Confirmation of State-Led Mass Killing in Egypt and South Sudan

Aug 13, 2014

Two recent reports released by Human Rights Watch offer further confirmation of episodes of state-led mass killing in Egypt and South Sudan, beginning in 2013. In our 2013 risk assessments, South Sudan and Egypt were ranked 4th and 6th, respectively, as countries most likely to experience state-led mass killing.

Human Rights Watch’s report on Egypt, summarized here, documents incidences of civilian killings that took place in the weeks after the Egyptian military staged a coup and overthrew President Mohammad Morsi in July and August of 2013. The report says that in response to sit-ins and protests organized by supporters of Morsi,

“police and army forces repeatedly opened fire on demonstrators, killing over 1,150, most of them in five separate incidents of mass protester killings… On this basis, Human Rights Watch concludes that the killings not only constituted serious violations of international human rights law, but likely amounted to crimes against humanity, given both their widespread and systematic nature and the evidence suggesting the killings were part of a policy to attack unarmed persons on political grounds.”

In a blog post written at the onset of this episode, Early Warning Project Director Jay Ulfelder described three scenarios in which state-led mass killing occur, each involving threats to the ruling regime’s power and attempts to squash those threats. As Ulfelder points out, Egypt appears to follow the post-coup scenario in which “rulers who have recently seized power by coup or revolution sometimes kill large numbers of civilian supporters of the faction they have just replaced as part of their efforts to consolidate their power.” In fact, in the report, Human Rights Watch says “The brutal manner in which security forces carried out the [sit-in] dispersals appears to reflect policies that Egyptian authorities at the highest levels implemented after weeks of planning.”

The report on South Sudan notes that while exact casualty counts cannot be determined, thousands of civilians have been killed, and that “The first months of South Sudan’s new war were distinguished less by fierce battles between fighting forces than by horrific attacks on civilians often because of their ethnicity and presumed allegiances."

We consider both of these confirmed episodes of mass killing to be ongoing. In Egypt, civilians continue to be tortured and killed in police custody, and in South Sudan, a looming famineman-made by fighting, puts millions of civilians at risk of death. Additionally, the Early Warning Project’s Expert Opinion Pool remains skeptical of an interim government being formed in South Sudan by 1 September 2014. Currently, the forecasted likelihood is 22-percent, and where the conflict is unlikely to end, civilian deaths are likely to continue.

Before September 1, 2014, will an interim government be formed in South Sudan?
Before September 1, 2014, will an interim government be formed in South Sudan?

Countries can also experience more than one episode of state-led mass killing at the same time, if and when the state targets more than one discrete group in distinct conflicts. In our recently updated statistical risk assessments, Egypt and South Sudan continue to be ranked in the top 30 countries most at risk for the onset an episode of state-led mass killing in 2014 and in both countries, a new onset of mass killing would be in addition to the ongoing instances.


*We consider a state-led mass killing to have occurred if the deliberate actions of state agents or other groups acting at their behest result in the deaths of at least 1,000 noncombatant civilians over a period of one year or less.

  • State-led refers to cases in which the relevant violence is carried out by uniformed troops, police, or other agents of state security, or by other groups acting at the behest of government officials. In cases where the state’s role is ambiguous, we look for evidence of government encouragement of violence or coordination with state policies or military operations.
  • noncombatant civilian is any person who is not a current member of a formal or irregular military organization and who does not apparently pose an immediate threat to the life, physical safety, or property of other people.
  • The reference to deliberate actions distinguishes mass killing from deaths caused by natural disasters, infectious diseases, the accidental killing of civilians during war, or the unanticipated consequences of other government policies. Fatalities should be considered intentional if they result from actions designed to compel or coerce civilian populations to change their behavior against their will, as long as the perpetrators could have reasonably expected that these actions would result in widespread death among the affected populations. Note that this definition also covers deaths caused by other state actions, if, in our judgment, perpetrators enacted policies/actions designed to coerce civilian population and could have expected that these policies/actions would lead to large numbers of civilian fatalities. Examples of such actions include, but are not limited to: mass starvation or disease-related deaths resulting from the intentional confiscation, destruction, or medicines or other healthcare supplies; and deaths occurring during forced relocation or forced labor.
  • To distinguish mass killing from large numbers of unrelated civilian fatalities, the victims of mass killing must appear to be perceived by the perpetrators as belonging to a discrete group. That group may be defined communally (e.g., ethnic or religious), politically (e.g., partisan or ideological), socio-economically (e.g., class or professional), or geographically (e.g., residents of specific villages or regions). In this way, apparently unrelated executions by police or other state agents would not qualify as mass killing, but capital punishment directed against members of a specific political or communal group would.


Other Posts

Feb 05, 2014

On 15 December 2013, “something“ happened in South Sudan that quickly began to spiral into a wider conflict; we promptly added a question about South Sudan to the opinion pool we’re running as part of a new atrocities early-warning system.

Jun 03, 2014

As we consider our annual statistical risk assessments for state-led mass killing, does the presence of U.N. peacekeeping operations reduce the risk of a mass killing episode?

About the Expert Warning Project Blog

The Early Warning Project blog provides regular analysis of at-risk countries and evolving situations around the world.

The Early Warning Project blog features posts in several categories, including our annual Statistical Risk Assessments and occasional updates to them; alerts about, and analysis of, forecasts from our Expert Opinion Pool; reactions to relevant news from specific countries and regions; pointers to interesting new research on mass killing and prevention; and interviews with members of the genocide prevention community.

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