Mollie Zapata is a research associate for the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where she is responsible for conducting quantitative and qualitative research on a wide range of issues related to genocide prevention, with a primary focus on the Center’s Early Warning Project.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Afghanistan, and Egypt top the list of countries most likely to experience a new mass killing in 2018 or 2019, according to a new forecast released by the Early Warning Project, a partnership between the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Dartmouth College. The report’s release coincided with the launch of the project’s new website, including interactive data tools, accessible reports, and data files.
The Early Warning Project uses quantitative and qualitative methods to spotlight countries where mass atrocities have not yet begun, but where the risk for such violence is high. To produce this assessment, the project draws on more than seventy years of historical data, using a machine learning algorithm to identify country characteristics and patterns in the two years preceding onset of mass killing historically to identify countries similarly at risk today.
High Risk Countries: DRC, Afghanistan, Egypt
Given DRC’s continuing national political crisis in the lead-up to presidential elections this month and numerous violent conflicts on the country’s periphery, it is unsurprising that the DRC faces high risk for a new episode of state-led or nonstate-led mass killing episode in 2018 or 2019.
Violence in the southern Kasai region, which has reportedly included serious abuses by the government and by nonstate forces, could be a potential locus of a new mass killing. (The mass killing led by nonstate actors in the country’s east is considered to be an ongoing situation and therefore not forecast in this risk assessment.) Additionally, with presidential elections scheduled for December 23, experts are calling attention to heightened risk for increased political violence, while noting that DRC has never experienced a peaceful transition of power.
DRC has been in the top ten in every risk assessment since the project’s launch in 2014, but jumped from tenth in the 2016 assessment to second in 2017-18 and now first in the 2018-19 report. However, while this jump may be due to changes on the ground, it could also be a reflection of the new methodology and data sources.
Afghanistan and Egypt are the second and third most at-risk countries for a new episode of mass killing. Like the DRC, Afghanistan is already experiencing an ongoing nonstate-led mass killing episode, perpetrated by the Taliban. This risk assessment relates to the chance of a new mass killing, not to the likelihood of Taliban attacks continuing or increasing. Risk factors including lack of freedom of movement for men and governance characteristics (anocracy) contribute to Afghanistan’s high ranking.
Egypt, the highest-risk country without an ongoing mass killing, faces multiple security and human rights challenges. There have been reports of large-scale attacks by extremist groups, including the self-proclaimed Islamic State, on Christians and Sufi Muslims and violence against civilians perpetrated by both insurgents and government forces in the Sinai Peninsula.
In each of the top three at-risk countries, similar factors account for the high risk: all have a mix of democratic and autocratic governance characteristics (i.e., an anocratic regime type), large population sizes, a history of mass killing, high infant mortality rates, and a lack freedom of domestic movement for men. (The model includes the freedom of movement variable, provided by the Varieties of Democracy project, for both men and women, but finds that only freedom of movement for men is useful in forecasting risk.) Additionally, the DRC and Egypt have experienced coup attempts in the last five years, and both countries’ governments approve political killings, according to the Varieties of Democracy project.
Countries Warranting Additional Analysis
In addition to highest-risk countries, the report highlights countries that have been consistently at high risk of new mass killing events (Yemen, Turkey, and Burundi); countries where risk is rising (Zimbabwe and Cameroon); and countries that have unexpected results given their current relative stability and international reputation (Angola, Ivory Coast, and Haiti), and expectation that the country would be ranked higher based on instability in the case of Venezuela.
Countries in these categories in particular merit deeper analysis. Ivory Coast’s eleventh place ranking in the 2018-19 assessment was seen as unexpectedly high by many experts considering the country’s relative stability since 2011. Beyond the factors assessed in the model, Ivory Coast’s upcoming 2020 presidential elections, extremely partisan military, and social fractures along ethnopolitical lines could pose risks of atrocities. To more closely analyze the situation there, the Early Warning Project will undertake a field-based assessment in the coming months on the specific risks present in Ivory Coast, modeled on its reports on Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, and Mali. This assessment will seek to elucidate these country-specific dynamics and make recommendations for preventive action.
According to the Genocide Prevention Task Force, “Effective early warning does not guarantee successful prevention, but if warning is absent, slow, inaccurate, or indistinguishable from the 'noise' of regular reporting, failure is virtually guaranteed.” While there is a long way to go in institutionalizing preventive action in the face of mass atrocities, systematic early warning tools like the Early Warning Project can provide critical information to help policymakers and NGOs recognize and respond to warning signs.