Mass killing

A mass killing, as defined by a genocide scholar Ervin Staub, is "killing members of a group without the intention to eliminate the whole group or killing large numbers of people without a precise definition of group membership."[1][nb 1] The term mass killing is used by a number of genocide scholars because the term genocide (its strict definition) does not cover mass killing events when no specific ethnic or religious group is targeted, or when perpetrators are not intended to eliminate the whole group or its significant part. Different models are used by genocide scholars to explain and predict the onset of mass killing events.


According to Anton Weiss-Wendt, any attempts to develop a universally-accepted terminology describing mass killings of non-combatants was a complete failure.[3] Terms used by genocide scholars to describe mass killings include:

  • Mass killing – referencing earlier definitions,[nb 2] Joan Esteban, Massimo Morelli and Dominic Rohner have defined mass killings as "the killings of substantial numbers of human beings, when not in the course of military action against the military forces of an avowed enemy, under the conditions of the essential defenselessness and helplessness of the victims".[6] The term has been defined by Benjamin Valentino as "the intentional killing of a massive number of noncombatants", where a "massive number" is defined as at least 50,000 intentional deaths over the course of five years or less.[7] This is the most accepted quantitative minimum threshold for the term.[6][8][9][nb 3]
  • Genocide – under the Genocide Convention, the crime of genocide generally applies to mass murder of ethnic rather than political or social groups. Protection of political groups was eliminated from the UN resolution after a second vote, because many states[10] anticipated that clause to apply unneeded limitations to their right to suppress internal disturbances.[11] Genocide is also a popular term for mass political killing, which is studied academically as democide and politicide.[9]
  • Politicide – the term politicide is used to describe the killing of groups that would not otherwise be covered by the Genocide Convention.[12] Barbara Harff studies "genocide and politicide", sometimes shortened as "geno-politicide", to include the mass killing of political, economic, ethnic and cultural groups.[9]
  • DemocideRudolph Rummel defined democide as "the intentional killing of an unarmed or disarmed person by government agents acting in their authoritative capacity and pursuant to government policy or high command."[13] According to Rummel, this definition covers a wide range of deaths, including forced labor and concentration camp victims, killings by unofficial private groups, extrajudicial summary killings and mass deaths in deliberate famines as well as killings by de facto governments, e.g. civil war killings.[13][14] Rummel's democide concept is very similar to geno-politicide, but there are two important differences. First, an important prerequisite for geno-politicide is government's intent to destroy a specific group.[15] In contrast, democide deals with wider range of cases, including the cases when governments are engaged in random killing either directly or due to the acts of criminal omission and neglect.[13] Second, whereas some lower threshold exists for a killing event to be considered geno-politicide (Valentino uses 50,000 over five years while other authors use lower threshold), there is no low threshold for democide which covers any murder of any number of persons by any government.[13]
  • Classicide – proposed by Michael Mann to describe the "intended mass killing of entire social classes."[16][nb 4]

Dispossessive vs. coercive mass killingsEdit

Benjamin Valentino, who sees ruler's motives as the key factor explaining the onset of mass killings, outlines two major category of mass killings, namely dispossessive mass killings and coercive mass killings.[18] The first category included ethnic cleansing, killings that accompany agrarian reforms in some Communist states and mass killings during colonial expansion, among others. The second category includes mass killings during counter-guerilla warfare and killings as part of the Axis imperialist conquests during the World War II, among others. Although he does not consider ideology or regime type as an important factor that explains mass killings,[19] Valentino outlines Communist mass killing as a subtype of dispossessive mass killings which is considered as a complication of original theory his book is based on.[9]

