
Using the tool, we see, for example, that if political killings become systematic and incited or approved by top government leaders, the estimate would increase from 11 percent to 17 percent risk of a new mass killing. If civil society repression increases, the estimate would increase from 11 percent to 13 percent risk of a new mass killing. If both of these variables were to change, the new risk estimate for Afghanistan would go up to 20 percent, or about a one in five chance of a new mass killing.
To produce this assessment, we employ data and statistical methods designed to maximize the accuracy and practical utility of the results. Our model assesses the risk for onset of both state-led and non-state-led mass killings over a two-year period.
The data that inform our model come from a variety of sources. On the basis of prior empirical work and theory, we selected more than 30 variables, or risk factors, as input for our statistical model (see the discussion of our modeling approach below). All data used in our model are publicly available, regularly updated, and available without excessive delay. They also have, in our estimation, minimal risk of being retrospectively coded in ways that could depend on observed mass killings or their absence, cover all or almost all countries in the world, and go back at least to 1980 (but ideally to 1945). We include variables reflecting countries’ basic characteristics (e.g., geographic region, population); socioeconomic measures (e.g., changes in gross domestic product per capita); measures of governance (e.g., restrictions on political candidates and parties); levels of human rights (e.g., freedom of movement); and records of violent conflict (e.g., battle-related deaths, ongoing mass killings). Alongside the model, we publish a data dictionary and make the model and all data available on our GitHub repository. The only dataset the Early Warning Project maintains is that of new and ongoing mass killing events.
Our modeling approach is described in detail on our website. We use a logistic regression model with “elastic-net” regularization. In summary, based on a set of about 30 variables and data on mass killing going back to 1945, the algorithm identifies predictive relationships in the data, resulting in an estimated model. We then apply this model to recent data (from 2020 for the 2021–22 assessment) to generate forecasts. While the exact number of countries varies by year, the project includes all internationally recognized countries with populations of more than 500,000. The model automatically selects variables that are useful predictors; see our methodology page for a list of variables selected by the model. We emphasize that these risk factors should not be interpreted as causes or “drivers” of risk but simply as correlates of risk that have proven useful in forecasting.
We assessed the accuracy of this model in ways that mimicked how we use its results: We built our model on data from a period of years and then tested its accuracy on data for later years (i.e., we conducted out-of-sample testing). Our results indicate that about two out of every three countries that later experienced a new onset of mass killing ranked among the top-30 countries in a given year. See the accuracy page on our website for more details. We also analyzed the uncertainty of our model's risk rankings. This analysis gives us very high confidence, for example, that each of the 19 highest-risk countries in our 2021–22 assessment would fall within the top-30 countries, even after accounting for uncertainty due to limited data. See the uncertainty page on our website for more details.
Early warning is a crucial element of effective atrocity prevention. The purpose of our statistical risk assessment is to provide one practical tool to the public for assessing risk in countries worldwide. This tool should enable policy makers, civil society, and other analysts to focus attention and resources on countries at highest risk, especially those not currently receiving sufficient attention.
This quantitative assessment is designed to serve as a starting point for additional analysis. States and international organizations have developed and implemented tools for qualitative atrocity risk assessments. We see the application of such tools as a complementary next step after our statistical analysis. These in-depth assessments should in turn spur necessary adjustments in strategic plans, budgets, programs, and diplomatic strategies toward high-risk countries. By combining these approaches—global risk assessment, in-depth country analysis, and preventive policy planning—we have the best chance of preventing future mass atrocities.
from the Early Warning Project and the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide