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?

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. In extreme circumstances such as war ordinary people can be transformed into perpetrators of extreme atrocities. 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.

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. 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. 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).

Core publications:

  • 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.
  • Smeulers, A. (2008). Perpetrators of international crimes: towards a typology, in: A. Smeulers & R. Haveman (Eds.) Supranational criminology: towards a criminology of international crimes, Antwerpen: Intersentia, 233-265.
  • 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. (2011). Eroding the myth of pure evil – When victims become perpetrators and perpetrators victims, in: R. Letschert, R. Haveman, A.M. de Brouwer, Pemberton (eds.), Victimological approaches to international crimes: Africa, Antwerp: Intersentia, 65-88
  • Smeulers, A. (1996). Auschwitz and the Holocaust through the eyes of the perpetrators, Driemaandelijks Tijdschrift van de Stichting Auschwitz, 23-55.

Dutch core publications:

  • Smeulers, A. (2012). In opdracht van de staat – gezagsgetrouwe criminelen en internationale misdrijven, Tilburg: prismaprint.
  • 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.
  • 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
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