Genocide, Mass Violence, and Human Rights:

A Path to Internationalizing the Psychology Curriculum

and Promoting Social Responsibility.

Linda M. Woolf, Ph.D.

Webster University

We should all have a care about humanity - Judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald

The path of genocide has left how many dead this century?

28 million?
56 million?
98 million?
140 million?
170 million?
210 million?

Source: Her Excellency Mary Robinson, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Dec. 1998

It is important to note that ethnic conflicts are rooted in ethnic fear and that ethnopolitical wars include atrocities such as mass rape and ethnic cleansing. We know that 80 percent of casualties are noncombatants, mostly women and children, and that these conflicts cause post-traumatic sress on a vast scale and destroy community structures that support mental health. - Martin Seligman, President APA


This century is marked by unparalleled human cruelty, mass violence, ethnopolitical conflict, and genocide. Government genocidal policies alone have resulted in over 210 million deaths - 80 percent of these are civilian deaths (170 million); nearly four times the number of individuals killed in combat during international/domestic wars during this same time period. These statistics do not include human rights violations and severely underestimate the additional toll on human life from physical and psychological scarring.

Certainly, the problems of genocide, ethnopolitical conflict, mass violence, and human cruelty are of concern to all committed to human rights. However, psychology is uniquely qualified to address the causes and consequences of these problems. One can easily understand psychology's role in assessment, intervention, and treatment of refugees and survivors of torture and/or extreme conflict. But, perhaps more importantly, psychology can make a significant contribution to the understanding of the psychosocial roots of human cruelty, mass violence, ethnopolitical conflict, and genocide. With this knowledge, we can work collaboratively with other disciplines and programs (both governmental and non-governmental) to develop models and policies towards early warning, prevention, peaceful conflict resolution, reconciliation, and reconstruction.

Unfortunately, psychology education tends to ignore topics related to human rights, mass violence, ethnopolitical conflict, and genocide. As such, our students are unprepared to meet the psychosocial needs of those within the broader global community experiencing the trauma associated with these conflicts either within their home countries or as refugees. Our students are also unprepared to contribute to pre-conflict prevention or post-conflict resolution.

If we wish to truly internationalize psychology, students need to be aware of events occurring outside of the U.S.. Students should know that democide, genocide, ethnocide, ethnopolitical conflicts, and large scale human rights violations are not simply theoretical constructs or isolated historical events. The analysis of previously occurring instances of mass violence, ethnopolitical conflicts, and genocide whether the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the Cambodian killing fields, or the more recent genocides in Rwanda/Burundi, East Timor, or Bosnia provide us highly documented instances of human cruelty and conflict. Knowledge of these atrocities may lead our students to greater understanding of the cognitive, affective, social, cultural, and societal roots of human cruelty and mass violence. With this knowledge our students are more likely to accept the mantle of social responsibility and to become actively involved as citizens and future psychologists within the global community. Conversely, they are less likely to be apathetic bystanders only serving as fuel for continued human rights violations, mass violence, ethnopolitical conflict, and genocide.

Information/training related to the causes and consequences of human cruelty, ethnopolitical conflict, and genocide can not only be taught as distinct courses and fields within the psychology curriculum but can also be integrated into existing course structures and topics. Two courses focusing on genocide and human rights are described and suggestions for existing courses are presented.

An aspect of the Declaration that deserves more attention is the emphasis on the individual's duties and responsibilities. Article 29 of the Declaration underlines everyone's duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible. . . . . It tells us, at a time of moral and ethical confusion, that we are members of one human family with rights in common and duties towards each other. As we look to the future, the sense of mankind "being in this together" could be a potent force for strengthening and protecting human rights. - Mary Robinson

Decimation means the killing of every tenth person in a population, and in the spring and early summer of 1994 a program of massacres decimated the Republic of Rwanda. Although the killing was low-tech - performed largely by machete - it was carried out at dazzling speed: of an original population of about seven and a half million, at least eight hudred thousand people were killed in just a hundred days. Rwandans often speak of a million deaths, and they may be right. - Philip Gourevitch.

Genocide: The Ideology of Evil

PSYC/ANS0 3200

POLT 3400

Course Description:

We live in a time of unparalleled instances of democide, genocide and ethnocide. In fact, governmental policies have resulted in over 170 million deaths during this century (1900-1987) and this figure excludes war deaths (Rummel, 1995). As Rummel states,"It surpasses the 1987 population of all but six nations in the world". These statistics of course do not include the more recent deaths due to genocide/democide and underestimates the additional toll on human life from physical and psychological scarring.

While most individuals are aware of the Holocaust (although they often do not realize the extent of the brutality and actual cost in terms of human life), many are not aware of other past genocides/democides or of current genocides/democides. For example, many individuals remain unaware of the Armenian genocide in Turkey, the killing fields of Cambodia, the disappearances in Argentina & Chile, the death squad killings in El Salvador, or Stalin's purges. Many are unaware of recent events that have resulted in genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda/Burundi or the extreme violations of human rights and genocidal policies by the governments of China (including Tibet), Myanmar (Burma), Laos, and Indonesia (including the genocide of the East Timorese).

The Holocaust, the genocides in Turkey, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda . . . the disappearances in Argentina, the death squad killings in El Salvador, . . . violence, torture, the mistreatment of human beings . . . . All of these raise questions about evil. This course will examine the psychological, cultural, and societal roots of human cruelty, mass violence, and genocide. We will examine the questions of what enables individuals collectively and individually to perpetrate evil/genocide and examine the impact of apathetic bystanders on human violence.

