Early Results from a New Atrocities Early Warning System

For the past couple of years, I have been working as a consultant to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide to help build a new early-warning system for mass atrocities around the world. Six months ago, we started running the second of our two major forecasting streams, a “wisdom of (expert) crowds” platform that aggregates probabilistic forecasts from a pool of topical and area experts on potential events of concern. (See this conference paper for more detail.)

The chart below summarizes the output from that platform on most of the questions we’ve asked so far about potential new episodes of mass killing before 2015. For our early-warning system, we define a mass killing as an episode of sustained violence in which at least 1,000 noncombatant civilians from a discrete group are intentionally killed, usually in a period of a year or less. Each line in the chart shows change over time in the daily average of the inputs from all of the participants who choose to make a forecast on that question. In other words, the line is a mathematical summary of the wisdom of our assembled crowd—now numbering nearly 100—on the risk of a mass killing beginning in each case before the end of 2014. Also:

  • Some of the lines (e.g., South Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan) start further to the right than others because we did not ask about those cases when the system launched but instead added them later, as we continue to do.
  • Two lines—Central African Republic and South Sudan—end early because we saw onsets of mass-killing episodes in those countries. The asterisks indicate the dates on which we made those declarations and therefore closed the relevant questions.
  • Most but not all of these questions ask specifically about state-led mass killings, and some focus on specific target groups (e.g., the Rohingya in Burma) or geographic regions (the North Caucasus in Russia) as indicated.
Crowd-Estimated Probabilities of Mass-Killing Onset Before 1 January 2015

Crowd-Estimated Probabilities of Mass-Killing Onset Before 1 January 2015

I look at that chart and conclude that this process is working reasonably well so far. In the six months since we started running this system, the two countries that have seen onsets of mass killing are both ones that our forecasters promptly and consistently put on the high side of 50 percent. Nearly all of the other cases, where mass killings haven’t yet occurred this year, have stuck on the low end of the scale.

I’m also gratified to see that the system is already generating the kind of dynamic output we’d hoped it would, even with fewer than 100 forecasters in the pool. In the past several weeks, the forecasts for both Burma and Iraq have risen sharply, apparently in response to shifts in relevant policies in the former and the escalation of the civil war in the latter. Meanwhile, the forecast for Uighurs in China has risen steadily over the year as a separatist rebellion in Xinjiang Province has escalated and, with it, concerns about a harsh government response. These inflection points and trends can help identify changes in risk that warrant attention from organizations and individuals concerned about preventing or mitigating these potential atrocities.

Finally, I’m also intrigued to see that our opinion pool seems to be sorting cases into a few clusters that could be construed as distinct tiers of concern. Here’s what I have in mind:

  • Above the 50-percent threshold are the high risk cases, where forecasters assess that mass killing is likely to occur during the specified time frame.  These cases won’t necessarily be surprising. Some observers had been warning on the risk of mass atrocities in CAR and South Sudan for months before those episodes began, and the plight of the Rohingya in Burma has been a focal point for many advocacy groups in the past year. Even in supposedly “obvious” cases, however, this system can help by providing a sharper estimate of that risk and giving a sense of how it is trending over time. In the case of Burma, for example, it is the separation that has happened in the last several weeks that tells the story of a switch from possible to likely and thus adds a degree of urgency to that warning.
  • A little farther down the y-axis are the moderate risk cases—ones that probably won’t suffer mass killing during the period in question but could more readily tip in that direction. In the chart above, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Burundi all land in this tier, although Iraq now appears to be sliding into the high risk group.
  • Clustered toward the bottom are the low risk cases where the forecasters seem fairly confident that mass killing will not occur in the near future. In the chart above, Russia, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia are the cases that land firmly in this set. China (Uighurs) remains closer to them than the moderate risk tier, but it appears to be creeping toward the moderate-risk group. We are also running a question about the risk of state-led mass killing in Rwanda before 2015, and it currently lands in this tier, with a forecast of 14 percent.

