This Blog AMICOR is a communication instrument of a group of friends primarily interested in health promotion, with a focus on cardiovascular diseases prevention.
To contact send a message to
Though the world seems crueler than ever, a close look at the data about mass killings yields reasons to hope.
In a recent Democracy Lab piece, editor Christian Caryl laments that genocide and mass atrocities continue to occur, and wonders why. After nodding to arguments that “we’ve made a lot of progress in preventing mass slaughter,” he turns pessimistic:
I have to confess that I don’t find the signs of progress he cites quite so encouraging. There are far too many places in the world where people are still being singled out for death on a grand scale simply because they belong to the wrong group.
In moral terms, it is impossible to disagree. Any situation “where people are still being singled out for death on a grand scale simply because they belong to the wrong group” is one situation too many.
Empirically, however, the historical trend is more encouraging than Caryl’s enumeration of recent examples and potential genocides implies. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker aggregates data on genocides (loosely defined) over the course of the twentieth century from three public sources: research by R.J. Rummel, the Political Instability Task Force (PITF), and the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP). Each of these data sets is imperfect in its own way, and the quality of all estimates of the tolls of specific episodes of mass killing — in these sources or elsewhere — ranges from careful approximation to crude guessing. Still, the data they have produced collectively represent some of our best well-educated guesses about the frequency and severity of deliberate, lethal violence against noncombatant civilians by states and other armed groups over the past 100 years.
So what do those data show? Below, via Max Roser, is a reproduction of Figure 6-7 from Pinker’s book, showing annual death rates according Rummel and PITF data from 1900 to 2008. As Pinker wrote, “in the four decades that followed [the 1940s], the rate (and number) of deaths from democide went precipitously, if lurchingly, downward.” Contrary to popular belief, that long-term decline did not stop when the Cold War ended. Despite terrible genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda, and elsewhere, the global trend remained “unmistakably downward… The first decade of the new millennium [was] the most genocide-free of the past fifty years.”
Coincidentally, the statistics discussed in Pinker’s book stop just before the start of the global spell of economic malaise and political instability that began with the financial crisis of 2008 and includes the Arab Spring. That spell has produced new episodes of mass atrocities, including ongoing ones in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. To assess the trend since then, we can turn to the most recent data from UCDP, which now covers the period from 1989 through 2013. The chart below plots deaths per 100,000 people per year — the same statistic as in the previous chart, and shown on the same scale — for that 14-year period. UCDP’s data set includes low, best, and high estimates; to err on the side of overcounting, I used the high ones. The estimates of global population used to calculate the annual rates come from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators./.../