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The data and research currently presented here is a preliminary collection or relevant material. We will further develop our work on this topic in the future (to cover it in the same detail as for example our entry on World Population Growth).

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The focus of this page is genocide, politicide and democide; these are different types of organised killing targeting particular groups for their ethnicity, religion or political beliefs. The definition of each of these terms is important to this section and it is recommended that readers consult the Data Quality & Definitions section of this page.

Genocides in the 20th Century

As we can see from the red line chart, taken from Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature, the rate of deaths resulting from genocides around the world has been on a downward trend since its peak during the Second World War. The Holocaust is perhaps the darkest chapter in human history. The scale, organisation and nature of the killing was unprecedented and there has been a concerted effort ever since to prevent a similar tragedy. The first session of the United Nations General Assembly affirmed the crime of genocide describing it as “a denial of the right of existence of entire human groups, as homicide is the denial of the right to live of individual human beings.”1

Rate of deaths in genocides, 1900-2008 – Pinker (2011)2
Rate of deaths in genocides, 1900–2008 - Pinker0

The number of active genocides

This line chart tracks at the number of active genocides and politicides around the world between 1955-2015, and the map shows in which countries these were occurring. The data comes from the Political Instability Task Force and details of the definition used in their construction can be found in the definitions section. (Note that data for Yugoslavia had been omitted from the map.)

The magnitude of genocides

The map here shows the magnitude of the total genocide or politicide deaths between 1955-2014 as recorded by the PITF. (Note that data for Yugoslavia had been omitted from the map.) The death magnitude is a non-linear scale developed by the PITF to classify the number of people killed in each episode, as shown in the table. In the map we sum across all episodes in this period: for countries that experienced multiple episodes of genocide, we use the midpoint of the magnitude range to calculate the sum. For more information please consult the codebook for the PITF or see the table beneath the map.

Death Magnitude Number of deaths
0.0 Less than 300
0.5 300 – 1,000
1.0 1,000 – 2,000
1.5 2,000 – 4,000
2.0 4,000 – 8,000
2.5 8,000 – 16,000
3.0 16,000 – 32,000
3.5 32,000 – 64,000
4.0 64,000 – 128,000
4.5 128,000 – 256,000
5 More than 256,000

The impact of genocides on life expectancy

Cambodia and Rwanda both experienced terrible genocides in the second half of the 20th century.

The Cambodian Genocide – carried out by the Khmer Rouge under dictator Pol Pot – lead to the deaths of between 1.5 and 2 million people from 1975 to 1979.

The Rwandan Genocide in 1994 and the civil war in the country was the most deadly genocide in the last decades.3

The impact of these on the life expectancy is shown in this visualization.

Historical Genocides

Although the word genocide was only created in the 20th century, there exist many historical examples of genocide. One of the earliest examples identified is the destruction of Melos in 416 BCE by the Athenian army. The Athenians laid siege to the small island of Melos until the Melian government surrendered, at which point the Athenians proceeded to kill all the adult men and enslaved the women and children. A useful reference for genocide in the ancient world can be found here.

Causes: three main theories

The mainstream theories of the causes of can be broadly summarised as:

  1. Fractionalisation, grievance and dehumanisation: This group of theories collectively argue that genocide can be predicted by higher ethnolinguistic or religious fractionalisation within a country combined with grievances between groups. The final important dimension is dehumanisation of the victim group. This theory is associated with the sociologist Leo Kuper, who conducted some of the earliest studies in comparative genocide.4
  2. National crises: Here, catastrophic events such as war, economic depression or revolution are the triggers for genocide or other types of mass killing. This causality is motivated by one of two theories, the scapegoat theory and the political opportunity theory. The first theory posits that a particular group is identified as the cause of the crisis and that the solution is to eliminate the group. The second theory instead argues that the crisis creates the opportunity for a group to consolidate their power.
  3. Government power: This theory is largely due to Rudolph Rummel and is referred to as the power principle. Rummel argues that “The more power a government has, the more it can act arbitrarily according to the whims and desires of the elite, and the more it will make war on others and murder its foreign and domestic subjects. The more constrained the power of governments, the less it will aggress on others.”

A major implication of this theory is that authoritarian regimes are far more likely to resort to democide than democratic regimes.

Data Quality

One major obstacle in quantifying atrocities of this nature is that many perpetrators work hard to conceal the true number of victims or simply do not keep count. For this reason the estimated death tolls are imprecise with large confidence intervals. Scholars still debate the number of victims of The Holocaust, the largest and most well documented case of genocide in human history.

Definition of Genocide: United Nations

The United Nations uses the following definition to classify acts of genocide:6

any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Definitions: Rudolph Rummel

Rudolph Rummel was professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii and wrote many seminal works on war and violence. Rummel was the first to distinguish between different forms of state violence and invented the term democide. His definitions are listed below:7

  1. Genocide: among other things, the killing of people by a government because of their indelible group membership (race, ethnicity, religion, language).
  2. Politicide: the murder of any person or people by a government because of their politics or for political purposes.
  3. Mass Murder: the indiscriminate killing of any person or people by a government.
  4. Democide: The murder of any person or people by a government, including genocide, politicide, and mass murder.

It is important to recognise that these definitions are not the same as those used by the Political Instability Task Force (PITF). In the PITF dataset a dominant entity other than the government may carry out politicide and a distinction is made between state terror and politicide.

Definition of Genocide and Politicide: PITF

The dataset used for data visualisations in this section is the Political Instability Task Force (PITF). A distinction is made between acts of genocide and politicide, the first being motivated by ethnic or religious difference, while the second is motivated by political opposition to the dominant power. Another important distinction is made between genocide/politicide and state repression or terror.

In genocides the victimized groups are defined primarily in terms of their communal (ethnolinguistic, religious) characteristics. In politicides, by contrast, groups are defined primarily in terms of their political opposition to the regime and dominant groups.

Genocide and politicide are distinguished from state repression and terror. In cases of state terror authorities arrest, persecute or execute a few members of a group in ways designed to terrorize the majority of the group into passivity or acquiescence. In the case of genocide and politicide authorities physically exterminate enough (not necessarily all) members of a target group so that it can no longer pose any conceivable threat to their rule or interests.

Data Sources

Political Instability Task Force, State Failure

  • Data: “State Failure Problem Set, annual data on cases of ethnic war, revolutionary war, adverse regime change, and genocide/politicide (also, consolidated cases of political instability), includes annual indicators of numbers of rebels, area affected, and numbers of deaths”
  • Geographical coverage: Global by incident
  • Time span: since 1955
  • Available at: http://www.systemicpeace.org/inscrdata.html

Rudolph Rummel: 20th Century Democide

Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP)

Genocide Studies Programme at Yale

  • Data: Genocide data
  • Geographical coverage: Cambodia, Rwanda, East Timor, Guatemala, and Former Yugoslavia
  • Time span: since 1946
  • Available at: http://gsp.yale.edu/