In a review of second-generation comparative research on genocide, Scott Straus writes that "Valentino identifies two major types, each with three subtypes. The first major type is 'dispossessive mass killing,' which includes (1) 'communist mass killings' in which leaders seek to transform societies according to communist principles; (2) 'ethnic mass killings,' in which leaders forcibly remove an ethnic population; and (3) mass killing as leaders acquire and repopulate land. The second major type of mass killing is 'coercive mass killing,' which includes (1) killing in wars when leaders cannot defeat opponents using conventional means; (2) 'terrorist' mass killing when leaders use violence to force an opposing side to surrender; and (3) killing during the creation of empires when conquering leaders try to defeat resistance and intimidate future resistance."[19]

Global databases of mass killingsEdit

Two global databases of mass killings are currently available. The first compilation by Rudolph Rummel covers a time period from the beginning of the 20th century utill 1977 while the second compilation by Barbara Harff combines all mass killing events since 1955. The Harff database is the most frequently used by genocide scholars.[9]

These data are intended mostly for statistical analysis of mass killings in attempt to identify the best predictors for their onset. According to Harff, these data are not necessarily the most accurate for a given country, since some sources are general genocide scholars and not experts on local history.[13] A comparative analysis of these two databases revealed a significant difference between the figures of killed per years and low correlation between Rummel's and Harff's data sets. Tomislav Dulić criticized Rummel's generally higher numbers[13] as arising from flaws in Rummel's statistical methodology.[20]

Genocides and politicides from 1955 to 2001 as listed by Harff, 2003[15][nb 5]
Country Start End Nature of episode Est. number of victims Related articles
Sudan October 1956 March 1972 Politicide with communal victims 400,000–600,000 First Sudanese Civil War
South Vietnam January 1965 April 1975 Politicide 400,000–500,000 South Vietnam
China March 1959 December 1959 Genocide and politicide 65,000 1959 Tibetan uprising
Iraq June 1963 March 1975 Politicide with communal victims 30,000–60,000 Ba'athist Iraq
Algeria July 1962 December 1962 Politicide 9,000–30,000
Rwanda December 1963 June 1964 Politicide with communal victims 12,000–20,000
Congo-Kinshasa February 1964 January 1965 Politicide 1,000–10,000
Burundi October 1965 December 1973 Politicide with communal victims 140,000
Indonesia November 1965 July 1966 Genocide and politicide 500,000–1,000,000 Indonesian mass killings of 1965–66
China May 1966 March 1975 Politicide 400,000–850,000
Guatemala July 1978 December 1996 Politicide and genocide 60,000–200,000 Guatemalan genocide
Pakistan March 1971 December 1971 Politicide with communal victims 1,000,000–3,000,000
Uganda December 1972 April 1979 Politicide and genocide 50,000–400,000 Genocides in central Africa
Philippines September 1972 June 1976 Politicide with communal victims 60,000
Pakistan February 1973 July 1977 Politicide with communal victims 5,000–10,000
Chile September 1973 December 1976 Politicide 5,000–10,000
Angola November 1975 2001 Politicide by UNITA and government forces 500,000
Cambodia April 1975 January 1979 Politicide and genocide 1,900,000–3,500,000 Cambodian genocide
Indonesia December 1975 July 1992 Politicide with communal victims 100,000–200,000
Argentina March 1976 December 1980 Politicide 9,000–20,000
Ethiopia July 1976 December 1979 Politicide 10,000
Congo-Kinshasa March 1977 December 1979 Politicide with communal victims 3,000–4,000
Afghanistan April 1978 April 1992 Politicide 1,800,000
Burma January 1978 December 1978 Genocide 5,000
El. Salvador January 1980 December 1989 Politicide 40,000–60,000
Uganda December 1980 January 1986 Politicide and genocide 200,000–500,000 Genocides in central Africa
Syria March 1981 February 1982 Politicide 5,000–30,000
Iran June 1981 December 1992 Politicide and genocide 10,000–20,000 Casualties of the Iranian Revolution
1988 executions of Iranian political prisoners
Sudan September 1983 ? Politicide with communal victims 2,000,000
Iraq March 1988 June 1991 Politicide with communal victims 180,000
Somalia May 1988 January 1991 Politicide with communal victims 15,000–50,000
Burundi 1988 1988 Genocide 5,000–20,000 Hutu massacres of 1988
Sri Lanka September 1989 January 1990 Politicide 13,000–30,000
Bosnia May 1992 November 1995 Genocide 225,000 Bosnian genocide
Burundi October 1993 May 1994 Genocide 50,000 Burundian genocides
Rwanda April 1994 July 1994 Genocide 500,000–1,000,000 Rwandan genocide
Serbia December 1998 July 1999 Politicide with communal victims 10,000

