Mass killing

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A mass killing, as defined by a genocide scholar Ervin Staub, is "killing members of a group without the intention to eliminate the whole group or killing large numbers of people without a precise definition of group membership".[1][nb 1] This term is used by a number of genocide scholars because the term "genocide" (its strict definition) does not cover mass killing events when no specific ethnic or religious group is targeted, and when perpetrators are not intended to eliminate of the whole group or its significant part. This article primarily discusses different models used by genocide scholars to explain and predict the onset of mass killing events.


According to Weiss-Wendt, any attempts to develop a universally accepted terminology describing mass killings of non-combatants was a complete failure[3] Below are listed the terms used by genocide scholars to describe mass killings.

Mass killing
Referencing earlier definitions,[nb 2] Joan Esteban, Massimo Morelli and Dominic Rohner have defined mass killings as "the killings of substantial numbers of human beings, when not in the course of military action against the military forces of an avowed enemy, under the conditions of the essential defenselessness and helplessness of the victims".[6] The term has been defined by Benjamin Valentino as "the intentional killing of a massive number of noncombatants", where a "massive number" is defined as at least 50,000 intentional deaths over the course of five years or less.[7] This is the most accepted quantitative minimum threshold for the term.[6][8][9][nb 3]
Under the Genocide Convention, the crime of genocide generally applies to mass murder of ethnic rather than political or social groups. Protection of political groups was eliminated from the UN resolution after a second vote, because many states[10] anticipated that clause to apply unneeded limitations to their right to suppress internal disturbances.[11] Genocide is also a popular term for mass political killing, which is studied academically as democide and politicide.[9]
The term "politicide" is used to describe the killing of groups that would not otherwise be covered by the Genocide Convention.[12] Barbara Harff studies "genocide and politicide", sometimes shortened as geno-politicide, to include the mass killing of political, economic, ethnic and cultural groups.[9]
R. J. Rummel defines democide as "the intentional killing of an unarmed or disarmed person by government agents acting in their authoritative capacity and pursuant to government policy or high command".[13] According to him, this definition covers a wide range of deaths, including forced labor and concentration camp victims; killings by "unofficial" private groups; extrajudicial summary killings; and mass deaths in deliberate famines, as well as killings by de facto governments, e.g. civil war killings.[13][14]

Rummel's "democide" concept is very similar to "geno-politicide", however there are two important differences. First, an important prerequisite for geno-politicide is government's intent to destroy a specific group.[15] In contrast, "democide" deals with wider range of cases, including the cases when governments are engaged in random killing either directly or due to the acts of criminal omission and neglect.[13]

Second, whereas some lower threshold exists for a killing event to be considered "geno-politicide" (Valentino uses 50,000/five years, other authors use lower threshold), there is no low threshold for democide, which covers any murder of any number of persons by any government.[13]

Proposed by Michael Mann to describe the "intended mass killing of entire social classes".[16][nb 4]

Dispossessive vs coercive mass killings[edit]

Benjamen Valentino, who sees ruler's motives as the key factor explaining the onset of mass killings, outlines two major category of mass killings, dispossessive mass killings and coercive mass killings.[18] The first category included ethnic cleansing, killings that accompany agrarian reforms in some states led by communists, mass killings during colonial expansion, etc. The second category includes mass killings during counter-guerilla warfare, killings during the Axis imperialist conquests during the World War II, etc. Although Valentino does not consider ideology or regime type as an important factor that explains mass killings,[19] he outlines communist mass killings as a subtype of dispossessive mass killings, which is considered as a complication of original theory his book is based on.[9]

Global databases of mass killings[edit]

