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Predicting Violence Within Genocide

“Can we predict when and where violence will likely break out within cases of genocide? I present a theoretical model to help identify areas susceptible and resistant to violence during genocide. The model conceptualizes violence onset as a function of elite competition for control of the state from above and the ethnic segregation of society from below. First, in areas where extremist elite control is weak, violence is delayed or averted because a contest for control between pro-violence elites and anti-violence moderates arises and the competition takes time to resolve. Where control is strong, violence is immediate or early because extremists face little competition and can rapidly deploy the state's coercive resources against targeted groups. Second, in areas where the integration of ethnic groups is high, violence is delayed because it takes time to break existing interethnic bonds and destroy bridging social capital. Cohesive communities resist elite attempts to divide them through interethnic trust and cooperation. I test the model by examining sub-national variation in genocide onset across Rwanda's 145 communes using new data and duration analysis. I additionally explore causal mechanisms by within-case analyses comparing early and late onset in two communes. The findings have implications for international policy makers as they respond to genocides and strategically prioritize limited intervention resources.”

That's the abstract from an important new article by Omar McDoom in the journal Political Geography. You can read the whole thing for free here. One intriguing practical implication for outsiders responding to incipient genocides and other episodes of mass killing is that peacekeeping forces sent to stanch fighting might have greater net effect if deployed quickly to lower-risk areas. Per McDoom,

“The delay to the violence in these communities would provide the time needed to deploy peacekeepers preventatively. Peacekeepers would then face the easier challenge of a peace to keep rather than a conflict to end. The presence of peacekeepers would also strengthen extant local resistance from moderate elites and cohesive communities opposed to violence. Together, international peacekeepers and cooperative local communities could help turn areas within resistant regions into safe havens for resident civilians and for refugees from more vulnerable regions.”

As McDoom allows, we'll need similar studies of other cases to learn whether or not these patterns hold outside of Rwanda. Still, it's always encouraging to see such careful empirical analysis with an eye toward prediction and, through it, prevention and mitigation. Our early-warning project focuses on anticipating the onset of mass-killing episodes, rather than their dynamics across time and space once they begin. Eventually, though, we hope to expand our work in this direction as resources, data, and interest allow.