Explanation of the onset of mass killingsEdit

The term mass killing was proposed by genocide scholars in attempts to collect a uniform global database of genocidal events and identify statistical models for prediction of onset of mass killings. Atsushi Tago and Frank Wayman use the term mass killing as defined by Valentino and argue that even with a lower threshold (10,000 killed per year, 1,000 killed per year, or even 1), "autocratic regimes, especially communist, are prone to mass killing generically, but not so strongly inclined (i.e. not statistically significantly inclined) toward geno-politicide."[9]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "In contrast to genocide, I see mass killing as 'killing (or in other ways destroying) members of a group without the intention to eliminate the whole group, or killing large numbers of people' without a focus on group membership."[2]
  2. ^ In the Encyclopedia of Genocide (1999), Israel Charny defined generic genocide as "the mass killing of substantial numbers of human beings, when not in the course of military action against the military forces of an avowed enemy, under conditions of the essential defenselessness and helplessness of the victims."[4] In the 2006 article "Development, Democracy, and Mass Killings", William Easterly, Roberta Gatti and Sergio Kurlat adopted Charny's definition of generic genocide for their use of "mass killing" and "massacre" to avoid the politics of the term genocide altogether.[5]
  3. ^ "Our term, 'mass killing', is used by Valentino (2004: 10), who aptly defines it as 'the intentional killing of a massive number of noncombatants'. The word 'noncombatants' distinguishes mass killing from battle-deaths in war, which occur as combatants fight against each other. The 'massive number' he selects as the threshold to mass killing is 'at least fifty thousand intentional deaths over the course of five or fewer years' (Valentino, 2004: 11-12), which of course averages to at least 10,000 killed per year. [...] One reason for selecting these thresholds of 10,000 and 1,000 deaths per year is that we find that in the Harff data on geno-politicide, which are one of our key datasets, there are many cases of over 10,000 killed per year, but also some in which between 1,000 and 10,000 are killed per year. Therefore, analyzing at a 1,000-death threshold (as well as the 10,000 threshold) insures the inclusion of all the Harff cases. Valentino chooses 50,000 over five years as 'to some extent arbitrary', but a 'relatively high threshold' to create high confidence that mass killing did occur and was deliberate, 'given the generally poor quality of the data available on civilian fatalities' (Valentino, 2004: 12). We believe that our similar results, when we lower the threshold to 1,000 killed per year, are an indication that the data in Harff and in Rummel remain reliable down even one power of ten below Valentino's 'relatively high' selected threshold, and we hope that, in that sense, our results can be seen as a friendly amendment to his work, and that they basically lend confidence, based on empirical statistical backing, for the conceptual direction which he elected to take. [...] Within that constant research design, we then showed that the differences were not due to threshold either (over 10,000 killed per year; over 1,000; or over 1). The only remaining difference is the measure of mass killing itself - democide vs. geno-politicide."[9]
  4. ^ "Mann thus establishes a sort of parallel between racial enemies and class enemies, thereby contributing to the debates on comparisons between Nazism and communism. This theory has also been developed by some French historians such as Stéphane Courtois and Jean-Louis Margolin in The Black Book of Communism: they view class genocide as the equivalent to racial genocide. Mann however refuses to use the term 'genocide' to describe the crimes committed under communism. He prefers the terms 'fratricide' and 'classicide', a word he coined to refer to intentional mass killings of entire social classes."[17]
  5. ^ The list does not include deaths from the Great Chinese Famine and the Great Leap Forward.


