Civilian Victimization and Conflict Escalation

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

Project Summary

The research team under Lars-Erik Cederman from ETH-Zürich set out to analyse through which conditions and mechanisms campaigns of armed violence against civilians contribute to the escalation from nonviolent to violent situations and to civil wars.

To that goal, data on the ethnic identity of civilian victims of one-sided violence was collected. This novel database, the ethnic one-sided violence database, is based on the Uppsala one-sided violence database.

One of the most important insights that has emerged so far is that ethnic inequality is one of the main drivers of ethnic state violence against civilians, and that ethnic violence against civilians by armed groups tends to escalate conflicts. In the research paper available HERE, they laid out the following four hypotheses:

  1. Ethnic exclusion increases the probability of ethnic targeting by state actors during armed conflict
  2. Given high levels of ethnic exclusion, whether a conflict is ethnic or non-ethnic does not increase the probability of ethnic violence against civilians perpetrated by state actors
  3. State actors are more likely to target the civilian constituency of insurgent organizations if the latter recruit significantly from excluded ethnic groups
  4. Given that insurgent organizations recruit significantly from excluded ethnic groups, whether a conflict is ethnic or non-ethnic does not increase the probability that state actors will target the civilian constituency of these organizations

While no solid conclusion can be drawn on the fourth hypothesis, numbers one to three seem to be supported by the data gathered. However, the authors warn us to take these findings with a grain of salt, as the causal relationships between ethnic claim-making, ethnic exclusion, and ethnic targeting are not yet fully disentangled.

The team is working on several papers interpreting the data they collected for their database. For more information on the project, check out the project outputs on our website.

Academic Output

Working Paper

Ethnicity and Wartime State Violence against Civilians

How does ethnicity affect state violence in civil war? A large literature has examined the determinants of ethnic conflict, significantly advancing our understanding of when warring actors mobilize on the basis of ethnicity and pursue claims in the name of ethnic groups. Much of this literature draws implications from the ethnic mobilization of warring actors to the deliberate targeting of civilians, sometimes even conflating the two phenomena. Moreover, existing research offers very limited empirical insights on how ethnicity plays out in the manifestations of wartime violence against civilians. The lack of systematic data on the ethnic identity of civilian victims has left the question about the ethnic nature of such violence unaddressed. In this paper, we ask the question of whether the master cleavage of a conflict also predicts variation in state violence against civilians along ethnic lines. Disaggregating the concept of ‘ethnic conflict,’ we argue that ethnic exclusion is the main driver of state-led ethnic targeting in civil wars. We introduce a new global dataset on the ethnic identity of civilian victims of targeted violence to investigate these claims.

Executive Summary

This project sought to advance our understanding of the consequences of violence against civilians by armed actors for subsequent patterns of conflict escalation. Focusing on ethnic violence in particular, our goals was to shed light on 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, we collected novel data on the ethnic identity of civilian victims in violent campaigns by armed actors, as well as patterns of deliberate ethnic profiling in campaigns of violence against civilians around the globe. Moreover, in-depth case studies were conducted to investigate the theorized causal mechanisms as well as mechanisms that our theories might have overlooked. Among our emerging findings are the insight that ethnic inequality is one of the main drivers of ethnic state violence against civilians, and that ethnic violence against civilians by armed groups tends to escalate conflicts.

Research Team

Lars-Erik Cederman
Coordinator
Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich

Simon Hug
Co-Coordinator
University of Geneva

Livia Schubiger
Principal Member
University of Zurich

Status

completed

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All countries

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Coordinator

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