10 Stages of Genocide

By Gregory H. Stanton, President, Genocide Watch

Copyright 1986 Gregory H. Stanton


The Ten Stages of Genocide with Commentary

By Dr. Gregory H. Stanton[1]

© 2016 Gregory H. Stanton


➔ Classification ➔ Symbolization ➔ Discrimination ➔ Dehumanization ➔ Organization

➔ Polarization ➔ Preparation ➔ Persecution ➔ Extermination ➔ Denial

Genocide is a process that develops in ten stages that are predictable but not inexorable. At each stage, preventive measures can stop it. The process is not linear. Stages may occur simultaneously. Logically, later stages must be preceded by earlier stages. But all stages continue to operate throughout the process.


➔ 1. CLASSIFICATION: All cultures have categories to distinguish people into “us and them” by ethnicity, race, religion, or nationality: German and Jew, Hutu and Tutsi. Bipolar societies that lack mixed categories, such as Rwanda and Burundi, are the most likely to have genocide.

The main preventive measure at this early stage is to develop universalistic institutions that transcend ethnic or racial divisions, that actively promote tolerance and understanding, and that promote classifications that transcend the divisions. The Roman Catholic Church could have played this role in Rwanda, had it not been riven by the same ethnic cleavages as Rwandan society. Promotion of a common language in countries like Tanzania has also promoted transcendent national identity. This search for common ground is vital to early prevention of genocide.


➔ 2. SYMBOLIZATION: We give names or other symbols to the classifications. We name people “Jews” or “Gypsies”, or distinguish them by colors or dress; and apply the symbols to members of groups. Classification and symbolization are universally human and do not necessarily result in genocide unless they lead to dehumanization. When combined with hatred, symbols may be forced upon unwilling members of pariah groups: the yellow star for Jews under Nazi rule, the blue scarf for people from the Eastern Zone in Khmer Rouge Cambodia.

To combat symbolization, hate symbols can be legally forbidden (swastikas in Germany) as can hate speech. Group marking like gang clothing or tribal scarring can be outlawed, as well. The problem is that legal limitations will fail if unsupported by popular cultural enforcement. Though Hutu and Tutsi were forbidden words in Burundi until the 1980’s, code words replaced them. If widely supported, however, denial of symbolization can be powerful, as it was in Bulgaria, where the government refused to supply enough yellow badges and at least eighty percent of Jews did not wear them, depriving the yellow star of its significance as a Nazi symbol for Jews.


➔ 3. DISCRIMINATION: A dominant group uses law, custom, and political power to deny the rights of other groups. The powerless group may not be accorded full civil rights, voting rights, or even citizenship. The dominant group is driven by an exclusionary ideology that would deprive less powerful groups of their rights. The ideology advocates monopolization or expansion of power by the dominant group. It legitimizes the victimization of weaker groups. Advocates of exclusionary ideologies are often charismatic, expressing resentments of their followers, attracting support from the masses. Examples include the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 in Nazi Germany, which stripped Jews of their German citizenship, and prohibited their employment by the government and by universities. Denial of citizenship to the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma is a current example.

Prevention against discrimination means full political empowerment and citizenship rights for all groups in a society. Discrimination on the basis of nationality, ethnicity, race or religion should be outlawed. Individuals should have the right to sue the state, corporations, and other individuals if their rights are violated.


➔ 4. DEHUMANIZATION: One group denies the humanity of the other group. Members of it are equated with animals, vermin, insects or diseases. Dehumanization overcomes the normal human revulsion against murder. At this stage, hate propaganda in print and on hate radios is used to vilify the victim group. The majority group is taught to regard the other group as less than human, and even alien to their society. They are indoctrinated to believe that “We are better off without them.” The powerless group can become so depersonalized that they are actually given numbers rather than names, as Jews were in the death camps. They are equated with filth, impurity, and immorality. Hate speech fills the propaganda of official radio, newspapers, and speeches.