  1. ^ Staub, Ervin (1989). The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence. Cambridge University Press. p. 8. ISBN 978-0-521-42214-7.
  2. ^ Staub, Ervin (2011). Overcoming Evil: Genocide, Violent Conflict, and Terrorism. Oxford University Press. p. 100. ISBN 978-0-195-38204-4.
  3. ^ Weiss-Wendt, Anton (2008). "Problems in Comparative Genocide Scholarship". In Stone, Dan (eds). The Historiography of Genocide. London: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 42. doi:10.1057/9780230297. ISBN 978-0-230-29778-4. "There is barely any other field of study that enjoys so little consensus on defining principles such as definition of genocide, typology, application of a comparative method, and timeframe. Considering that scholars have always put stress on prevention of genocide, comparative genocide studies have been a failure. Paradoxically, nobody has attempted so far to assess the field of comparative genocide studies as a whole. This is one of the reasons why those who define themselves as genocide scholars have not been able to detect the situation of crisis."
  4. ^ Charny, Israel (ed). (1999). Encyclopedia of Genocide, Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio.
  5. ^ Easterly, William, Roberta Gatti and Sergio Kurlat. (2006). "Development, democracy, and mass killings", Journal of Economic Growth 11: 129-156.
  6. ^ a b Esteban, Joan Maria, Morelli, Massimo and Rohner, Dominic, Strategic Mass Killings (May 11, 2010). Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, University of Zurich Working Paper No. 486. Available at SSRN:
  7. ^ Benjamin Valentino, Paul Huth, Dylan Bach-Lindsay, (2004), "Draining the Sea: mass killing and guerrilla warfare", International Organization 58,2 (375–407): p. 387.
  8. ^ Valentino (2005) Final solutions p. 91.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Wayman, FW; Tago, A (2009). "Explaining the onset of mass killing, 1949–87". Journal of Peace Research Online. 47: 1–17. doi:10.1177/0022343309342944. S2CID 145155872.
  10. ^ Jones (2010) Genocide p. 137.
  11. ^ Beth van Schaack. The Crime of Political Genocide: Repairing the Genocide Convention's Blind Spot. The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 106, No. 7 (May 1997), pp. 2259‒2291.
  12. ^ Harff, Barbara; Gurr, Ted R. (1988). "Toward Empirical Theory of Genocides and Politicides: Identification and Measurement of Cases since 1945". 32: 359–371. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  13. ^ a b c d e f Barbara Harff. The Comparative Analysis of Mass Atrocities and Genocide. Chapter 12. p. 112–115. in N. P. Gleditsch (ed.), R. J. Rummel: An Assessment of His Many Contributions, SpringerBriefs on Pioneers in Science and Practice 37, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-54463-2. [1][permanent dead link]
  14. ^ Barbara Harff. "Death by Government by R. J. Rummel". The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Summer, 1996), pp. 117‒119. MIT Press.
  15. ^ a b Barbara Harff. No Lessons Learned from the Holocaust? Assessing Risks of Genocide and Political MassMurder since 1955. The American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, No. 1 (February 2003), pp. 57-73. Published by: American Political Science Association. Stable URL: [2]
  16. ^ Mann (2005) Dark Side of Democracy p. 17.
  17. ^ Semelin (2009) Purify and Destroy p. 37.
  18. ^ Valentino (2005) Final solutions p. 70.
  19. ^ a b Straus, Scott (April 2007). "Review: Second-Generation Comparative Research on Genocide". World Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 59 (3): 476–501. doi:10.1017/S004388710002089X. JSTOR 40060166.
  20. ^ Tomislav Dulić. "Tito's Slaughterhouse: A Critical Analysis of Rummel's Work on Democide", Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Jan., 2004), pp. 85‒102. Sage.