Genocides, why are they still happening?

Did you ever ask yourself how genocides could happen? How can a normal human being, that grew up in the same society you did, suddenly come after you to kill you? It sounds so unlikely, but still it happened, and not just once but over and over again.

My mother keeps telling me the story about the city she was born in, Jedwabne in Poland. It is the unbelievable story where neighbors summoned all the Jews into a barn and burned them alive. Neighbors that were not affiliated with the Nazis, who were not forced to do so. They did it out of their own will (Mikics, 2015). My mother survived because she was deported to Siberia a couple of days before this happened.

How can a neighbor, you lived side by side for many years suddenly turn on you? One explanation could be the social identity theory (SIT). This theory assumes, that people want to feel good about themselves, good about who they are and good about the group they belong to (Gruman, Schneider & Coutts, 2012, p. 341). To summarize it, people want to achieve a positive social identity. You could think there is nothing negative about feeling good about oneself or at least to try to achieve that. We humans constantly want to look good in front of others, may it be with our physical appearance or our intellect.

The danger lies in the motivation a group has to feel good about oneself. If the motivation is high to achieve this, the motivation is also high to evaluate the members of the other group negatively. We compare our group constantly with other groups and if we perceive the differences and statuses as very different from our own, we set the stage for a ‘us’ versus ‘them’ situation (Gruman, Schneider & Coutts, 2012, p. 341) and everybody can guess, where this leads to.

To prevent genocides in the future, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan outlined in 2004 a five-point action plan:

  1. Prevent armed conflict, which usually provides the context for genocide;
  2. Protect civilians in armed conflict, including through UN peacekeepers;
  3. End impunity through judicial action in national and international courts;
  4. Gather information and set up an early-warning system; and
  5. Take swift and decisive action, including military action (, 2012).

This action plan looks great from far, but by inspecting it closer, I come up with some doubts.

  1. At this very moment we have armed conflicts all over the world and as one example, the Syrian war goes on already for years. Preventing an armed conflict is easier said than done. I don’t see any end in the near future in the Syrian conflict.
  2. People of the Central African Republic and South Sudan are butchered because of their ethnicity. UN peacekeepers are present but still cannot protect all the men, women and children, that are killed by mobs with machetes.
  3. During all genocides other nations turned a blind eye on those in need. Just after a horrendous amount of damage was done already, did they start to get involved.
  4. With the help of new technologies like the internet, information about minorities that are threatened is more than ever available. Warning signs are present, like the repeated killings of Muslims in India, but what is done to prevent it?
  5. If action would have been taken ‘swift’ and ‘decisive’, so many killings could have been prevented. We get the feeling, that military action is just used when the country providing it has some sort of advantage, like getting resources from the country they ‘rescue’.

There are many suggestions and guidelines out there to tell us how we can prevent another genocide from happening. The past and the present showed us though, that this is not easy. I hope that applied social psychologists can give us an answer soon, before it will be too late for another minority group.


Department of Public Information. (2012). Preventing Genocide. Outreach Programme on the Rwanda Genocide and the United Nations:

Gruman, J. A., Schneider, F. W., and Coutts, L. M. (Eds.) (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Mikics, D. (2015). The Day We Burned Our Neighbors Alive. Polish journalist Anna Bikont faces history in Jedwabne in her masterful new ‘The Crime and the Silence’. Tablet Magazine.


1 comment

  1. Social and evolutionary psychology teach us that most of our behavior is led by our unconscious desire to live long enough in order to reproduce, and pass as many of our genes as possible on to the next generation, thereby increasing the ratio of our genes in future generation(s). Our second long-term evolutionary goal is for the genes that are the most similar to ours to be passed on to the next generation. We have built-in mechanisms to determine who we share our genes with. Fu, Tarnita & Nowak (2012) suggest that even in-group out-group classification is based on genetic principle, and that we tend to see people with whom we share the most genes as belonging to the in-group. We just usually recognize them by being members of our extended family, having the same ethnicity as us, or living in our neighborhood.
    Well, if our ultimate goal as species is to reproduce, and increase the ratio of our genes passed on to next generation, then, in a very Machiavellian way, genocide can be seen as reproduction by other means (this is not my stands, but rather an observation). By eliminating people whose genetic makeup is different to that of ours (out-group), we are increasing the ratio of our genes (and genes similar to ours) in current generation (albeit by shrinking the current generation). This consequently increases the likelihood of higher concentration of our genes, and genes belonging to people of our ethnicity in all next generations, at the expense of the ethnicity that is being eliminated. It is very distorted way of looking at things, but some people in the past (and unfortunately in present) have adopted it nevertheless.
    It’s very sad that we ever had to share this planet with people who could even think about genocide, let alone commit it. I can never wrap my mind around that. Especially because, even though we have our propulsion to reproduce to thank for survival of our species by providing sufficient quantity of units, diversity by the same virtue is responsible for quality of human species’ genetic makeup. Our differences should, therefore, be embraced, rather than eliminated. It’s in our best interest, plus it’s more humane.

    Fu, F, Tarnita, C.E., & Nowak, M.A. (2012). Evolution of in-group favoritism. Scientific Reports, 460.

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