To combat dehumanization, incitement to genocide should not be confused with protected speech. Genocidal societies lack constitutional protection for countervailing speech, and should be treated differently than democracies. Local and international leaders should condemn the use of hate speech and make it culturally unacceptable. Leaders who incite genocide should be banned from international travel and have their foreign finances frozen. Hate radio stations should be jammed or shut down, and hate propaganda banned. Hate crimes and atrocities should be promptly punished.


➔ 5. ORGANIZATION: Genocide is always organized, usually by the state, often using militias to provide deniability of state responsibility. (An example is the Sudanese government’s support and arming of the Janjaweed in Darfur.) Sometimes organization is informal (Hindu mobs led by local RSS militants during Indian partition) or decentralized (jihadist terrorist groups.) Special army units or militias are often trained and armed. Arms are purchased by states and militias, often in violation of UN Arms Embargos, to facilitate acts of genocide. States organize secret police to spy on, arrest, torture, and murder people suspected of opposition to political leaders. Special training is given to murderous militias and special army killing units.

To combat this stage, membership in genocidal militias should be outlawed. Their leaders should be denied visas for foreign travel and their foreign assets frozen. The UN should impose arms embargoes on governments and citizens of countries involved in genocidal massacres, and create commissions to investigate violations, as was done in post-genocide Rwanda, and use national legal systems to prosecute those who violate such embargos.


➔ 6. POLARIZATION: Extremists drive the groups apart. Hate groups broadcast polarizing propaganda. Motivations for targeting a group are indoctrinated through mass media. Laws may forbid intermarriage or social interaction. Extremist terrorism targets moderates, intimidating and silencing the center. Moderates from the perpetrators’ own group are most able to stop genocide, so are the first to be arrested and killed. Leaders in targeted groups are the next to be arrested and murdered. The dominant group passes emergency laws or decrees that grants them total power over the targeted group. The laws erode fundamental civil rights and liberties. Targeted groups are disarmed to make them incapable of self-defense, and to ensure that the dominant group has total control.

Prevention may mean security protection for moderate leaders or assistance to human rights groups. Assets of extremists may be seized, and visas for international travel denied to them. Coups d’état by extremists should be opposed by international sanctions. Vigorous objections should be raised to disarmament of opposition groups. If necessary they should be armed to defend themselves.


➔ 7. PREPARATION: Plans are made for genocidal killings. National or perpetrator group leaders plan the “Final Solution” to the Jewish, Armenian, Tutsi or other targeted group “question.” They often use euphemisms to cloak their intentions, such as referring to their goals as “ethnic cleansing,” “purification,” or “counter-terrorism.” They build armies, buy weapons and train their troops and militias. They indoctrinate the populace with fear of the victim group. Leaders often claim that “if we don’t kill them, they will kill us,” disguising genocide as self-defense. Acts of genocide are disguised as counter-insurgency if there is an ongoing armed conflict or civil war. There is a sudden increase in inflammatory rhetoric and hate propaganda with the objective of creating fear of the other group. Political processes such as peace accords that threaten the total dominance of the genocidal group or upcoming elections that may cost them their grip on total power may actually trigger genocide.

Prevention of preparation may include arms embargos and commissions to enforce them. It should include prosecution of incitement and conspiracy to commit genocide, both crimes under Article 3 of the Genocide Convention.


➔ 8. PERSECUTION: Victims are identified and separated out because of their ethnic or religious identity. Death lists are drawn up. In state sponsored genocide, members of victim groups may be forced to wear identifying symbols. Their property is often expropriated. Sometimes they are even segregated into ghettoes, deported into concentration camps, or confined to a famine-struck region and starved. They are deliberately deprived of resources such as water or food in order to slowly destroy them. Programs are implemented to prevent procreation through forced sterilization or abortions. Children are forcibly taken from their parents.

The victim group’s basic human rights become systematically abused through extrajudicial killings, torture and forced displacement. Genocidal massacres begin. They are acts of genocide because they intentionally destroy part of a group. The perpetrators watch for whether such massacres meet any international reaction. If not, they realize that that the international community will again be bystanders and permit another genocide.

At this stage, a Genocide Emergency must be declared. If the political will of the great powers, regional alliances, or U.N. Security Council or the U.N. General Assembly can be mobilized, armed international intervention should be prepared, or heavy assistance provided to the victim group to prepare for its self-defense. Humanitarian assistance should be organized by the U.N. and private relief groups for the inevitable tide of refugees to come.