The system that generates the data behind this chart is password protected, but the point of our project is to make these kinds of forecasts freely available to the global public. We are currently building the web site that will display the forecasts from this opinion pool in real time to all comers and hope to have it ready this fall.

In the meantime, if you think you have relevant knowledge or expertise—maybe you study or work on this topic, or maybe you live or work in parts of the world where risks tend to be higher—and are interested in volunteering as a forecaster, please send an email to us at ewp@ushmm.org.

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Follow-Up on Bangladesh

Per BBC News this morning:

Bangladesh is entering a new phase of violence and uncertainty triggered by the opposition’s objections to elections due to be held on 5 January. In recent days the country has been paralysed by violent strikes and transport blockades. The BBC’s Bengali editor Sabir Mustafa in Dhaka says that there is now increasing speculation that a state of emergency may be declared to pull the country back from the brink…

Since 25 October they have held general strikes and road-rail blockades, leading to widespread violence and hitting the economy hard.

Dozens of vehicles have been burned or damaged by blockade supporters on the only highway linking the port city of Chittagong with the capital Dhaka. The all-important garments industry, which accounts for nearly 80% of Bangladesh’s exports, has been unable to make shipments for a week.

”If the current crisis continues for another month, then the whole economy will stumble to a halt and it will be very difficult to recover from it,” said Rubana Huq, managing director of the Mohammadi Group, a major garments exporting firm.

In a late-October post, I used Bangladesh as an example of “the political muddles that trap most countries for decades on a sine wave of democratization and de-democratization, and why durable exits from those oscillations are so hard to come by.” I concluded:

The histories of Europe and Latin America imply that Bangladesh will eventually find a way out of these oscillations onto a new equilibrium that includes durable democracy. Unfortunately, the history of countries born in the past half-century—never mind a cursory look at the politics on the streets of Dhaka right now—suggests this election cycle probably isn’t the moment that’s going to happen.

Things could still turn for the better, and this crisis could lead to a resolution that puts democracy in Bangladesh on firmer footing. That said, the latest news from BBC does not make me optimistic.

In fact, my statistical assessments of coup risk for 2013 lead me to believe that the prospects of another extra-constitutional seizure of power in Bangladesh in the near future are no longer small. That’s what happened when things last reached this kind of fever pitch in 2007, and Bangladesh’s presence among the 20 most coup-susceptible countries in the world this year suggests there’s a sizable chance we’ll see a similar turn of events again before election day on 5 January. If I treat the annual statistical forecast as my prior and use Bayes’ rule and some back-of-the-envelope estimates about the relationship between unrest this intense and coup risk to update it, I assess the probability of a coup attempt in Bangladesh in the run-up to elections at about 30 percent.

That may not sound like much, but it’s a lot higher than the estimate of about 10 percent I get when I do a similar exercise for Thailand right now, where a somewhat similar process is unfolding. In other words, if I had to pick between Bangladesh or Thailand as the country more likely to see a coup attempt in the next several weeks, I would bet on Bangladesh.

Bangladesh as Archetype of Contemporary Political Development

If you want to get a feel for the political muddles that trap most countries for decades on a sine wave of democratization and de-democratization, and why durable exits from those oscillations are so hard to come by, you might want to take a look at Bangladesh.

Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan in 1971 after a genocidal struggle that left hundreds of thousands dead and displaced tens of millions. Since then, the country has roughly split its time between democratic and authoritarian rule. As happened in many newly independent states in the twentieth century, the champions of national independence came to power through elections and then refused to leave. Also typically, the one-party regime born of that refusal soon fell to a restive military. Seventeen years passed before another fairly-elected civilian government came to power, starting the longest spell of more or less democratic government in the country’s still-short history.