Two global databases of mass killings are currently available. The first compilation, by Rudolph Rummel, covers a time period from the beginning of the 20th century till 1977, and the second compilation, by Barbara Harff, combines all mass killing events since 1955. The Harff database is the most frequently used by genocide scholars.[9] These data are intended mostly for statistical analysis of mass killings in attempt to identify the best predictors for their onset. According to Harff, these data are not necessarily the most accurate for a given country, since some sources are general genocide scholars and not experts on local history.[13] A comparative analysis of these two databases revealed a significant difference between the figures of killed per years and low correlation between Rummel's and Harff's data sets. Tomislav Dulić criticized Rummel's generally higher numbers[13] as arising from flaws in Rummel's statistical methodology.[20]

Genocides and politicides from 1955 to 2001 as listed by Harff, 2003[15]
Country and date Start End Nature of episode Estimated number of victims Related articles
Sudan Oct 1956 Mar 1972 Politicide with communal victims 400,000–600,000 First Sudanese Civil War
South Vietnam Jan 1965 Apr 1975 Politicide 400,000–500,000 South Vietnam
China Mar 1959 Dec 1959 Genocide and politicide 65,000 1959 Tibetan uprising
Iraq Jun 1963 Mar 1975 Politicide with communal victims 30,000–60,000 Ba'athist Iraq
Algeria Jul 1962 Dec 1962 Politicide 9,000–30,000
Rwanda Dec 1963 Jun 1964 Politicide with communal victims 12,000–20,000
Congo-Kinshasa Feb 64 Jan 1965 Politicide 1,000–10,000
Burundi Oct 1965 Dec 1973 Politicide with communal victims 140,000
Indonesia Nov 1965 Jul 1966 Genocide and politicide 500,000–1,000,000 Indonesian mass killings of 1965–1966
China May 1966 Mar 1975 Politicide 400,000–850,000
Guatemala Jul 1978 Dec 1996 Politicide and genocide 60,000–200,000 Guatemalan genocide
Pakistan Mar 1971 Dec 1971 Politicide with communal victims 1,000,000–3,000,000
Uganda Dec 1972 Apr 1979 Politicide and genocide 50,000–400,000 Genocides in central Africa
Philippines Sep 1972 Jun 1976 Politicide with communal victims 60,000
Pakistan Feb 1973 Jul 1977 Politicide with communal victims 5,000–10,000
Chile Sep 1973 Dec 1976 Politicide 5,000–10,000
Angola Nov 1975 2001 Politicide by UNITA and government forces 500,000
Cambodia Apr 1975 Jan 1979 Politicide and genocide 1,900,000–3,500,000 Cambodian genocide
Indonesia Dec 1975 Jul 1992 Politicide with communal victims 100,000–200,000
Argentina Mar 1976 Dec 1980 Politicide 9,000–20,000
Ethiopia Jul 1976 Dec 1979 Politicide 10,000
Congo-Kinshasa Mar 1977 Dec 1979 Politicide with communal victims 3,000–4,000
Afghanistan Apr 1978 Apr 1992 Politicide 1,800,000
Burma Jan 1978 Dec 1978 Genocide 5,000
El. Salvador Jan 1980 Dec 1989 Politicide 40,000–60,000
Uganda Dec 1980 Jan 1986 Politicide and genocide 200,000-500,000 Genocides in central Africa
Syria Mar 1981 Feb 1982 Politicide 5,000–30,000
Iran Jun 1981 Dec 1992 Politicide and genocide 10,000–20,000 Casualties of the Iranian Revolution, 1988 executions of Iranian political prisoners
Sudan Sep 1983 ? Politicide with communal victims 2,000,000
Iraq Mar 1988 Jun 1991 Politicide with communal victims 180,000
Somalia May 1988 Jan 1991 Politicide with communal victims 15,000–50,000
Burundi 1988 1988 Genocide 5,000–20,000 Hutu massacres of 1988
Sri Lanka Sep 1989 Jan 1990 Politicide 13,000–30,000
Bosnia May 1992 Nov 1995 Genocide 225,000 Bosnian genocide
Burundi Oct 1993 May 1994 Genocide 50,000 Burundian genocides
Rwanda Apr 1994 Jul 1994 Genocide 500,000–1,000,000 Rwandan genocide
Serbia Dec 1998 Jul 1999 Politicide with communal victims 10,000

This list does not include deaths from the Great Chinese Famine and Great Leap Forward.

