Threatening Ties: Understanding wartime civilian targeting along ethnic lines

Project leader

Hanne Fjelde

Project Period

2015- 2018

Other Project Employees

Lisa Hultman

Margareta Sollenberg

Project affiliated researchers

Paul Huth, Professor, University of Maryland, USA

Jacob Aronson, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, USA

Project Description

Massacres and violence against civilian populations is a prevalent feature of many civil wars. While ethnic divisions often seem salient in accounting for the patterns of civilian abuse, not all warring parties target civilians based on their ethnicity. This variation is largely unexplained by existing studies.

Addressing this gap, the research project will seek to identify the conditions under which civilians are more likely to be collectively targeted in internal armed conflicts on the basis of their ethnic identity. The project proposes that the relationship between ethnic group affiliation and civilian victimization is conditional on the strategic importance of the group to the opposing warring actor, with civilian targeting being part of a strategy to weaken the military and political power of the adversary. A key theoretical contribution of this project will be to specify the conditions under which ethnic groups are seen to constitute such critical bases of support, and how this influences the likelihood of wartime atrocities along ethnic lines.

To evaluate these propositions, the project is in the process of collecting new, unique global data on the ethnic affiliation of civilian targets for all civil wars since 1989. The data collection is a collaborative undertaking with Professor Lars Erik Cederman (ETH, Zurich), Professor Simon Hug (University of Geneva) and Assistant Professor Livia Schubiger (London School of Economics).

Understanding the logic of violence against civilians is crucial for the ability to identify conflicts at risk of escalating into situations of mass atrocity and this project thus carries important policy implications in providing a framework for improving human security.


Fjelde, Hanne, Lisa Hultman, Margareta Sollenberg and Ralph Sundberg.  Forthcoming. “Spatial patterns of violence against civilians”. Eds. Backer, David A., Jonathan Wilkenfeld and Paul K. Huth. Peace and Conflict 2017. Routledge, UK.

Fjelde, Hanne, Lisa Hultman and Margareta Sollenberg. 2016. Violence Against Civilians in Civil War. Eds. Backer, David A., Jonathan Wilkenfeld and Paul K. Huth. Peace and Conflict 2016. Routledge, UK.

Fjelde, Hanne and Lisa Hultman. 2014 “Weakening Your Enemy. A Disaggregated Study of Violence against Civilians in Africa” Journal of Conflict Resolution. 58(7): 1230-1257.

Main Financial Support

Swedish Research Council