why have mass atrocities declined in east asia?

The politics of East Asia have many problems, but mass violence ain’t one. So says Alex Bellamy, who compiles the relevant event data to describe the recent historical decline of mass atrocities in the region:

There are now fewer cases of genocide and mass atrocities in East Asia today than at any point in history for which we have reliable records. This article demonstrates and then tries to account for the dramatic decline of mass atrocities in East Asia. It argues that the decline was enabled by a combination of three major structural changes: reduction in the selection of mass atrocities as a weapon of war, increase in incomes, and progress towards democratization combined with the emergence of new ideas about sovereignty and their accommodation with existing principles of non-interference. Together, these structural and ideational changes created a changed regional context of increased costs and reduced payoffs for the commission of mass atrocities.

The imminent decline of mass atrocities contrasts against another recent, more tragic trend in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia: the region’s widespread occurrence of mass violence. As the current humanitarian crisis of Burma‘s Rohingya population suggests, the regional outlook is a patch-quilt of violent politics with inconsistent spots of non-conflict, and not the reverse. To his credit, Bellamy acknowledges the fragility of his first trend, which may yet conclude in a more dismal future for East Asia’s civilians. Even so, the post-Cold War data indisputably imply these civilians’ relative, if temporary security.

But why? In an earlier draft, Bellamy places the strategic use of mass violence, income growth, and regional democratization alongside shifting norms of human security; in this edition, the first three variables are separate, but interact with their latter counterpart. While human security norms–human rights, collective security, and the “responsibility to protect,” among others–proliferated amid East Asia’s era of mass violence, the political, economic, and social trends that Bellamy describes elevated the norms’ institutional importance. This explanation projects a liberal future for regional human security: the more peaceful, the more prosperous, and the more democratic East Asia becomes, the fewer civilians will die.

The liberal theory of mass atrocities’ decline feels good. Its empirical value, however, is foggier. Two gaps stick out: the political consequences of East Asia, as an aggregated regional unit, for human security are marginal; and, the “post-sovereignty” norms of East Asia’s “new” consensus are less new than Bellamy describes.

Breaking down “East Asia”: In some contexts, it makes sense to describe “regional trends.” A “region” like East Asia is many things–a geographic unit, a series of political bodies, an economic zone. If a river spans across multiple states, provinces, or local government areas, its riparian politics are accurately described as a “regional” event. Perhaps as a consequence of the region’s geography, the impact of East Asia’s human security crises is often more diffuse. In the 17 East Asian mass atrocity events Bellamy lists in a 2012 report, few beyond the (several) events linked to the 19-year Vietnam war–repression, mass killing, and civil conflict in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia–are regional phenomena. The events are not isolated, per se; in several, like Indonesia or North Korea, the geopolitics of U.S.-Soviet proxy violence or China’s regional sphere of influence, respectively, prompt their occurrence. In contrast to Central Africa, where regional security crises like the Rwandan genocide spawned subsequent mass suffering, or West Africa, where Liberia’s civil war spawned the same, East Asian mass atrocity events appear either significantly interdependent (Vietnam, et al.), or scarcely so (Indonesia, the Philippines, North Korea, and China).

East Asia’s norm “consensus”: Bellamy describes the “responsibility to protect” norm as an emerging consensus among East Asian states and security institutions. As Bellamy writes elsewhere, prominent security documents, treaty commitments, public statements, and diplomatic priorities suggest that, where possible, East Asian foreign policy agendas adopt human security priorities. That “where possible,” however, is key. Public statements of regional groups like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations demonstrate the partial success of human security norms; on the other hand, China’s inconsistent posture towards Burmese military abuses suggest these norms are less active than Bellamy asserts.

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