Peoples under Threat 2010

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The risk from past offenders
Major risers since 2009
Ethnic wars, religious wars?
Those at greatest risk
Highest ranked countries
Can international justice help?


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Over the last five years, Peoples under Threat has pioneered the use of statistical analysis to identify situations around the world where communities are at risk of mass killing. The Peoples under Threat index is created from a basket of ten indicators, all known antecedents to mass violence. On numerous occasions in those five years, countries that have risen sharply up the table have later proved to be the scene of gross human rights violations.

But there is perhaps one factor which more than any other can indicate a propensity to mass killing. It is a crude pointer, but one which is nonetheless often overlooked in the scramble for geo-political alliances or even sometimes in the name of reconciliation: those governments who are most likely to kill their own people are those who have done it before.

The risk from past offenders

The list of states that have risen most prominently in the Peoples under Threat table this year (see table below) highlights this problem of recidivism. It includes a number of states which have been the scene of past violence, and whose fall down the risk register in recent years has now suddenly been reversed.

A decrease in conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region and the recent signing of a peace accord between the government and the Justice and Equality Movement, the main rebel faction, have given rise to new hopes for the human rights situation in Sudan. However, the primary threat now comes to the country’s south. A re-ignition of the north-south war, which until 2005 was Africa’s longest conflict and claimed some 2 million lives, could be catastrophic. The last year has seen clashes in disputed areas and thousands of deaths in Jonglei from inter-ethnic fighting – fuelled by the Sudanese government, the south alleges. In Sudan’s spring elections, a partial boycott by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the main party in the south, has further heightened tensions. In the run up to a referendum on independence for the south in 2011, it is reported that both sides are re-arming. Sudan, which in recent years fell from 2nd place to 3rd in the Peoples under Threat table, has now risen again, with the new risk coming in particular to the peoples of the south, including Nuer and Dinka communities.

Major risers since 2009

RankRise in rank since 2009 Country Group Total
2 1 Sudan Dinka, Nuer and others in the South; Fur, Zaghawa, Massalit and others in Darfur; Nuba, Beja 21.95
16  7 Russian Federation
Chechens, Ingush and others in North Caucasus; indigenous northern peoples, Roma, Jews 15.57
17  2 Philippines Indigenous peoples, Moros (Muslims), Chinese 14.82
20  5 Yemen
Zaydi Shia
26  3 Equatorial Guinea
Bubi, Annobon Islanders 13.39
27  6 Georgia Adzhars, Abkhazians, South Ossetians 13.37
36  17 Thailand
Chinese, Malay-Muslims, Northern Hill Tribes 12.35
42  7 China
Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongols, Hui, religious minorities 11.77
49  11 Venezuela Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants
51  new entry Mauritania
Haratins ('Black Moors'), Kewri 10.97

Download the full Peoples under Threat table as a PDF file


Perhaps the most startling riser in the table this year is the Russian Federation, which has risen seven places. Although under-reported, conflict has escalated again both in Chechnya and in the neighbouring Russian republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan. In March 2010, suicide bombers believed to be from the North Caucasus killed 39 people on the Moscow underground, prompting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to vow that the security services would scrape those responsible from the bottom of the sewers. The combination of circumstances is dangerously close to those that prevailed in 1999 before the start of the second Chechen war, which caused the deaths of at least 25,000 civilians.

Russia’s influence is also a central factor in the continued rise to the threat level in Georgia, which has jumped a further six places in the table this year. Tensions between the two countries over Georgia’s breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has remained high. An independent fact-finding mission sponsored by the EU concluded in September 2009 that the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia had been triggered by the Georgian offensive against South Ossetia, but found violations of international law committed by both sides. The prospects for tens of thousands of displaced ethnic Georgians from both South Ossetia and Abkhazia in particular appear grim. There have been few reports of human rights violations against ethnic Russians in Georgia, but stunts such as the simulated news report of a Russian invasion broadcast by Georgian television in March 2010 have not improved the atmosphere.

