At STAND Canada, we envision a world without genocide. We focus on two conflict regions – the situations in Sudans and the DRC – but that isn’t all we do. Ending genocide means not only trying to end those genocides already occurring, but also to better understand what causes genocide so that we may prevent it from happening in the first place. Much of the advocacy work we do at STAND Canada, is also applicable to preventative work as well as “intervention” work. So, let’s talk about the causes of genocide!

Much of the work in genocide prevention – too much to outline here in the entirety of the body of literature – seeks to identify the causes of genocide so as to be able to act on preventing genocides before they happen. In the interests of brevity, I will limit my review to two scholars in two posts: Helen Fein, and Barbara Harff. Those familiar with genocide scholarship will note the absence of a number of other prominent scholars including Ervin Staub. Harff and Fein have been selected carefully for the reason that their contributions have revolutionized the field both in terms of their methods and finding. They both have been further selected beyond any original contribution, but because of their thoughtful critique and summarization of a broad range of the existing literature. Lastly, these two scholars were chosen because there exists a kind of linear continuity between them, as each influenced the other.


 In her groundbreaking essay “Accounting for genocide after 1945: Theories and some findings”, Helen Fein hypothesizes several causes of genocide and compares them against the empirical evidence provided by past genocides in Asia, Africa and the Mid-East from 1948-1988. One explanation offered originally by Leo Kuper, re-articulated by Fein, is that genocide requires a plural society and some form of stratification. When one supposes, on the most basic level, how infrequently if ever at all genocide has plagued a mono-ethnic, mono-religious, mono-linguistic society, this explanation seems almost self-evident. Another explanation offered, an echo of Harff’s argument, is that genocide requires a concentration of state power and indifference to human rights characterized most closely by authoritarian or militaristic regimes. Democracies, conceivably limited by the checks placed on their power by citizens and obligations to civil and political liberties, are least likely to commit genocide. Lastly, genocide often results in tandem with or after the fact of war. In such situation, genocide may serve as a similarly war-like act of aggression, as retribution for either a lost war or a war in which the enemy is the victim group. From these explanations, Fein offers the following additions, drawn from the analysis of the following sample table.

Fein’s first theoretical projection is that “most perpetrators of genocide are repeat offenders”. Indeed, eight of the eleven perpetrators (73%) of her sample were repeat offenders. Her second projection is the there is “a high likelihood of political exclusion and discrimination of ethno-classes producing rebellions which instigate genocides and other state-sponsored massacres”. This again is affirmed in her analysis of the data, where she found that genocide was preceded by ethnic-based rebellion in over half of the cases. Fein’s third projection is that “unfree, authoritarian, and one-party communist states (in ascending order) are most likely to use genocide”. Again, this held consistent with the evidence, as she found that unfree states were four times more likely to commit genocide than free states, communist states were four and a half times more likely to have committed genocide than unfree states. The final proposition is that “states involved in wars are many more times as likely to have employed genocide than other states”.

Still interested in learning more about the scholarly side of genocide work? To hone your understanding the genocide – what it is and its causes, check out this piece by Adam Jones:

Neekoo Collett is a Master of Global Affairs students at the Munk School, University of Toronto. Her research focuses on “factors of restraint” and the situation of Baha’is in Iran, as well as the politics of genocide language and the proposed Crimes Against Humanity Convention. This post is adapted from previously published work. 

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“Causes of Genocide” by Neekoo Collett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.