New study finds civil society can be a source of restraint or escalation in mass killings

Protesters run away as police officers use teargas to disperse people demonstrating against police brutality in Lagos, Nigeria, Wednesday Oct. 21, 2020. Civil society actors can help prevent mass atrocities, but are often constrained and their influence is not always positive. After 13 days of protests against alleged police brutality, authorities have imposed a 24-hour curfew in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, as moves are made to stop growing violence. Photo courtesy of Sunday Alamba / AP Photo.

A new study at the University of Connecticut examines the effect of civil society on mass killings.  

UConn political scientist Evan Perkoski worked with Erica Chenoweth, director of the Nonviolent Action Lab at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights, to create this study.  

The study came about after the Arab Spring (2010-2012), when President Obama created the Mass Atrocity Prevention Board. 

“The president got this group together, and they asked researchers like Erica Chenoweth and myself to start studying them to see if we can develop accurate models to statistically forecast when mass killings will happen in the context of national uprisings like those in the Arab Spring,” Perkoski said.  

Perkoski and Chenoweth found that civil society and civilian-led action can take many forms and vary considerably by local context.  

“Civil society actors appear to be more effective in helping prevent mass atrocities when they have strong ties to or standing with ruling political authorities and have multiple interests in containing violence,” Perkoski said.  

Civil society actors can help prevent mass atrocities, but are often constrained and their influence is not always positive, Perkoski said.  

“In general civil society doesn’t have a huge effect on its own, but in cases where you see lots of political inequality and it’s institutionalized, you can see civil society being linked to really bad outcomes,” Perkoski said. “So in places where you have political power distributed by wealth, race, ethnic group or by religion, those are contexts where people can mobilize and sometimes do really bad things.”  

Governments have incentive to keep data on mass killings less visible, and can vary in reliability based on the country the data is coming from, Perkoski said.  

“We’ve had a big push in the last few years to collect better, more micro level data on violence whether it’s mass killings, what rebel groups are doing and how many people are joining rebel organizations,” Perkoski said. “This is following in the footsteps of previous efforts to collect information on things like democracy, income and welfare and other metrics that led the way for what we’re seeing now in the realm of conflict studies.”  

There are two kinds of camps in the research on the effect of civil society, Perkoski said.  

“You have optimists like Secretary Mike Pompeo … these people think civil society is great for states. They can control them and reign in their worst impulses,” Perkoski said. “On the other hand, there are pessimists who see lots of cases where civil society has been activated for bad purposes too, such as in Nazi Germany, where it wasn’t just a state that was committing violence against Jews, but you had individual German citizens who were sometimes identifying Jews and participating in Kristallnacht and other terrible events.” 

Perkoski said he and Chenoweth wanted to see which camp is most correct when it comes to mass violence.  

“We found that neither one offers a great explanation on its own, but you do see civil society operating differently according to the levels of inequality in the state,” Perkoski said. “The more unequal, the worse the civil society can be, but if you have a representative egalitarian state, then that civil society could be a force for good.”  

Since the study, people have come to Perkoski with more questions on how to build society and support civil society programs. 

“We don’t have the time to go in and work on underlying systemic inequalities while there’s an election being contested and people are in the streets right now,” Perkoski said. “So, our response is that maybe you try to support civil society while also working with the state and with individual civil society leaders to make sure the situation doesn’t escalate. In other words, you can support civil society while being cognizant of, and trying to address, how it could spiral out of control.”  

Civilians underestimate the amount of conflict and mass killings there are in the world outside of the U.S., Perkoski said.  

“A lot of these are slow-moving, simmering conflicts where civilian deaths have accumulated over a few years and haven’t suddenly spiked like in World War II or in Rwanda,” Perkoski said. “And as a result there are lots of civilians who are very highly repressed, who are facing significant barriers to political participation, to free speech and to the basic things we take for granted here in the U.S. It’s important to recognize that all this is happening while we’re sometimes overly focused on ourselves.”  

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