Bystanders to human rights abuses

A psychosocial perspective

Authored by: Irene Bruna Seu

Handbook of Human Rights

Print publication date:  September  2011
Online publication date:  February  2012

Print ISBN: 9780415480239
eBook ISBN: 9780203887035
Adobe ISBN: 9781134019083


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While much has been written about perpetrators of mass atrocities and victims of human rights abuses, literature and research on the bystander – the third corner in any atrocity triangle (Cohen 2001; Staub 2003) – is still sparse and fragmented. Establishing a coherent line of inquiry into bystander behavior has proved difficult due to issues of definition and the conceptual and disciplinary boundaries of the term. Social psychologists began to study the passive bystander phenomenon in the 1970s, as a reaction to the murder of Kitty Genovese. The “passive bystander phenomenon” has, strictly speaking, pertained since then, to lack of intervention in emergency situations. However, this line of inquiry has subsequently expanded into the wider field of pro-social behavior, which investigates what prompts people to help in general.

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