The nature of intentional attacks against civilians in the world is mutating. Specifically, mass atrocity is transitioning from ‘state-centric and rebel-involved perpetration toward a murkier world of subterranean atrocity”, writes Charles Anderton.
In a recent book, Last Lectures on the Prevention and Intervention of Genocide, editor Samuel Totten asked each contributor to write a last lecture related to atrocity prevention and to be willing to offer ideas that may be speculative. I contributed a chapter on subterranean atrocities. The phrase – subterranean atrocity – has been used on occasion in media outlets to refer to secretive attacks against civilians but I wanted to use the phrase more concretely. At the same time I wanted to avoid offering a ‘one and only’ definition of subterranean atrocity, especially given the never ending controversies about how to define genocide and other mass atrocity concepts.
I offered a characterisation of subterranean atrocity as:
- Relatively small in scale per unit time and per unit of geographic area;
- Draws upon various ‘secondary inputs’ to achieve the goal of destroying a large number of individuals, especially attackers that appear unaligned to a government or other group and thus are unclear or unknown;
- Seems just as likely to be perpetrated by non-state groups as governments;
- Is prone to being conducted episodically to reduce the risk of drawing attention; and
- Achieves aggregate fatalities that would warrant a ‘mass atrocity’ designation” (Anderton 2017 p.164).
This characterisation of subterranean atrocity is ‘empirically referent,’ ie, one can use data and case studies to see if the elements that constitute subterranean atrocity are ascending or descending over time.
What does the data reveal? The Political Instability Task Force Worldwide Atrocities (PITF-W) data set tracks intentional attacks against civilians in which fatalities are as ‘low’ as five per incident. According to PITF-W data, small scale attacks against civilians worldwide rose from 979 for the period 1997-1999 to 5,329 between 2014-2016. A second aspect of subterranean atrocity is also apparent in the data; The per cent of small scale attacks against civilians by unknown perpetrators rose from 14.9% during 1997-1999 to 71.6%by 2014-2016. Another critical characteristic of subterranean atrocity is attacks against civilians by non-state groups. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Dataset (ACLED) tracks small attacks against civilians in Africa, which includes attacks in which nobody is killed (eg, forced relocations, rapes and looting) as well as fatal incidents. According to ACLED data, militia groups accounted for 32.5%of the 3,924 attacks against civilians in Africa from 1997-1999. By 2014-2016, militias perpetrated 61.5%of the 13,403 small-scale attacks in Africa.
Here’s the speculation – the nature of intentional attacks against civilians in the world is mutating. Specifically, mass atrocity is transitioning from ‘state-centric and rebel-involved perpetration toward a murkier world of subterranean atrocity in which perpetrators are becoming harder to identify and less likely to be states and rebel groups (at least directly)’ (Anderton 2017 p167). This, of course, does not mean that atrocities perpetrated by governments and rebel groups are declining in importance. However, what it suggests is that the many good efforts that have gone into holding states and rebel groups accountable for mass atrocities (eg, Responsibility to Protect, threats of sanctions and litigation etc.) may create incentives for determined atrocity architects to push their activities underground. My colleague and fellow economist Jurgen Brauer, coined the term ‘bleakness theorem’ to capture the incentives of potential atrocity architects and perpetrators to transform ways of destroying people when some of the means of perpetration are closed off (Anderton and Brauer 2016 p17).
Might such actors be substituting into less noticeable underground atrocity? There has been substantial ‘watchers in the sky’ work from the genocide prevention community in recent decades (eg, holding governments and rebel groups accountable, shining the light on government and rebel group atrocities etc.). But even as the frequency of state-centric mass atrocities appears to be declining, subterranean atrocities appear to be ascending. The ‘bleakness theorem’ implies that both top-down (‘watchers in the sky’) and bottom up (‘watchers in the grass’) prevention efforts must be strengthened and implemented in complementary fashions to further close the avenues available to atrocity architects and perpetrators.
Totten, Samuel, ed. 2017. Last Lectures on the Prevention and Intervention of Genocide. New York: Routledge.
Anderton, Charles H. 2017. “Subterranean Atrocities: A Twenty-First-Century Challenge for Mass Atrocity Prevention.” In Samuel Totten (ed.) Last Lectures on the Prevention and Intervention of Genocide. New York: Routledge, pp. 163-170.
Anderton, Charles H. and Jurgen Brauer, 2016. “On the Economics of Genocides, Other Mass Atrocities, and Their Prevention.” In Charles H. Anderton and Jurgen Brauer (eds.) Economic Aspects of Genocides, Mass Atrocities, and Their Prevention. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 3-27.