➔ 9. EXTERMINATION begins, and quickly becomes the mass killing legally called “genocide.” It is “extermination” to the killers because they do not believe their victims to be fully human. When it is sponsored by the state, the armed forces often work with militias to do the killing. Sometimes the genocide results in revenge killings by groups against each other, creating the downward whirlpool-like cycle of bilateral genocide (as in Burundi). Acts of genocide demonstrate how dehumanized the victims have become. Already dead bodies are dismembered; rape is used as a tool of war to genetically alter and eradicate the other group. Destruction of cultural and religious property is employed to annihilate the group’s existence from history. The era of “total war” began in World War II. Firebombing did not differentiate civilians from non-combatants. The civil wars that broke out after the end of the Cold War have also not differentiated civilians and combatants. They result in widespread war crimes. Mass rapes of women and girls have become a characteristic of all modern genocides. All men of fighting age are murdered in some genocides. In total genocides all the members of the targeted group are exterminated.

At this stage, only rapid and overwhelming armed intervention can stop genocide. Real safe areas or refugee escape corridors should be established with heavily armed international protection. (An unsafe “safe” area is worse than none at all.) The U.N. Standing High Readiness Brigade, EU Rapid Response Force, or regional forces — should be authorized to act by the U.N. Security Council if the genocide is small. For larger interventions, a multilateral force authorized by the U.N. should intervene. If the U.N. Security Council is paralyzed, regional alliances must act anyway under Chapter VIII of the U.N. Charter or the UN General Assembly should authorize action under the Uniting for Peace Resolution GARes. 330 (1950), which has been used 13 times for such armed intervention. Since 2005, the international responsibility to protect transcends the narrow interests of individual nation states. If strong nations will not provide troops to intervene directly, they should provide the airlift, equipment, and financial means necessary for regional states to intervene.


➔ 10. DENIAL is the final stage that lasts throughout and always follows genocide. It is among the surest indicators of further genocidal massacres. The perpetrators of genocide dig up the mass graves, burn the bodies, try to cover up the evidence and intimidate the witnesses. They deny that they committed any crimes, and often blame what happened on the victims. They block investigations of the crimes, and continue to govern until driven from power by force, when they flee into exile. There they remain with impunity, like Pol Pot or Idi Amin, unless they are captured and a tribunal is established to try them.

The best response to denial is punishment by an international tribunal or national courts. There the evidence can be heard, and the perpetrators punished. Tribunals like the Yugoslav, Rwanda or Sierra Leone Tribunals, the tribunal to try the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, or the International Criminal Court may not deter the worst genocidal killers. But with the political will to arrest and prosecute them, some may be brought to justice.

When possible, local proceedings should provide forums for hearings of the evidence against perpetrators who were not the main leaders and planners of a genocide, with opportunities for restitution and reconciliation. The Rwandan gaçaça trials are one example.

Justice should be accompanied by education in schools and the media about the facts of a genocide, the suffering it caused its victims, the motivations of its perpetrators, and the need for restoration of the rights of its victims.

© 2016 Gregory H. Stanton. Originally presented as a briefing paper, “The Eight Stages of Genocide” at the US State Department in 1996. Discrimination and Persecution have been added to the 1996 model.


Commentary by Gregory H. Stanton:

The original memo, “The Eight Stages of Genocide” was published when I was a State Department Foreign Service Officer in 1996. When I was interviewing policy makers about the decisions surrounding the Rwandan genocide, it became apparent that many fellow Foreign Service officers, both junior and senior, had incomplete knowledge of the legal meaning of “genocide,” and more importantly, did not understand the processes that lead to genocide. I had studied, written, and taught about genocide as a law professor at the Washington and Lee University School of Law, and as Director of the Cambodian Genocide Project, which I founded at Yale Law School in 1982.

