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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. Virtually all cases of genocide include mass killing. If warning signs are detected and their causes addressed, it may be possible to prevent catastrophic loss of life.
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 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 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 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, such violence is 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.
Preventing genocide is of course difficult. In deciding how to respond, policy makers face an array of constraints and competing concerns. The choice to prevent one potential tragedy often takes a back seat when policy makers are confronted by multiple ongoing conflicts. But 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.
This report highlights findings from our Statistical Risk Assessment for 2019–2020, 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 likewise 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.
Before discussing the results, we underscore four 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 between two and three percent. Just seven out of 162 countries have a two-year risk estimate greater than ten percent, and the highest-risk country, Afghanistan, has about a one in five chance of experiencing a new mass killing in 2019 or 2020.
Second, our model is designed to assess the risk of a new mass killing, not of the continuation or escalation of ongoing episodes. 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 2019 or 2020. Our model estimates that having a mass killing currently in progress is associated with lower risk of another one beginning, as it is rare for a country to have two distinct mass killing episodes concurrently.
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, large population size 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 whether or not action to improve freedom of movement for men would prevent mass killings.
Figure 2 displays the estimated risk of a new onset of mass killing (state-led or non-state-led) in 2019 or 2020 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. Additional analysis on context-specific drivers and vulnerabilities should suggest where adjusting plans, budgets, programs, and diplomatic strategies might help prevent mass killings in high-risk countries.
Note: * indicates ongoing state-led mass killings; ° indicates ongoing non-state-led mass killings. Some countries have two ongoing mass killings of one type (i.e., Burma/Myanmar has two ongoing state-led mass killings). Some countries have multiple ongoing episodes. 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.
Attending to potential future atrocities in all high-risk countries, not just to ongoing crises, is a critical first step toward forging effective preventive strategies. High-risk countries that are not currently experiencing mass killings merit special attention. Some of the countries on this list are currently experiencing armed conflicts that do not (yet) amount to mass killing according to our definition. Others, however, are notable in their lack of significant armed conflict currently: Angola, Republic of Congo, Burundi, Uganda, and Tanzania.
Our model generates a single risk estimate for each country; additional analysis is required to assess whether potential perpetrators in a specific country are state and/or non-state actors and, if the latter, which specific groups. 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. For example, as part of its atrocity prevention strategy, the White House recently released a report committing to conducting “in-depth qualitative analyses focused on high-risk countries as needed.” 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.
Here we highlight the three countries that topped our risk list in the 2019–2020 assessment, all of which have ranked high for several years, and the top factors accounting for their risk estimates (see “Methods” below for more detail on the risk factors in the model).
The remaining seven countries in the top ten are South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Cameroon, and Ethiopia. Analysis of DRC, Egypt, and Sudan is below. To learn more about for the factors that contributed to the high-risk estimate of any of these countries, visit the country pages on our website.
In addition to the top three, a few countries have appeared near the top of our rankings for several years but have yet to experience a new mass killing episode in that period.
We highlight three countries that moved up in our rankings substantially between the 2018–19 and 2019–2020 assessments, and one that declined significantly. Four other countries—Mozambique (33rd to 20th), Bangladesh (13th to 33rd), Ivory Coast/Côte d’Ivoire (11th to 30th), and Zimbabwe (24th to 39th)—moved up or down more than ten spots and into or out of the top 30 “high-risk” range.
One way global statistical risk assessments are helpful is in identifying countries whose relatively high (or low) risk estimates may 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.
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., the number of years a country has existed, geographic region, population); socioeconomic measures (e.g., changes in gross domestic product per capita); measures of governance (e.g., regime type); 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 ongoing mass killing.
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 2018 for the 2019–2020 assessment) to generate forecasts. 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 eight out of every ten countries that later experienced a new onset of mass killing had risk estimates of greater than four percent (which usually meant they were among the 30 top-ranked countries in a given year). We are preparing a technical paper in which we assess our model and others according to multiple performance measures.
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