Why do governments sometimes engage in mass killings? Mass killings could help governments to suppress the opposition–that seems obvious–but it’s also true that mass killings can create blowback and further stiffen the opposition’s resolve. Uzonyi and Hanania offer a simple theory and some clarification:
We argue that government mass killing during war reduces opportunities for the opposition to return to military conflict in the future. This allows for longer periods of post-conflict peace. However, government atrocities that begin after the end of a civil war create new grievances without diminishing the ability of opponents to fight. This makes a faster return to conflict more likely. Statistical analysis of all civil wars between 1946 and 2006 strongly supports our arguments, even when we account for selection effects regarding when governments are more likely to engage in mass killing. These results reveal that both during-war and post-war tactics influence civil war recurrence, but that the same tactic can produce different effects depending on the timing of its use.
Essentially the authors are arguing that civil wars sometimes end when one side decisively wins. Not surprising but how about this for an uncomfortable thought:
We stress that mass killing is a grizzly and morally appalling
tactic. But it does appear to keep a country at peace for a
longer duration once a conflict ends. If the international
community disrupts these effects of mass killing, it may be
inadvertently increasing the likelihood that civil war will recur. Thus, if the international community chooses to intervene in conflicts to protect civilians, member states must also
be willing to remain in the country over the long term to
help the government and opposition groups refrain from returning to war. Unfortunately, few states have demonstrated
an appetite for such long-term commitments.