Strategic Mass Killings

Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, University of Zurich Working Paper No. 486

48 Pages Posted: 26 May 2010

See all articles by Joan Maria Esteban

Joan Maria Esteban

Autonomous University of Barcelona

Massimo Morelli

Bocconi University

Dominic Rohner

University of Zurich

Date Written: May 11, 2010


Since World War II there have been about fifty episodes of large-scale mass killings of civilians and massive forced displacements. They were usually meticulously planned and independent of military goals. We provide a model where conflict onset, conflict intensity and the decision to commit mass killings are all endogenous, with two main goals: (1) to identify the key variables and situations that make mass killings more likely to occur; and (2) to distinguish conditions under which mass killings and military conflict intensity reinforce each other from situations where they are substitute modes of strategic violence. We predict that mass killings are most likely in societies with large natural resources, significant proportionality constraints for rent sharing, low productivity and low state capacity. Further, massacres are more likely in a civil than in an interstate war, as in the latter group sizes matter less for future rents. In non polarized societies there are asymmetric equilibria with only the larger group wanting to engage in massacres. In such settings the smaller group compensates for this by fighting harder in the first place. In this case we can talk of mass killings and fighting efforts to be substitutes. In contrast, in polarized societies either both or none of the groups can be ready to do mass killings in case of victory. Under the 'shadow of mass killings' groups fight harder. Hence, in this case massacres and fighting are complements.

We also present novel empirical results on the role of natural resources in mass killings and on what kinds of ethnic groups are most likely to be victimized in massacres and forced resettlements, using group level panel data.

Keywords: Mass Killings, Civil War, Natural Resources, Intensity of Conflict, Group Size

JEL Classification: C72, D74

Suggested Citation

Esteban, Joan Maria and Morelli, Massimo and Rohner, Dominic, Strategic Mass Killings (May 11, 2010). Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, University of Zurich Working Paper No. 486, Available at SSRN: or

Joan Maria Esteban (Contact Author)

Autonomous University of Barcelona ( email )

Campus UAB
E-08193 Bellaterra
34 93 580 6612 (Phone)
34 93 580 1452 (Fax)

Massimo Morelli

Bocconi University ( email )

Via Roentgen 1
Milan, 20136

Dominic Rohner

University of Zurich ( email )

Muehlebachstrasse 86
Zurich, 8008

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