The Ending of Mass Atrocities in East Asia


The Flame of Peace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia: The burning of guns from the civil war there

East Asia’s recent past is littered with examples of conscience shocking inhumanity against civilian populations. Indeed, for much of the Cold War, people in East Asia were arguably at greater risk of death by mass killing than those anywhere else in the world. Almost unnoticed, however, the region has been transformed. There are fewer cases of genocide and mass atrocities in East Asia today than at any point in history for which we have reliable records. During the Cold War, East Asia was at the forefront of two of the great existential contests of the age, contests that often overlapped and degenerated into violent conflict: the struggle between communist and anti-communist ideologies and the struggle for decolonization and state consolidation. Within this context, the mass killing of civilians was sometimes seen as a useful and rational way of securing cherished objectives with an acceptable level of cost. The mass killing of civilians was used as a means of insurgency (targeting ‘soft’ civilian targets), counter-insurgency (separating the people from the insurgents by targeting and removing the people), implementing policies aimed at radically transforming societies, and destroying actual or suspected opponents.

Episodes of mass killing made East Asia arguably the world’s most dangerous place for civilians during the Cold War.  Yet, since the mid 1970s there has been a significant decline in the incidence of mass killing in the region. In the mid 1970s there was a sharp decline in the number of ongoing episodes of mass killing from around ten to around four each year. The end of the Cold War saw this number fall still further to one single case in 2012 (North Korea).  Compared with global data, East Asia has gone from accounting for approximately half of all the word’s episodes of mass atrocities in the 1960s and early 1970s, to accounting for around only 20% of the world’s cases today.  Whilst charting the number of episodes may be the best way of identifying regional trends over time, the sheer scale of the decline is perhaps best demonstrated by charting the annual estimated death toll caused by mass atrocities.

Taking a rough estimation of the overall annual death toll by identifying the median of credible estimates from each of the episodes we can see  two peaks of mass killing in East Asia. The first, in the 1940s and 1950s, relates primarily to civilian killing in the Chinese civil war, the first years of the Maoist regime there, and the various bouts of civilian killing associated with the Korean War. The second peak began with the Indonesian killings of suspected communists in 1965-66, spanned the various conflicts in Indochina and the Chinese ‘Cultural Revolution’ and ended with the ousting of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1979.  Another especially interesting thing about the casualty figures is that they show that although there continue to be episodes of civilian killing, these are relatively low in intensity.

In both absolute terms and relative to other regions, over the past forty years both the incidence and lethality of genocide and mass atrocities in East Asia has declined sharply. From being one of the world’s bloodiest regions, East Asia has become one of its most pacific. This change has coincided with, and been informed by, a quiet revolution in the region’s understanding of the rights and responsibilities of sovereignty. Despite their well-known commitment to the principle of non-interference, with only one partial exception (North Korea), governments in East Asia have been prepared to accept the emerging concept of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP).  This is the idea that states have a responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, that there is an international responsibility to assist states to that end, and that the international community should take ‘timely and decisive’ action when states fail to protect their populations from the four crimes.

The dramatic and sustained decline of genocide and mass atrocities in East Asia was not produced by any single factor, but by the combined effects of four:

(1) a reduction in the incidence and lethality of armed conflict,

(2) growing incomes across the region,

(3) creeping democratization, and

(4) changing ideas about the nature of sovereignty and the protection responsibilities incumbent on states.

Together, these changes significantly increased the expected costs associated with the perpetration of mass atrocities, affecting calculations about their relative utility.  Whilst this may go a long way to explaining the observable reduction in mass atrocities in the past few decades, these four factors might also give rise to expectations that the current low level of atrocities might become the new regional norm. The two critical trends here are increasing incomes and democratization, both of which exert greater effects on underlying risks as they grow. The gradual acceptance, embedding, and institutionalization of RtoP related norms will likely only further reinforce these trends, raising the costs of committing mass atrocities and the likelihood of regional responses to atrocities. Important challenges remain, however. Not least, evidence relating to the destabilizing effects of democratization suggests that potential future transitions in countries such as Myanmar will need to be managed carefully (as will any future transition in North Korea). Moreover, evidence pointing to the connection between armed conflict and mass atrocities means that several situations – such as situations in Myanmar, Mindanao, West Papua, and southern Thailand – contain ongoing potential for mass atrocities and the escalation of critical interstate territorial disputes will need to be prevented.

If that can be achieved in the short and medium term, the evidence presented here suggests that this other Asian miracle could be made a more permanent reality.

Alex Bellamy – Human Protection Hub


Author: protectiongateway

Human Protection Hub

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