Principal-Agent Problems in the Perpetration of Mass Atrocities

Does military intervention affect civilian death tolls? Existing research has focused on international actors’ ability to limit ongoing slaughter, but has not examined their ability to prevent the emergence or escalation of such killing. I develop a theory of government killing that accounts not only for the government’s decision to kill civilians but also for the transference of the killing order from leader to perpetrator, and for the perpetrator’s implementation of that order. Focusing on the principal-agent relationship produces new expectations about the effects of military intervention on government killing. I find that international actors are well-equipped to limit civilian slaughter: Intervention supporting the government decreases the likelihood that a government orders civilians killed. Intervention against the government leads to a decrease in death tolls when killing occurs. Ultimately, supportive intervention is a useful means of preventing government killing, while oppositional intervention limits its escalation once it begins.

That’s the abstract from a really interesting paper by Jacqueline DeMerritt that’s forthcoming in the Journal of Conflict Resolution. It’s great to see someone pull together these seemingly disparate literatures—theories of political violence on the one hand and organization theory on the other—in search of better ways to think about addressing a profound and very real problem. Props to Erica Chenoweth and Daniel Solomon for calling it out on Twitter.

In hopes of seeing this project grow, whether in DeMerritt’s hands or someone else’s, here are two thoughts I had after reading the paper about directions in which this model could and should be stretched.

1. State agents are capable of initiating atrocities without orders from their leaders. For simplification’s sake, DeMerritt construes atrocities as something state leaders initiate and state agents may or or may not carry out. In fact, it’s not always clear who is leading whom in these situations, or if hierarchy is even a relevant concept. It would be useful to try to incorporate into the model the idea that committing atrocities can also be a form of “shirking” and see where that leads.

2. Time matters.The interactions represented in DeMerritt’s model occur repeatedly, and the outcomes of previous iterations shape incentives at later junctures. For example, once certain agents have committed some atrocities, we might expect the threat of future punishment to have a weaker effect on those agents’ later actions. In the miserably cold language of economics, the marginal expected cost of additional atrocities will often be lower than the expected cost of that initial leap. If the model is going to address the dynamics of violence against civilians and not just the question of whether or not they will occur, we’ll want to extend it to incorporate these kinds of path-dependent processes.

Kenya: An Ounce of Prevention or a Pound of Overreaction?

On March 4, Kenya held general elections, and nearly no one was killed. That might not sound like a big deal, but lots of smart people had been warning for months that these elections put Kenya at high risk of mass atrocities.

Assuming Kenya stays the course and completes the current election cycle without large-scale violence, the big question for people concerned about atrocities prevention is this: Did all the scrutiny and alarm help to prevent violence that would otherwise have occurred, or did we collectively overreact to the surprise of early 2008 and cry “Wolf!” when none was near?

Line to vote at the Old Kibera Primary School on March 4, 2013 (Georgina Goodwin, AFP/Getty Images)

Line to vote at the Old Kibera Primary School on March 4, 2013 (Georgina Goodwin, AFP/Getty Images)

I emailed this question to Ken Opalo, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate who’s from Kenya and was there to analyze and vote in the elections, and he offered a favorable assessment of the many preventive efforts. “I think the peace crusade actually helped prevent violence by constantly reminding us of the cost of violence,” he said. Ken also credited the Kenyan media for choosing not to air inflammatory political statements and the government for blocking the dissemination of hate speech via short message service (SMS), an important channel of communication . Last but not least, Ken argued that the dynamics of the presidential campaign also played a role. “It also helps,” he wrote, “that one of the most volatile regions in the country—the central Rift Valley—this time round found peace in the political union between [eventual winner Uhuru] Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto (bringing together Kikuyus and Kalenjins).”

Kenyan columnist Charles Onyago-Obbo also believes that reactions to the  helped to avert violence that might have been. In a column entitled “Why Kenyans didn’t run berserk,” he acknowledges that peace campaigns by social groups and the media may have helped at the margins, but he sees the biggest effects coming from sticks and carrots deployed by the Kenyan government. Like Opalo, he credits authorities’ crackdown on hate speech, but he also believes that visible investments in major infrastructural projects in some key regions also had a significant effect.