Explanation of the onset of mass killings[edit]

The term "mass killing" was proposed by genocide scholars in attempts to collect a uniform global database of genocidal events and identify statistical models for prediction of onset of mass killings.

Frank Wayman and Atsushi Tago use the term "mass killing" as defined by Valentino, and they concluded that, even with a lower threshold (10,000 killed per year, 1,000 killed per year, or even 1), "autocratic regimes, especially communist, are prone to mass killing generically, but not so strongly inclined (i.e. not statistically significantly inclined) toward geno-politicide".[citation needed]


  1. ^ "In contrast to genocide, I see mass killing as 'killing (or in other ways destroying) members of a group without the intention to eliminate the whole group, or killing large numbers of people' without a focus on group membership."[2]
  2. ^ In the Encyclopedia of Genocide (1999), Israel Charny defined generic genocide as "the mass killing of substantial numbers of human beings, when not in the course of military action against the military forces of an avowed enemy, under conditions of the essential defenselessness and helplessness of the victims."[4] In the 2006 article "Development, democracy, and mass killings", William Easterly, Roberta Gatti and Sergio Kurlat adopted Charny's definition of generic genocide for their use of "mass killing" and "massacre" to avoid the politics of the term "genocide" altogether.[5]
  3. ^ "Our term, 'mass killing', is used by Valentino (2004: 10), who aptly defines it as 'the intentional killing of a massive number of noncombatants'. The word 'noncombatants' distinguishes mass killing from battle-deaths in war, which occur as combatants fight against each other. The 'massive number' he selects as the threshold to mass killing is 'at least fifty thousand intentional deaths over the course of five or fewer years' (Valentino, 2004: 11-12), which of course averages to at least 10,000 killed per year." ... " One reason for selecting these thresholds of 10,000 and 1,000 deaths per year is that we find that in the Harff data on geno-politicide, which are one of our key datasets, there are many cases of over 10,000 killed per year, but also some in which between 1,000 and 10,000 are killed per year. Therefore, analyzing at a 1,000-death threshold (as well as the 10,000 threshold) insures the inclusion of all the Harff cases. Valentino chooses 50,000 over five years as 'to some extent arbitrary', but a 'relatively high threshold' to create high confidence that mass killing did occur and was deliberate, 'given the generally poor quality of the data available on civilian fatalities' (Valentino, 2004: 12). We believe that our similar results, when we lower the threshold to 1,000 killed per year, are an indication that the data in Harff and in Rummel remain reliable down even one power of ten below Valentino's 'relatively high' selected threshold, and we hope that, in that sense, our results can be seen as a friendly amendment to his work, and that they basically lend confidence, based on empirical statistical backing, for the conceptual direction which he elected to take." ... "Within that constant research design, we then showed that the differences were not due to threshold either (over 10,000 killed per year; over 1,000; or over 1). The only remaining difference is the measure of mass killing itself - democide vs. geno-politicide."[9]
  4. ^ "Mann thus establishes a sort of parallel between racial enemies and class enemies, thereby contributing to the debates on comparisons between Nazism and communism. This theory has also been developed by some French historians such as Stéphane Courtois and Jean-Louis Margolin in The Black Book of Communism: they view class genocide as the equivalent to racial genocide. Mann however refuses to use the term 'genocide' to describe the crimes committed under communism. He prefers the terms 'fratricide' and 'classicide', a word he coined to refer to intentional mass killings of entire social classes."[17]


