The year that’s about to end has distinguished itself in at least one way we’d prefer never to see again. By my reckoning, 2013 saw more new mass killings than any year since the early 1990s.
When I say ”mass killing,” I mean any episode in which the deliberate actions of state agents or other organizations kill at least 1,000 noncombatant civilians from a discrete group. Mass killings are often but certainly not always perpetrated by states, and the groups they target may be identified in various ways, from their politics to their ethnicity, language, or religion. Thanks to my colleague Ben Valentino, we have a fairly reliable tally of episodes of state-led mass killing around the world since the mid-1940s. Unfortunately, there is no comparable reckoning of mass killings carried out by non-state actors—nearly always rebel groups of some kind—so we can’t make statements about counts and trends as confidently as I would like. Still, we do the best we can with the information we have.
With those definitions and caveats in mind, I would say that in 2013 mass killings began:
- In Egypt, where state security forces followed their July coup with massacres of nonviolent protesters and an increasingly brutal counterinsurgency campaign in the Sinai;
- In Nigeria, where the military is flailing about in its so-far-unsuccessful efforts to quell Boko Haram’s vicious rebellion, a mass killing in its own right;
- In the Central African Republic, where, having finally toppled a president whose writ had been something of a fiction anyway, Séléka rebels engaged in widespread marauding that set off a downward spiral of retributory murders by the remnants of Séléka and the anti-balaka militias that have mobilized in response to them;
- And now probably in South Sudan, where a long-running political rivalry boiled over again this month in a mutiny-cum-coup attempt that has apparently sparked ”mass extrajudicial killings“, the scope of which remains unknown, in part because they continue as I write.
Of course, even as these new cases have developed, episodes of mass killings have continued in a number of other places:
- In Syria, where state forces and militias allied with them continue to use indiscriminate violence on a grand and horrible scale in their efforts to quash the rebellion that began there in 2011 (and, as is the case in many civil wars, where those rebels sometimes commit atrocities of their own);
- In Sudan, where the uncertainty is not whether the regime is engaging in mass killing but in how many parts of the country at once and targeting how many different groups;
- In Iraq, where the resumption of the civil war that never really ended has probably killed more than 8,000 people in 2013 alone, many of them noncombatants who happened to be in the wrong place when a car bomb or suicide vest went off;
- In Afghanistan, where civilian casualties accelerated in the first half of 2013 (and probably the second), including “women and children [who] were being killed by [the Taliban's] roadside bombs almost daily”;
- In the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a hodge-podge of local and regional conflicts have displaced hundreds of thousands and killed a significant fraction thereof in incidents like this one just reported today;
- In Mexico, where the death toll from “criminal insurgency” has already outstripped the tally from many civil wars of the past half-century;
- In Pakistan, where sectarian violence seems to have escalated again this year beyond its recently miserable levels;
- In Myanmar, where civilians in several mountainous states remain stuck in the middle of a decades-old fight between local militias and the state’s armed forces, which have occasionally used scorched-earth tactics in their failed efforts to defeat the insurgents (see here and here);
- And in North Korea, where policy-induced famines and a sprawling system of prison camps continue to kill unknown but almost certainly large numbers of civilians each year.
In a follow-up post I hope to write soon, I’ll offer some ideas on why 2013 was such a bad year for deliberate mass violence against civilians. In the meantime, if you think I’ve misrepresented any of these cases here or overlooked any others, please use the Comments to set me straight.