Murder by the State

Policy Reports | Crime

No. 211
Monday, September 01, 1997
by Gerald W. Scully


In the 20th century, at least 170 million people - and perhaps as many as 360 million - have been murdered by their own governments. This is more than four times the approximately 42 million deaths from civil and international wars.1 The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the People's Republic of China and Nazi Germany killed on an appalling scale. But state-sponsored murder also is quite common elsewhere. When the state murders some of its general population, it is called democide; when it murders minorities, the term is genocide.

Authoritarian states employ democide to maintain power. It is part of a broader program of state-approved terror designed to intimidate, demoralize or subjugate the citizenry. Terror has an obvious chilling effect on actual or potential enemies, and it raises the cost of opposition.

"In this century, at least four times as many people have been killed by their own governments as by wars."

Democide has been employed to enforce ideologies (as in the Spanish Inquisition, the Cultural Revolution in China and Muslim fundamentalist states)2 and policies (as in the liquidation of the Kulaks to facilitate Soviet collectivization).3 It is not always successful in the long run, as illustrated by the collapse of socialist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and the end of the Marcos regime in the Philippines. But it often succeeds for a time, as it has in China, Cuba, North Korea, Pinochet's Chile, Haiti, Iraq, Libya and a number of other African nations.

Genocide typically is directed at a group identified by race, religion, ethnicity or tribe.4 It has occurred in environments as diverse as Germany, the Soviet Union, Bosnia, Burundi, Rwanda, Paraguay, Iraq, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

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