Over the ensuing two decades, the core feature of politics in Bangladesh has been acute polarization. Whenever elections approach, the rival Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) engage in bitter public showdowns that bring tens of thousands of supporters into the streets and often produce low-level violence on the margins. Unsurprisingly, the two parties carry that same animosity into government. “Once a party is in power in Bangladesh,” the Economist recently noted, “it is the unalterable tradition to declare nearly everything decreed by your opponents to be null and void.”

Meanwhile, the military has continued to play a more active role in politics than democratic theory would allow. In 2007, as elections approached and the cyclical clash between the AL and BNP cranked up, Bangladesh’s military leaders apparently saw intervention as the lesser of a few evils and tossed their civilian rulers. Two years passed under a caretaker government of the military’s choosing. Civilian supremacy returned at the end of 2008, when the AL won elections widely regarded as the fairest in Bangladesh’s history, but according to the International Crisis Group, Bangladesh’s military remains “visibly restive”:

On 19 January [2012, the military] announced it had foiled a coup by mid-level and retired officers who sought to install an Islamist government. This followed an assassination attempt on an AL member of parliament in October 2009 by mid-level officers seething over the deaths of 57 officers in a mutiny by their subordinate paramilitary border guards the previous February. Large-scale dismissals, forced retirements, deepening politicisation and a heavy-handed approach to curb dissent and root out militants have created an unstable and undisciplined force.

The systemic result of this struggle between two political rivals and the military is the familiar “truel,” or Mexican standoff, that characterizes politics in many countries stuck between stable dictatorship and durable democracy. The defining feature of this standoff is each player’s uncertainty about its rivals’ intentions; no one trusts that the others won’t make a grab for power and then shut out or destroy the others. That uncertainty, in turn, sharply increases the odds of undemocratic behavior, because even players fully committed to democracy in principle might feel pressed to cement or usurp power in order to block their distrusted rivals from doing the same to them first.

Now, in late 2013, elections are due again, and Bangladesh seems to be spiraling toward another local climax of this cyclical confrontation. As Reuters reports, the AL and BNP have called competing rallies in the capital this Friday, and at least one party leader has told followers to come “prepared with arms.” Already this year, state security forces have killed scores of protesters  in unrest spawned by the workings of a war-crimes tribunal that many BNP sympathizers see as a political bludgeon directed against them. According to my statistical forecasts, Bangladesh ranks among the 20 countries in the world most susceptible to coup attempts this year, a result that confirms many observers’ concerns that the military might respond to wider disorder as it did in 2007.

So how does a country get off of this roller coaster? Attempts to induce democratic consolidation often focus on institutional design, but Bangladesh shows how this prescription is more easily written than filled.

One of the focal points in the current confrontation is the AL government’s recent decision to dispense with an arrangement whereby a caretaker body would replace the elected government in the run-up to elections. The BNP has cast that decision as an attempt by the ruling AL to tilt the upcoming election in its own favor. Ironically, though, the caretaker arrangement has often been the focal point of mutual recriminations in past elections, as the two parties would fight over whether or not the caretakers were sufficiently unbiased.

In other words, the system that was meant to dampen that mutual distrust only seemed to end up stoking it, but when one party finally made a change, that act is seen through the same lens. The fundamental problem with expecting rule changes to induce democratic consolidation is that the process of institutional design and change is itself political, so it is subject to the same pathologies and touches off the same worries.

Outsiders can also exhort party leaders to negotiate in good faith, but parties aren’t unitary actors. Those leaders sit atop a massive pyramid of principal-agent problems, and internal rivals often respond opportunistically to attempts at compromise by stoking fears of capitulation and offering themselves as the bulwark against it. Aware of this risk, those leaders rarely take the first step.

The histories of Europe and Latin America imply that Bangladesh will eventually find a way out of these oscillations onto a new equilibrium that includes durable democracy. Unfortunately, the history of countries born in the past half-century—never mind a cursory look at the politics on the streets of Dhaka right now—suggests this election cycle probably isn’t the moment that’s going to happen.

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