Across the globe, another old conflict threatens to escalate once more in the Philippines. Failure of a peace deal between the government and Muslim separatists in Mindanao led to renewed military operations in 2009. 57 people on their way to file election papers were killed in a massacre in November. Some peace talks have resumed with the return of international monitors, but the proliferation of different armed groups in conflict with the Phillipines army, and violence associated with the scheduled elections in May 2010 both pose threats to communities in Mindanao.

In both the Philippines and in Yemen, which uniquely has risen in the ranking four years in a row, parts of the armed opposition have been linked with al-Qaeda, drawing international attention. The Yemeni government called on the West for more help to fight al-Qaeda at the end of the year, although its greater security concerns stem from the conflict with al-Houthi rebels in the north, a group pushing for autonomy for the Zaydi Shia community. With fresh fighting in September, aid agencies warned the country was facing a ‘full-blown humanitarian crisis’. Cross-border incursions prompted the military involvement of Saudi Arabia in November. Some 250,000 people are internally displaced.

China has also highlighted the influence of radical Islam on Uighur separatists in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, pointing to the presence of Uighur fighters in the Afghanistan war. In July a protest in Urumqi led to days of rioting and violence between Uighurs and China’s majority Han, millions of whom have moved in Xinjiang in state-sponsored migration. Nearly 200 people were killed in the violence; dozens of Uighurs later disappeared in a wave of arrests by the Chinese authorities.

Ethnic wars, religious wars?

The perspectives of the post-9/11 world have recast as wars of religion minority struggles that are in many cases decades old. Whether in South Sudan, the North Caucasus, Mindanao, Yemen or Xinjiang, there is a tendency, particularly in the United States, to highlight the religious aspects of situations which only a few years ago were regularly described as ethnic conflicts. In fact, in could be argued that both ethnic and religious differences have primarily been abused by politicians – national and international – either to mobilize or to stigmatize particular communities, and that the real roots of such conflicts lie not in religious ideology but in peoples’ long-term economic marginalization and their aspirations for greater autonomy over their own affairs.

This point should be carefully borne in mind should widespread conflict return to these parts of the world. There are clear dangers inherent in exaggerating the religious nature of community divisions. For one thing, since 9/11 governments of every political hue have become adept at justifying the violent repression of minorities, particularly but not exclusively Muslim minorities, under the banner of the war on terrorism. At the same time, for governments or the international community to see complex conflicts primarily through a religious lens suits the agenda of Islamic extremists, who can claim impacts far beyond their often very limited military capacities. Finally, and perhaps most worryingly, if governments behave as if conflicts are all about religion, then increasingly they become about religion. And once religious divisions become entrenched, conflicts can be much harder to resolve.

All these factors are apparent in the continuing conflict in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan, where MRG has reported that the local Pashtun community, as well as smaller minorities, have suffered mass displacement and serious human rights violations as a result of military operations. US and NATO forces have long admitted the necessity of negotiating with tribal leaders, but the appalling human cost of the war on civilians continues to radicalize new generations of people who face grinding poverty and a lack of other economic or political opportunity.

In Thailand, which has risen 17 places in the table, political demonstrations in the capital have captured international attention. But the greatest threat of violence against civilians comes to the country’s south, where a state of emergency has been in force since 2005 in response to the challenge from Malay-Muslim separatists. Credible allegations of widespread torture against Muslims have been denied by the government, but some 4,000 people have died in a conflict whose roots once again lie in grievances about regional economic underdevelopment and political exclusion.


Those at greatest risk

Highlighting the states that have risen in the table, where there are new or increased threats, should not, however, detract attention from those states that have remained at the head of the table, where peoples face the greatest threats. In Somalia, Iraq, Burma/Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as in some of the states already discussed, gross violations of the rights of minorities, including multiple or mass killings, are ongoing.