If we believe that Kenyans became more good-hearted, then to prevent future violence, it would be necessary to preach more peace, hold peace concerts, and keep warning about the dangers of a repeat of 2008.

If we believe that people respond to incentives and symbols of progress, then the correct policy is to build more roads, fix more airports, complete Konza City and start a second one, keep working at political reform, and walk around with a big stick to crack the skulls of hate entrepreneurs.

I am a structuralist; I am in the last camp.

International actors are also claiming some credit. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the former chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, told the Associated Press that the prosecutions he pursued after 2008 “were game-changers that helped prevent a repeat of the deadly rampages following this month’s vote.” Moreno-Ocampo saw his office as an instrument of deterrence, and in this case, he believes it worked.

I emailed Daniel Solomon, a Georgetown University senior who is both a student and advocate of atrocities prevention, to ask him how influential the ICC indictments had been. He agreed with Ocampo that they had some effect, but he described that effect as indirect:

I don’t think there was a substantial risk of violence by Kenyatta’s close affiliates, or by [second-place finisher Raila] Odinga’s: if you look at the financial and political incentives for national-level officials, many are linked to international investments in Kenya’s economy, or to aid flows by Western donor states. This is probably less the case for [members of parliament] who weren’t as internationally prominent, and those are often the officials with the most direct links to paramilitary forces and civilian militias.

As a result, I think we can differentiate between a couple of dynamics, each of which had a unique function in the context of violence prevention: the intergovernmental preparation, which was both public at a national level (high-level diplomatic statements, threats of consequences for violence) and “behind-the-scenes”; and the non-governmental preparation, which was both public at the national level (statements about the ICC, human rights reporting) and “behind-the-scenes” at a local level (it’s hard to assess whether this was marginal, or structurally important). In one sense, it’s hard to draw a hard line between the two, but I’m not sure the non-governmental commentary would have been influential in changing those local MP incentives without an active intergovernmental process behind the scenes.

tl; dr: We were probably crying wolf where the ICC indictees were concerned (notice how that was always included in press coverage, as if that implies something about anticipated behavior), but I think that process—call it discursive, but there was also tangible diplomacy to back that up—helped diffuse the incentives for violence prevention at more local levels of governance/mobilization.

Personally, I also see the Kenyan elections as a success for atrocities prevention. Large-scale violence was a plausible threat; many efforts were undertaken to prevent that violence; and then it didn’t happen. We can’t say with confident exactly which effort contributed how much, but the risk was real, and the interventions that were undertaken were relatively cheap.

Still, it’s not clear how generalizable this success is. In terms of atrocities risk and prevention, Kenya was exceptional in a couple of important ways. First, this was election-related violence, not insurgency or civil war. That meant that the risk was tied to a specific political process with clear milestones and outcomes and was not part of a deeper syndrome of insecurity and mass violence. Second, the Kenyan government was a willing partner in atrocities prevention instead of a perpetrator.

Those two features make Kenya in 2013 very different from places like Syria or Sudan, where state security forces and their fellow travelers are doing the killing and the governments involved reject outside interference. Future attempts to prevent election-related and other “communal” violence might look to this case to try to understand why the Kenyan government was a willing partner and which components seem to have been most effective, but I don’t think there are big lessons from Kenya that can be transferred to more typical cases of concern. To see what I mean, just think about how effective an ICC indictment has been at preventing atrocities in Sudan, or how effective hate-speech monitoring would be at stopping violence in Syria.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that, while relatively cheap, these efforts were not cost free. In a post on the New York Times‘ Latitude blog, Journalist Michaela Wrong argues that self-censorship by the Kenyan media around this month’s elections diminished the country’s democracy.

“Last time,” the media “were part of the problem,” a Kenyan broadcaster told me. “They were corrupted; they were irresponsible. So this time there was a feeling that we had to keep everyone calm, at the expense, if necessary, of our liberties.”

But self-censorship comes at a price: political impartiality. The decision not to inflame ethnic passions meant that media coverage shifted in favor of whoever took an early lead, in this case Uhuru Kenyatta.

That’s an important reminder that policy interventions often entail trade-offs across values we might think of as complementary instead of competing. Democratization and atrocities prevention are both things many of us would espouse, but what’s good for one won’t always be good for the other.

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