The gassings in Auschwitz, the abuse at Abu Ghraib, the mass rapes in the DRC, the murders in South Africa, the mass graves in Srebrenica, the terrible poison attacks in Iraq and more recently in Syria. Why do people commit such atrocities? Who are these people? How can anyone be so cruel?


How ordinary people can transform in perpetrators
International crimes are so atrocious that we instinctively distance ourselves from the perpetrators and prefer to see them as cruel and sadistic psychopaths – very different from us, ordinary people. A very small minority of the perpetrators are indeed sadists and psychopaths but most perpetrators are ordinary and law abiding citizens who commit their crimes on orders of the state (read more).In extreme circumstances such as war ordinary people can be transformed into perpetrators of extreme atrocities (read more). Within this transformation process a number of phases can be distinguished: the preparation phase, the initiation phase, the habituation and routinization phase and the reflection phase. It turns out that almost all perpetrators are shocked, disgusted or horrified after they have tortured, raped or killed for the first time. The way they respond to their own horror and disgust is decisive and crucial in the transformation process. Do they decide to never obey such an order again despite the danger such a decision might put them in. Or – much more likely – do they start to rationalize and justify their own behaviour. If they choose to do the latter then they will do anything to soothe their own conscience: they will convince themselves that they did not do anything wrong and made the right choice to obey the order. They will convince themselves that the victims deserved their fate and that if they would not have obeyed the orders others would have done so. Once perpetrators start to rationalize and justify their behaviour they will not find any means to resist the subsequent order to torture, maim or kill and will feel compelled to obey the next order to maim, torture or kill. The more they do so the more they will feel the need to rationalize and justify their obedience but along the way they became better and better at it and after a while they will start to get used to the violence and will be able maim, torture and kill without any further pangs of conscience (read more).  


Typology of perpetrators
Not all perpetrators are the same though. Some perpetrators are powerful political leaders, such as heads of state or leaders of rebel forces. These perpetrators initiate the crimes. Others organize the violence and execute the repressive, violent or even genocidal policies developed by the political leaders. They are the bureaucrats. Still others physically execute the policies and maim, kill or rape other people with their own hands. These are the low ranking foot soldiers – the hands-on soldiers who have no power and just execute the orders given to them. Perpetrators differ in their motives too. Some are driven by an ideology as for instance the radical extremist who is driven forward by his own hatred or the devoted warrior who is a loyal soldier convinced that he has to obey whatever order he is given. Others are driven by self-interest. An example thereof would be the common criminals who take advantage of the war to further their criminal activities like for instance Arkan  (read more). Periods of political violence are often a form of social engineering providing new opportunities for people in the lower echelons of society to make themselves a career. These perpetrators take advantage of the suffering of the victims. Others are just followers – people who do not lead, nor take their own decisions but just follow the flow. Some perpetrators are forced to cooperate or are vulnerable as for instance children who have been abducted and forced to become child soldiers like Dominic Ongwen who adapted very well and became an important leader within the LRA (read more). In total we can distinguish nine different types of perpetrators: (1) the criminal mastermind; (2) the careerist; (3) the profiteer; (4) the fanatic; (5) the devoted warrior; (6) the professional; (7) the criminal and sadist; (8) the follower; and (9) the compromised perpetrator.Periods of mass violence occur during periods of political upheaval; when a repressive or genocidal policy is developed and the group dynamics between various types of perpetrators lead them to collectively commit atrocities. (read more)


Perpetrators always commit their crimes in a very particular political, ideological and institutional context which results in an enormous social pressure to accept this context and to define as legitimate what the leaders of a country or the majority of the group defines as legitimate. During the Second World War many people no longer perceived the extermination process as anything out of the ordinary. This was true for the camp guards who worked at Auschwitz  (read more) but also for those who worked within the bureaucracy like Eichmann (read more). During the genocide in Rwanda many of the victims (between 800.000 and 1 million in three months time) were killed by killer groups of 10-100 people. The killers believed or were made to believe that the killings were necessary. The perpetrators I interviewed in Rwanda (together with Lotte Hoex) all stated that it might be hard to understand in retrospect but that at the time the killings seemed like completely justified and legitimate to them (read more). The pictures of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison which were broadcasted on American Television in the programme 60 minutes shocked the world but here too, many of the perpetrators believed they were doing the right thing: protect their country from yet another terrorist attack such as 9/11 (read more). The war in former Yugoslavia was slightly different as in this case many ordinary criminals got involved in the war such as for instance Zeljko Raznjatovic, better known as Arkan (read more) and thus symbolizing the progressive criminalization of war fare (read more).  


