is time on our side? (part 2)

In yesterday’s post, I discussed the varied gaps in our understanding of historical atrocities trends, and the need for a multi-level perspective on the ways in which atrocities have occurred within societies, political institutions, and conflict operations. The piece–the first in a three-part series–was intended as a survey of contemporary perspectives, and the ways in which we might hypothesize frameworks for further research. In the absence of tangible, disaggregated historical data–particularly concerning pre-1945 periods–the most we can do is speculate about opportunities to diversify interpretations of atrocity events, organizations, and networks. In this post, I talk about the present literature on governance institutions and mass atrocities, and ways to advance a more complex understanding.

Revisiting Governance: An Institutional-Level Approach

A “democratic peace theory” strand of academic literature was the first to confront the intersection between governance and mass atrocities. Rudolph Rummel, writing in the mid-1990s, offers a liberal-democratic perspective on atrocities risk, highlighting non-democratic governance as a central atrocities indicator and correlate. Matt Krain, however, has observed a core shortcoming of a preventive theory of atrocities and democratic governance: Rummel’s framework, which identifies authoritarian regimes as inherently more likely to perpetrate atrocities, characterizes political institutions as static, monolithic actors; in the absence of political dynamism and, in extreme circumstances, upheaval, democratic states will remain democratic, with little variation between and within internal networks. As Krain notes, a thorough base of comparative governance and democratization research has complicated this perspective, noting the instability, factionalism, and accountability challenges associated with transitional regimes.

To make matters more complicated, what we perceive as democratization does not always foster the types of transitions we want, nor the types of transitions that will lead to long-term stability, a reduction in atrocities, or an increase in human security. As Jay Ulfelder wrote earlier this week, confounding factors often muddle the experience of political transition–in the context of “democratization” events, atrocities may become more frequent, rather than less. Non-comparative surveys of historical atrocities have presented the democratization/atrocities interaction as a novel characteristic of emerging regime types: as Branch and Cheeseman indicate in their survey of Kenya’s 2007-8 electoral violence, democratization is a risky business, and its advocates, practitioners, and participants should proceed with caution. Similar narratives populate coverage of older atrocities, highlighting the “dark side” of transitional politics: 1933 Germany was democratic, due to the confluence of Weimar culture and civil society, the German Rechtstaat, and parliamentary representation; 1994 Rwanda emerged as a multiparty experiment, following Habyarimana’s status-quo-threatening reforms.

Democracy may–or, alternately, may not–reduce historical atrocities risk–as Krain indicates, atrocities prospects likely depend on the quality of democratization, rather than whether or not democracy, per se, exists. In reality, atrocities indicators may have less to do with democratic institutions–popular participation, representative leadership, and inclusive governance–and more to do with the transitional dynamics of civilian/military relations, an underemphasized aspect of the democratization discourse. Barbara Geddes highlights varied regime-type typologies, underlining bargaining distinctions between multiparty, military, and “personalist” regimes. Or, as Geddes notes, regimes may represent a confluence of the three, in ways which are not strikingly evident to atrocities watchers: see, for example, Turkey, which maintains a partially-consolidated democracy, alongside a disproportionately influential shadow regime, comprised of strongly-networked military elites. The Turkish “deep state” mirrors Rwanda’s Zero Network, which orchestrated Rwanda’s atrocities infrastructure, in the midst of multiparty democratization. An indirect relationship between civilian/military relations and atrocities risk is plausible, if not robust: as political transition continues to disrupt the status quo, undermining shadow military networks’ political influence, the prospect for instability likely increases.

According to the Polity IV project, the world is getting more democratic. From an institutional perspective, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re getting better at mitigating atrocities risk.

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