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.


Genocide scholar Barbara Harff has developed a model which utilizes an analysis of the proposed causes of genocide in order to predict the risk factors of situations of concern morphing into genocide. Her analysis makes use of various categories, each of which is analyzed along certain criteria and is given a numerical weight. These categories are as follows.

The first category, Prior Genocides and Politicides, uses a dichotomous variable indicative of whether a genocide or politicide has occurred in the country since 1945. A previous genocide or politicide adds 3.5 points to the index. Harff found in her research that arguments about the recurrence of genocide were supported, as the risks of new episodes of genocide were more than three times greater when state failures occurred in countries that had prior instances of genocide. She also found that the effects of magnitude of political upheaval were weaker than those of prior genocide, writing “it appears that habituation to genocide adds more to the risks of future genocide than the magnitude of internal war and adverse regime change per se”.

The second category, Ethnic Character of the Ruling Elite, indicates whether the ruling elite represents a minority communal group. It adds a weight of 2.5 points. This is supported by her research, in which Harff notes that risks of genocide were two and a half times more likely in countries where the political elite was based mainly or entirely on an ethnic minority.

The third category, Ideological Character of the Ruling Elite, indicates whether leaders adhere to “a belief system that identifies some overriding purpose or principle that justifies efforts to restrict, persecute, or eliminate certain categories of people”. This category holds a weight of 2.5 points. In her research, Harff found that countries in which the ruling elite adhered to an exclusionary ideology were two and a half times as likely to have state failures leading to genocide, as opposed to those with no such ideology.

The fourth category, is the type of regime in place in a state. As Harff explains, “Autocracy and democracy were indexed using the Polity global data set”s 0-to-10 scales based on coded information on political institutions. Full autocracies have a democracy-minus-autocracy score of -7 to -10, and partial autocracies have a score from +1 to -6. A full autocracy adds 3.5 points to the index; a partial autocracy adds 2 points, and a partial democracy or mixed regime adds 0 points”.

The fifth category, Trade Openness, serves as an indicator of state”s willingness to maintain the rules of law and fair practices in the economic sphere. Harff measures this as the total value of exports plus imports as a percentage of GDP. On the index, risks are seen as highest in countries with the lowest openness scores, 45 or less (2.5 points in the index), while medium scores are 46 to 70 (adds 1 point to the index). In her research, Harff found that countries with low trade openness had two and a half times greater odds of having state failures culminate in genocide. She writes: “High trade openness (and the underlying economic and political conditions it taps) not only minimizes the risks of state failure in general, as shown in other State Failure analyses, but reduces substantially the odds that failures, if they do occur, will lead to geno-/politicides”. The results support arguments about the importance of a country”s international economic linkages in inhibiting gross human rights violations.

The sixth category, State-Led Discrimination, developed by Ted R. Gurr, is a recent addition to Harff’s calculations, as it has proven to be more significant than the magnitude of political upheaval used previously. Here state policies and practices deliberately restrict the economic and/or political rights of specific minority groups (2 points).

The seventh and final category is Instability Risks, as major instances of instability, either internal war or abrupt regime changes, preceded almost all historical episodes of genocide. In this category, Harff makes use of Hewitt”s estimates of the likelihood of future instability in a country. Countries with scores greater than 20 are assigned 3 points, those between 10-20 are assigned 2 points, and those between 5-10 are assigned 1 point.  In her research, Harff writes: “that the greater the magnitude of previous internal wars and regime crises, summed over the preceding 15 years, the more likely that a new state failure will lead to genocide”. Indeed, empirically, when the magnitude of past upheaval was divided between high and low, in high-magnitude cases the risks of genocides were nearly two times greater.

So…how do STAND Canada’s situations of concern fit in? Let’s take a look.

In our next instalment, we’ll talk about another scholar’s contribution to the discussions – Helen Fein. Stay tuned!


“Barbara Harff’s risk assessments,” Genocide Prevention Advisory Network.

Barbara Harff, “No Lessons Learned from the Holocaust? Assessing Risks of Genocide and Political Mass Murder since 1955,” American Political Science Review 97, no. 1 (February 2003): 66.

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.