Female Perpetrators

Only a very small percentage (1%) of the perpetrators convicted by international criminal courts and tribunals are women. This raises the question as to whether women are less evil than men. Within literature it is generally assumed that the genocide in Rwanda was unprecedented in relation to the role played by women and that it is the first and only period of mass violence in which many women were involved. This however is not true: women have played a much larger role than we have gener¬ally assumed so far in for instance the Nazi Holocaust but also many other periods of collective violence. The evidence furthermore  shows that women can be just as evil as men and be involved in genocide, terrorist attacks, torture and sexual violence as aiders and abettors but also as the principal perpetrators and instigators – although it indeed seems true that generally far less women than men are involved in mass atrocities. The reason why there are fewer male than female perpetrators is because women are underrepresented within militarized units and amongst political leadership and thus are less often in a position to commit such crimes. When women do get involved in mass atrocities they are often portrayed as sadists, mentally disturbed or otherwise very unnatural women. It might however be questioned whether these women are any less ordinary than their male counterparts (read more).



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Core publications

  • Smeulers, A. (2015). Female perpetrators: ordinary or extra-ordinary women? International Criminal Law Review 15, 205-251. (read more)
  • Smeulers, A. (2011), Chapters VI- IX in: A. Smeulers & F. Grünfeld, International crimes and other gross human rights violations, Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, pp. 203-330. (read more)
  • Smeulers, A. (2011). Eroding the myth of pure evil - When victims become perpetrators and perpetrators victims, in: R. Letschert, R. Haveman, A.M. de Brouwer, A. Pemberton (eds.), Victimological approaches to international crimes: Africa, Antwerp: Intersentia, 65-88. (read more)
  • Smeulers, A. & L. Hoex (2010). Studying the Micro-dynamics of the Rwandan genocide, British Journal of Criminology, 50(3), 435-454. (read more)
  • Smeulers, A. & S. van Niekerk (2009). Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror - a case against Donald Rumsfeld? Crime Law and Social Change 51(3-4), 327-349. (read more)
  • Smeulers, A. (2008). Perpetrators of international crimes: towards a typology, in: A. Smeulers en R. Haveman (Eds.) Supranational criminology: towards a criminology of international crimes, Antwerpen: Intersentia, 233-265. (read more)
  • Smeulers, A. (2004). What transforms ordinary people into gross human rights violators, in: S.C. Carey and S.C. Poe (eds.) Understanding Human Rights Violations: new systematic studies, Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 239-256. (read more)
  • Smeulers, A. (1996). Auschwitz and the Holocaust through the eyes of the perpetrators, Driemaandelijks Tijdschrift van de Stichting Auschwitz, 23-55. (read more)

Dutch core publications

  • Smeulers, A. (2014). Het ultieme kwaad - de daders, Tijdschrift voor Cultuur en Criminologie 4(3), 36-52. (read more)
  • Smeulers, A. & H. Quaedvlieg (2013), Internationale misdrijven: een mannenzaak?, M. Groenhuijsen, T. Kooijmans, J. Ouwerkerk (red.), Roosachtig strafrecht – liber amicorum Theo de Roos, Kluwer, pp. 579-594. (read more)
  • Smeulers, A. (2012). In opdracht van de staat – gezagsgetrouwe criminelen en internationale misdrijven, Tilburg: prismaprint.  (read more)
  • Smeulers, A. (2008). In hun eigen woorden – genocide, foltering en andere internationale misdrijven door de ogen van de daders, Tijdschrift voor Criminologie. 50(4), 361-371. (read more)