  1. ^ Staub, Ervin (1989). The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence. Cambridge University Press. p. 8. ISBN 978-0-521-42214-7.
  2. ^ Staub, Ervin (2011). Overcoming Evil: Genocide, Violent Conflict, and Terrorism. Oxford University Press. p. 100. ISBN 978-0-195-38204-4.
  3. ^ Weiss-Wendt A. (2008) Problems in Comparative Genocide Scholarship. In: Stone D. (eds) The Historiography of Genocide. Palgrave Macmillan, London. DOI "There is barely any other field of study that enjoys so little consensus on defining principles such as definition of genocide, typology, application of a comparative method, and timeframe. Considering that scholars have always put stress on prevention of genocide, comparative genocide studies have been a failure. Paradoxically, nobody has attempted so far to assess the field of comparative genocide studies as a whole. This is one of the reasons why those who define themselves as genocide scholars have not been able to detect the situation of crisis."
  4. ^ Charny, Israel (ed). (1999). Encyclopedia of Genocide, Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio.
  5. ^ Easterly, William, Roberta Gatti and Sergio Kurlat. (2006). "Development, democracy, and mass killings", Journal of Economic Growth 11: 129-156.
  6. ^ a b Esteban, Joan Maria, Morelli, Massimo and Rohner, Dominic, Strategic Mass Killings (May 11, 2010). Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, University of Zurich Working Paper No. 486. Available at SSRN:
  7. ^ Benjamin Valentino, Paul Huth, Dylan Bach-Lindsay, (2004), "Draining the Sea: mass killing and guerrilla warfare", International Organization 58,2 (375–407): p. 387.
  8. ^ Valentino (2005) Final solutions p. 91.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Wayman, FW; Tago, A (2009). "Explaining the onset of mass killing, 1949–87". Journal of Peace Research Online. 47: 1–17. doi:10.1177/0022343309342944. S2CID 145155872.
  10. ^ Jones (2010) Genocide p. 137.
  11. ^ Beth van Schaack. The Crime of Political Genocide: Repairing the Genocide Convention's Blind Spot. The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 106, No. 7 (May 1997), pp. 2259‒2291.
  12. ^ Harff, Barbara; Gurr, Ted R. (1988). "Toward Empirical Theory of Genocides and Politicides: Identification and Measurement of Cases since 1945". 32: 359–371. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  13. ^ a b c d e f Barbara Harff. The Comparative Analysis of Mass Atrocities and Genocide. Chapter 12. p. 112–115. in N. P. Gleditsch (ed.), R. J. Rummel: An Assessment of His Many Contributions, SpringerBriefs on Pioneers in Science and Practice 37, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-54463-2. [1][permanent dead link]
  14. ^ Barbara Harff. "Death by Government by R. J. Rummel". The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Summer, 1996), pp. 117‒119. MIT Press.
  15. ^ a b Barbara Harff. No Lessons Learned from the Holocaust? Assessing Risks of Genocide and Political MassMurder since 1955. The American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, No. 1 (February 2003), pp. 57-73. Published by: American Political Science Association. Stable URL: [2]
  16. ^ Mann (2005) Dark Side of Democracy p. 17.
  17. ^ Semelin (2009) Purify and Destroy p. 37.
  18. ^ Valentino (2005) Final solutions p. 70.
  19. ^ Scott Straus. Review: Second-Generation Comparative Research on Genocide. Reviewed Work(s): Genocide in the Age of the Nation State by Mark Levene; The Dark Sideof Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing by Michael Mann; The Killing Trap: Genocide in the Twentieth Century by Manus I. Midlarsky; Purifier et détruire: Usages politiques desmassacres et génocides by Jacques Sémelin; Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the Twentieth Century by Benjamin A. Valentino; A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Raceand Nation by Eric D. Weitz. World Politics, Vol. 59, No. 3 (Apr., 2007), pp. 476-501. Published by: Cambridge University Press. Stable URL: [3]
  20. ^ Tomislav Dulić. "Tito's Slaughterhouse: A Critical Analysis of Rummel's Work on Democide", Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Jan., 2004), pp. 85‒102. Sage.

See also[edit]