As a professional anthropologist, I was trained to recognize systems of operations or transformations that constitute “structures.” Using Piaget’s concept of “structures”, the operations or transformations in such systems may be described as “stages.” Thus, Piaget’s stages of cognitive development in human beings and his stages of moral development follow a predictable logical order. Lawrence Kohlberg developed his model of moral development from Piaget’s. It is not a linear model, since “earlier” stages continue to operate in “later” stages. A child does not stop ego-centric stage one or two moral reasoning after he or she has developed the capacity for stage three, “what others think of me” reasoning or stage four, “rule based” reasoning. One of my teachers at Harvard, James Fowler, showed how this structural model could also be applied to stages of faith.

One of the most common misunderstandings of “stage” theories is to think of them as linear. They are only logical models to reveal cognitive, social, or symbolic operations that are useful in understanding processes over time. At any time during a process, many stages operate simultaneously. But to ignore the operations is to not look beneath the surface of an otherwise complex set of developments. It is like trying to do mathematics without set theory.

The reception of the original Eight Stages memo was extraordinary. It rapidly became the most widely circulated memo in State Department history due to the advent of e-mail, which had just begun to be used in the State Department. It was never classified, for it held no revelation of sources and methods that the State Department might want to keep secret. It was also short – two pages – so busy Foreign Service officers had time to read it. When the paper was first given at Yale in 1998 and published, and when I founded Genocide Watch in 1999, the model became readily available to genocide scholars and teachers.

In the past twenty years, it has become one of the most widely used models for understanding and teaching about genocide. It was published on the Genocide Watch website and remains the third top hit when one Google’s “genocide,” though no advertising has ever promoted it. It is part of the curriculum of the UN Development Program in its training programs on genocide for UN staff. It is used by teachers in universities and secondary schools all over the English-speaking world. It has been translated into Kinyarwanda and is used in schools all over Rwanda. It has been translated into French, Spanish, German, Polish, Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Khmer, and other languages. With the addition of two stages (Discrimination and Persecution), it has become more applicable to international law and even more useful for prescribing preventive measures to stop the genocidal process in its tracks.

Political scientists have never liked the model. They remain convinced that the only “scientific” models are statistical models. Barbara Harff , Jay Ulfelder, Benjamin Valentino, and others who formulated the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Early Warning Project (EWP), won’t even acknowledge the existence of the Genocide Watch “stages of genocide” model. Genocide Watch has never reciprocated by ignoring statistical risk models, which Genocide Watch cites on its website, with one click URL’s.

Part of this lack of communication may be due to the different aims of the models. Followers of Barbara Harff’s pioneering work determine what factors are most predictive of genocide by creating indicators for variables such as “prior genocides,” “presence of armed conflict,” “rule by a minority elite,” dominance of an “exclusionary ideology,” “autocratic government,” “violations of basic human rights,” and “trade openness” and then correlating them with genocides since 1945. Applying the same factors to measure conditions in contemporary nation states, Harff and her followers measure the risk of genocide in those countries.

Harff claims that her risk model can predict over seventy percent of genocides. Harff’s political science model is useful in prescribing general foreign policy objectives: building institutions for accountability, reducing war, promoting democracy, opposing exclusionary ideologies, favoring tolerance, promoting national and international protection of human rights, and favoring trade and communications openness. Surely these policy goals are right.

There have been two problems with applying the Harff and EWP model. It has always been too late. Harff developed these projections under contract to US intelligence agencies, so the projections were never released until two years too late to be useful outside the US government. Since the methodology has been taken over by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Early Warning Project, guided by two of Harff’s colleagues in the CIA funded Political Instability Task Force, I hope this disabling delay will no longer be a problem. But almost no one is consulting the EWP’s website, which is seldom updated.

The second problem is that although the Harff model can predict risks, it is a static model, unable to tell policy makers when a genocide is coming, and what measures to take to prevent it. The reason is that unlike the Ten Stages model, it is not a processual model.

