Civilian Victimization and Conflict Escalation

To what extent does violence against civilians by armed actors increase the risk of conflict escalation and civil war?


Intra-state conflicts between state forces and opposition movements often cause considerable harm to civilian populations, much of which results from direct attacks against noncombatants. Tragic examples that make headlines these days are campaigns of armed violence against civilians in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Syria, and Iraq. Apart from the horrendous suffering such campaigns inflict directly on the targeted populations, civilian victimization also has the potential to trigger, intensify, and prolong civil wars, causing even more damage in terms of human lives lost.

This project seeks to advance our understanding of the consequences of violence against civilians by armed actors for subsequent patterns of conflict escalation. Specifically, the research studies the conditions and mechanisms through which campaigns of armed violence against civilians contribute to the escalation from nonviolent to violent forms of contestation, the risk of civil war onset, and – once armed conflict is underway – the escalation and duration of civil wars. To that end, the research team will collect novel data on the ethnic identity of civilian victims in violent campaigns around the globe link these data to violent and nonviolent forms of contestation, to patterns of wartime recruitment, and to information on armed group fragmentation. Moreover, in-depth case studies will be conducted to investigate the theorized causal mechanisms.

The research will be carried out in close collaboration with Geneva Call and UNITAR, two organizations engaged in the areas of peace-building and civilian protection in armed conflict.


  • One-sided violence
  • Repression
  • Human rights violations
  • Civil war
  • Escalation
  • Non-state armed groups


  • Economics
  • International relations
  • Political science


International Organisations:


Non Governmental Organisations:

  • Geneva Call

Relevant Countries

  • All countries


This project, started in 2014, has been completed.

Contact the project team

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Research team

Lars-Erik Cederman
Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich

Simon Hug
University of Geneva


Livia Schubiger
Principal Member
University of Zurich

Marcelo Olarreaga
Associated Member
University of Geneva