Highest ranked countries

Rank Country Group Total
1 Somalia Darood, Hawiye, Issaq and other clans; Ogadenis; Bantu; Gabooye (Midgan) and other 'caste' groups 23.63
2 Sudan
Dinka, Nuer and others in the South; Fur, Zaghawa, Massalit and others in Darfur; Nuba, Beja 21.95
3 Iraq
Baha'is, Christians, Faili Kurds, Kurds, Mandaeans, Palestinians, Shabak, Shia, Sunni, Turkmen, Yezidis
4 Afghanistan Baluchis, Hazara, Pashtun, Tajiks, Turkmen, Uzbeks
5 Burma/Myanmar
Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Mons, Rakhine, Rohingyas, Shan, Chin (Zomis), Wa 21.06
6 Pakistan
Ahmadiya, Baluchis, Hindus, Mohhajirs, Pashtun, Sindhis, other religious minorities
7 Dem. Republic of Congo Hema and Lendu, Hunde, Hutu, Luba, Lunda, Tutsi/Banyamulenge, Twa/Mbuti 19.91
8 Ethiopia Anuak, Afars, Oromo, Somalis, smaller minorities 19.23
9 Nigeria Ibo, Ijaw, Ogoni, Yoruba, Hausa (Muslims) and Christians in the North 17.77
10 Chad 'Black African' groups, Arabs, Southerners 18.15

Download the full Peoples under Threat table as a PDF file


Despite claims of recent progress, Somalia and Iraq remain entrenched in the top three. In Somalia, the Bantu minority and the Gaboye or occupational ‘caste’ groups have both fared very badly in the country’s long-running conflict, a long history of marginalization being compounded by the lack of any effective security protection. In a war which rarely makes the front pages, they are truly Somalia’s forgotten people. But other communities remain at risk too, including from the inter-clan rivalry that has taken so many Somali lives in recent decades.

In Iraq, a welcome decline in Sunni-Shia violence, and the formation of more plural political groupings in the recent elections are all cause for hope. But tension between Kurds and Arabs over disputed territories in the north now means that Nineveh and Kirkuk have become Iraq’s most dangerous governorates. It is here that many of the smaller minority communities live. Chaldo-Assyrians, Shabak, Turkmen, and Yezidis have all suffered violent attack in the last year and remain at grave risk of mass displacement.

Can international justice help?

On 4 March 2009 the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for the President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. The prosecutor's decision to seek an open warrant against Bashir followed the failure of the Sudanese government to enforce arrest warrants against two more junior Sudanese leaders accused over Darfur. Eliciting a storm of controversy, the prosecutor's move could be seen in the light of his oft-repeated comments that the ICC has a role not just in securing justice for past crimes but also in deterring future abuses.

Can the threat of being held accountable before the ICC stay the hand of Sudan's leaders over this defining year for the country's future? In particular, can the sort of mass killings that characterised the Darfur conflict and the earlier north-south war be averted? It is not only in Sudan that such questions will be put this year. Ever since it became apparent in 2003 that the ICC's first cases would be in the DRC, discussion of the Court's next move has become a feature of Congolese politics. While four Congolese warlords are currently facing trial in the Hague, another high-profile indictee remains at large, fighting in the current conflict in the Kivus as a general in the Congolese army.

Guinea, which rose eight places in the Peoples under Threat table last year, was later the scence of what the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights described as a ‘bloodbath’, as over 150 people were massacred at a demonstration in September. The ICC confirmed within a month that its prosecutor had begun a preliminary examination of the ‘serious allegations’. And in Kenya, where over 1,200 people were killed in inter-ethnic violence after the 2007 elections, failure by the Kenyan government to put those responsible on trial has prompted the ICC to approve the opening of a formal investigation. The Kenyan government announced in November that it will cooperate.

The Russian government called the Bashir warrant 'a dangerous precedent'. Like two other permanent members of the UN Security Council, the US and China, Russia has not ratified the ICC Statute, making its leaders harder to prosecute if they commit war crimes. But that does not mean that the Russian government is entirely immune from the processes of international justice, at least in its civil form. In a series of damning judgments this decade, the European Court of Human Rights has censured Russia for gross violations of human rights committed during the second Chechen war, confirming that the obligation to respect the right to life that prevails in peacetime cannot simply be ignored when a state faces a military threat.

The potential deterrent effect of international justice is still hard to gauge. Some of the key mechanisms are new, particularly with regard to criminal law, and the evidence base is small. But as mass violence threatens to return to some of the most notorious past killing grounds, this year will be a signal test.

Downloads (PDF)

2010 Online briefing

2010 Full table

Previous tables and briefings

2009 Briefing

2009 Full Table

2008 Briefing

2008 Full table


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