The purpose of the Ten Stages model is to place the risk factors in Barbara Harff’s pioneering analysis of country risks of genocide and politicide into a processual structure.  Risks of political instability are characteristic of what Kuper called “divided societies,” with deep rifts in Classification.  Targeted groups of state-led discrimination are victims of Discrimination.  An exclusionary ideology is central to Dehumanization.  Autocratic regimes foster the Organization of hate groups.  An ethnically polarized elite is characteristic of Polarization. Lack of openness to trade and other influences from outside a state’s borders is characteristic of Preparation for genocide or politicide.  Massive violation of human rights is evidence of Persecution. Impunity after previous genocides or politicides is evidence of Denial.

In applying the Ten Stages model to genocides since 1945, it has accurately predicted nearly one hundred percent of genocides, and more importantly has permitted Genocide Watch to recommend to policy makers specific steps that should be taken to stop genocidal processes. Genocide Watch is usually the first to warn that genocide is imminent. Examples: Côte d’Ivoire, where our warning came two years before the 2002 civil war, in time to alert the French government to prepare for intervention; Nigeria, where we warned that Boko Haram is a genocidal terrorist organization in 2010 – 2012, for which we were roundly criticized by a German “terrorism expert” at a meeting of the Genocide Prevention Advisory Group in Sweden; Syria in June 2011, when only a few protesters had been murdered by the al-Assad regime; South Sudan in 2011, when we predicted a genocidal civil war while the US government and many anti-genocide organizations were congratulating themselves on its newly won independence; and Burundi from 2012 – 2016, for which Genocide Watch has recently been “summoned” by the Ambassador of Burundi to the United States. We did not go.

Is The Ten Stages of Genocide model scientific? It is as scientific as Piaget and Kohlberg’s models of the moral development of human beings, as the scientific models of photosynthesis, or of the models of syntactic structures of modern linguistics. None of these models can be reduced to statistics. Complex social processes like genocide cannot be either.

Yet application of the model is scientific, in that it is replicable. The indicators used by Genocide Watch to determine what warning signs to pay attention to are stated clearly in the model. As it is further developed, it is certain that the model will become more useful. It already has two more stages than in 1996. There will surely be more indicators as well.

The Ten Stages processual model demonstrates that there is a logic to the genocidal process, though it does not proceed in a linear order.  By helping us understand the logic of genocide, people can see the early warning signs of genocide and know when it is coming.  Leaders can design policies to counteract the forces that drive each of the stages.

I am grateful to many people for improvements in my original eight stage model, in particular to Prof. Alan Whitehorn of the Royal Military College of Canada, who suggested the terms Stigmatization for what I have called Discrimination, and Extreme Victimization for what I have called Persecution.  I have chosen the more familiar terms Discrimination and Persecution because they fit better into the law of discrimination and the international law of persecution.

No model is ever perfect.  All are merely ideal-typical representations of reality that are meant to help us think more clearly about social and cultural processes.  It is important not to confuse any stage with a status.  It is more like a fluctuating point on a thermometer that rises and falls as the social temperature in a potential area of conflict rises and falls.  It is crucial not to confuse this model with a linear one.  In all genocides, many stages occur simultaneously.

Ultimately the best antidote to genocide is popular education and the development of social and cultural tolerance for diversity.  That is why Genocide Watch and the Alliance Against Genocide hope to educate people around the world to resist genocidal forces whenever they see them.  

Finally the movement that will end genocide must come not from international armed interventions, but rather from popular resistance to every form of discrimination; dehumanization, hate speech, and formation of hate groups; rise of political parties that preach hatred, racism or xenophobia; rule by polarizing elites that advocate exclusionary ideologies; police states that massively violate human rights; closure of borders to international trade or communications; and denial of past genocides or crimes against humanity against groups within or without the state that is in denial.

The movement that will end genocide in this century must rise from each of us who have the courage to challenge discrimination, hatred, and tyranny.  We must never let the wreckage of our barbaric past keep us from envisioning a peaceful future when law and democratic freedom will rule the earth.

For those who doubt there is any direction in history, our common humanity is enough to give meaning to our cause.  To those of us who know that history is not some directionless accident, this is our calling and our destiny.  John F. Kennedy said, “On earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”


© 2016 Gregory H. Stanton. 


[1] President, Genocide Watch; Research Professor in Genocide Studies and Prevention,

School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University, Arlington,Virginia 22201 USA