Skip to main content

Health-Based Approach May Help ID Groups At Risk Of Genocide

Researchers from North Carolina State University are proposing a health-based approach to identifying groups at high risk of genocide, in a first-of-its-kind attempt to target international efforts to stop these mass killings before they start.

Genocide, or the willful attempt to exterminate a specific population, is a violation of international law. In recent years, international discussion of genocide has focused in part on finding ways to identify populations at risk in order to prevent a problem before it starts.

New approach may help international community prevent the horror of genocide.

Some risk factors have already been identified, such as severe state oppression of a group or a regional history of genocide. Now researchers are offering a new risk factor for consideration: a population’s health and its track record of prenatal care.

“This is a data-driven approach that we developed by analyzing the remains of genocide victims. There can be no confusion or claims of inaccurate reporting from third parties. The bodies of the victims speak for themselves,” says Dr. Ann Ross, professor of anthropology at NC State and co-author of a paper on the research and proposed risk factor. This effort marks the first time researchers have used skeletal analysis to assess the overarching health of genocide victims before their murder.

Ross and her co-author, former NC State graduate student Ashley Maxwell, began by analyzing remains of Bosnian Muslims from the Srebrenica massacre – where 8,000 men and boys were killed in 1995. Ross is a forensic anthropologist and worked extensively in the Balkans during the late 1990s to help identify the remains of genocide victims.

The researchers found that the Srebrenica victims had an unusually high frequency of malnutrition, poor health and inadequate prenatal care. For example, the victims had a high rate of spina bifida, which is directly related to poor nutrition and prenatal care.

“These conditions are good indicators of genocide risk because they illustrate the population’s marginalized status,” Ross says.

The researchers also examined epidemiological data from the World Health Organization on the general health of refugees from Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Those data were consistent with the forensic assessment of the Srebrenica victims.

“This gives politicians and international bodies another tool that can be used to identify – and protect – populations facing genocide,” Ross says. “We need to prevent these mass murders, not sit on our hands wondering when to take action.”

The paper, “Epidemiology of Genocide: An Example from the Former Yugoslavia,” will be published in the fall issue of Forensic Science Policy and Management.

NC State’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology is part of the university’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.


Note to editors: The study abstract follows.

“Epidemiology of Genocide: An Example from the Former Yugoslavia”

Authors: Ashley Maxwell, Ann H. Ross, North Carolina State University

Published: Fall issue, Forensic Science Policy and Management

Abstract: There are multiple factors for the advent of war, and in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda nationalistic goals and political control were used to justify the genocide of thousands of individuals, mainly males of battle age, between sixteen to sixty years of age. War and genocide have detrimental effects on population health due to population displacement, food shortages, and the decline of health services. The skeletal remains of victims from Srebrenica, Bosnia, were analyzed for pathological conditions to assess general health and were compared with other countries that have experienced genocide to evaluate health issues in various parts of the world. Approximately 35% of the skeletal sample shows evidence of congenital and pathological conditions that may be population specific, which indicates that declining health was prevalent before the war, especially prenatal requirements for expectant mothers. In addition, data on general health from Rwandan and former Yugoslavian refugees showed a prevalence of acquired pathologies, mainly AIDS, while Bosnian and Herzegovinian refugees showed an increase in tuberculosis and heart diseases after the war. The skeletal and clinical research details the health problems that existed before and after the wars/genocide, and shed light on the current health problems that still need to be addressed. Marginalized and vulnerable groups, such as victims of genocide, need immediate action to prevent morbidity and mortality in the future. This study may be the first to outline the health status of victims of genocide and identify group marginalization as a path to genocide.