Course Objectives:

  1. Objective: To examine the nature of evil and its differential impact on victims vs. perpetrators.

  2. Objective: To examine the differences between the terms genocide, democide, ethnocide, and other forms of mass violence.

  3. Objective: To become more knowledgeable concerning the interaction of psychological, sociological, cultural, and/or political roots of evil, human cruelty, mass violence, and genocide.

  4. Objectives: To become familiar with a psychosocial theory of evil and the application of this theory to the perpetration of genocide and mass violence in Nazi Germany, Turkey, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda.

  5. Objective: To examine the nature of bystander behavior and the impact of bystander behavior on the perpetration of genocide.

  6. Objectives: To examine the question of what can be done to prevent human cruelty, mass violence, and genocide.

  7. Objective: For students to be able to take all of the above information and apply it to a current or historical instance of individual and collective instance of human cruelty, mass violence, or genocide.

Power kills, absolute power kills absolutely. - Rudolph Rummel


Link for complete Syllabus


Nazi Science:
Human Experimentation vs. Human Rights

Experiments conducted on human prisoners in Nazi concentration camps were in fact brutal crimes committed under the guise of Nazi medicine. In addition, Nazi science and medicine played a pivotal role in the perpetration of genocide.

During this course, we examine the role of Nazi science in genocide and human experimentation. For example:

These atrocities will be evaluated within the context of necessary fundamental human rights using the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1947 Nuremberg Code, the Declarations of Helsinki, the American Psychological Association's Ethical Principles in the Conduct of Research With Human Participants, and other documents pertaining to human rights and human experimentation. We will also examine:

An International Studies Certificate and International Human Rights Certificate.[VAL]

Course Objectives:

  1. Objective: To examine the concept of human rights and understand these rights as outlined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

  2. Objective: To become familiar with the essential features of the Nuremberg Code, the Declarations of Helsinki, and other documents as they relate to human rights and research.

  3. Objective: To understand the relevance of the Holocaust to current research and bio-medical issues.

  4. Objectives: To examine the healing-to-killing road of Nazi medicine; from theories of racial hygiene to euthanasia and sterilization to the Holocaust.

  5. Objective: To examine the various experiments conducted within the concentration camps using prisoners as subjects.

  6. Objectives: To examine the fundamental process by which these experiments violated basic human rights using the Nuremberg Code, the Declarations of Helsinki, and other documents as references.

  7. Objective: To examine other abuses of human experimentation that occurred during and after World War II.

  8. Objective: To address the issue of the use of data or specimens obtained unethically for research and writing today. In other words, should we use Nazi data as source material or human specimens preserved from Nazi science in research?

  9. Objective: To examine the relevance the Nuremberg Code and the Declarations of Helsinki to the American Psychological Association's Ethical Principles in the Conduct of Research With Human Participants.

  10. Objective: To examine the relevance of Nazi science to research today.

It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It happened, and it can happen everywhere. Primo Levi


Link for complete Syllabus

. . . . . and it might well happen to most of us dainty people that we were in the thick of the battle of Armageddon without being aware of anything more than the annoyance of a little explosive smoke and struggle on the ground immediately about us. - George Eliot

Traditional Course Suggestions

The issues of fundamental human rights, refugees, torture, mass violence, ethnopolitical conflict, genocide, and the concept of peace psychology can all be integrated into existing courses. Below is a listing of traditional courses offered within psychology. For each of these courses, a list is provided of possible traditional topics for which the above issues can be integrated.

With the end of the Cold War, the warfare that we will face in the next century will be ethnic in nature and it is critical to make this a pivotal issue within the psychological community. - Martin Seligman, President APA

Final Thoughts

It is imperative that a greater understanding of the psychological, cultural, political, and societal roots of human cruelty, mass violence, ethnopolitical conflict, and genocide be developed. We need to continue to examine the factors which enable individuals collectively and individually to perpetrate evil/genocide and the impact of apathetic bystanders as fuel for human violence.

While an exact predictive model for mass violence/human cruelty is beyond the scope of human capability, we have an obligation to develop a model that highlights the warning signs and predisposing factors for human violence and genocide. With such information, we can develop policies,strategies, and programs designed to counteract these atrocities and build strategies for reconcilition and reconstruction post-conflict. Finally, we need to truly internationalize the psychology curriculum by including issues of human rights, mass violence, and genocide. Through this we can encourage social responsiblity and create a generation of future psychologists trained to work as facilitators of peace.

Perhaps, we can work to insure that the phrase "Never Again!" does not simply translate historically as "Ever Again!" as we move from the "Century of Genocide" into the next millenium.

Professional Organizations for Psychologists and Student Affiliates

For Recommended Readings and Links: the Armenian Genocide; the Balkans and Bosnia; Burma; Cambodia; Croatia; East Timor; Genocide & Democide; the Herero genocide; Hindu genocide in Bangledesh; The Holocaust; Human Rights; Rwanda & Burundi; Sudan; and other links related to Holocaust and Genocide Studies see my webpage at:

Feel free to e-mail with questions, comments, or course suggestions:

Yet who could fail to be dismayed when we compare the reality of the human rights situation around the world with the idealistic aims of the Universal Declaration?