The use of so-called drone airplanes to target and kill suspected terrorists is in the news again. Some in the U.S. have voiced what in my view are justified yet somewhat myopic concerns about the supposed authority of the U.S. President to target American citizens on foreign or domestic soil. This is one of many cases in which the value of due process clashes with the need to respond to imminent threats. As usual, the executive has a tendency to focus on the latter.
The concerns that have been voiced recently are myopic in the sense that most drone attacks take place abroad and most victims are foreigners. Let’s therefore limit our discussion to the justifiability of targeting foreigners abroad. (These drone attacks, by the way, are just one form of targeted killing – the British SAS and the Israeli Mossad use or have used human operators to stalk and shoot terrorists at home or abroad).
So, we’re talking about governments carrying out the killings, and the targets are suspected foreign terrorists, insurgents or combatants hiding on foreign soil. Governments try to justify such killings by arguing that they and the targets are engaged in armed conflict: a war if not necessarily a declared one. If indeed we are dealing with a war then the targets do not even have to pose an imminent threat when they are killed. A history of violence and a risk of future violence are sufficient reasons to target and kill them. In a war, it’s deemed acceptable to kill unthreatening and even unarmed enemy forces, as long as these forces are hostile and potentially dangerous elements in an ongoing conflict. Targeted killing is therefore seen as equivalent to the normal and traditionally unlimited wartime right to kill enemy soldiers.
That is also why the possibility of apprehension is not considered a sufficient reason to abstain from targeted killing, although in practice most killings are of people who are difficult to apprehend.
So that’s the governmental story about targeted killing. How should we assess this story? There are some good sides to it, and some bad:
- If indeed we’re dealing with a war, then concerns about extra-judicial killings, about the absence of imminent threats and the failure to apprehend when possible do not seem justified. That’s a bog “if” of course. One has the feeling that the “war on terror” has been called a war not because it is one but because it yields the right to kill. And one can even question the traditional right to unlimited killing of soldiers during wartime, as Jeff McMahan has done.
- Drone attacks evidently minimize the risks of casualties on the attacker’s side, even possibly down to zero. Drones may also provide cover for soldiers in the field during regular operations.
- Although these things are difficult to measure given the secrecy of the whole affair, it does seem obvious that drone attacks, when compared to standard military attacks, should in principle involve fewer civilian casualties. (An attempt to measure this is presented here. A less rosy view on the matter is here and here).
- Drone attacks may produce leadership vacuums and lead to disorganization in the terrorist organization. Organizational decapitation may hurt terrorist groups more than regular attacks.
- Drone attacks – especially if they become widespread – mean that the attacking side no longer has skin in the game. As a result, these attacks may remove an important restraint on war. Wars or military adventures may become more common as they become less costly in human terms on the attacker’s side.
- Positing the equivalence with normal wartime killing implies that the drone operators, who are commonly situated far from the battlefield and close to residential areas in the home country, are legitimate targets for retaliation. Ironically, drone attacks may therefore encourage terrorist attacks.
- As already stated, a lot hinges on the use of words. Killing people who aren’t an immediate military threat may be tantamount to extra-judicial execution. And merely labeling those people “combatants” and the operation a “war” isn’t enough to acquire the right to normal wartime killing. It may often be more precise to label terrorist attacks as normal crimes rather than acts of “war”, in which case normal judicial proceedings are more appropriate, which means apprehension and trial, and killing only when apprehension is impossible and a threat is imminent.
- The choice to kill when apprehension is possible means forgoing the possibility to put the target on trial and demonstrate to the world how a civilized country deals with threats. It gives the opposite message that violence is the appropriate form of defense and retaliation.
- Intelligence that could be gathered by capturing and questioning the targets is lost when they are killed.
- The lack of transparency opens the door to abuse, as does the view that an imminent threat is not required.
- Drone attacks often violate the sovereignty of other countries, setting a dangerous precedent.
- Targeted killing may be fatal to the democratic peace theory (see here for more details).
Some of these points carry more weight than others, and some perhaps none at all. Other points could be added. It’s up to the reader to make up his or her own mind, but my view is the following: compared to the general unpleasantness of war, targeted killing isn’t particularly shocking and can even be seen as a step forward. That is, as long as it is really limited to an actual, uncontested war involving real combatants who pose an imminent threat, and a threat that can’t be averted by apprehension and trial.
What is perhaps more shocking than the attacks themselves is the fact that the whole “war” rhetoric has become so vague that anything can be called a war. Is there a crime with which we’re not “at war”? When ordinary criminals – and I consider most terrorists to be ordinary criminals, ordinary except for their particular motivation – can be targeted like enemy soldiers, what is left of criminal justice? Extra-judicial execution then becomes the only form of crime prevention.
More on targeted killing here.
History has seen many genocides and large scale killings. Some of those resulted in more deaths than the Holocaust. So why is the Holocaust special? It’s special because it was the first and last example of the industrial production of corpses. It was, quite literally, a murder machine. The murders were not the actions of specific individuals who did what they did because of their identity, motives or pathologies. They were not like the brutalities of the Roman Emperor Nero, which were clearly his. Nor were they like the crimes of Saddam Hussein or any other identifiable criminal. In the case of the Holocaust, it was impossible to recognize an identity in the deed. The killers were impersonal, insignificant, loyal, conscientious and hardworking civil servants operating together in an organized, efficient, systematic and planned extermination, characterized by division of labor and the industrial production line. Everyone knew exactly what to do, and often that was a very small part of the process. Shared responsibility is often seen as diminished responsibility, and makes it easier to produce corpses. The detailed planning, organization and execution of the project sets the Holocaust apart from other genocides. Eichmann protested against spontaneous pogroms in the east, not because he was a humanitarian but because those unorganized interventions messed up his bookkeeping and made it difficult to count how many exactly were killed by the otherwise machine-like operation.
The Holocaust was not the action of an individual or a small group of people. Nor was it motivated by egoism, the will to power, money, hate, rage, revenge, sadism, war or the elimination of opposition. The victims were not guilty of opposition or even crime. The perpetrators weren’t motivated by self-interest (for example, the Nazis prohibited private confiscation of Jewish goods for personal use). Neither was it primarily the hatred of Jews that led the Nazis to try to exterminate them. It was the love of humanity – or better what they considered to be true humanity – and the need to protect it. The Holocaust wasn’t a war crime either and wasn’t part of the normal atrocities of war. It started well before the war and the German war effort suffered substantially from it: potentially useful labor forces were eliminated, soldiers and other means that could have been used in the war were diverted to the extermination effort etc. The Jews were murdered, not because that would have allowed soldiers to fight rather than guard prisoners, but because they were Jews. The extermination continued even in the final days of the war, when Germany was losing and all military resources should have gone to the war effort. And, finally, the purpose of the Holocaust wasn’t to instill fear. Normal state terror serves to scare the population and convince it to submit and to behave in ways that are acceptable to the rulers. Not in the case of the Holocaust. Fear had become useless because it couldn’t serve to guide actions and to steer away from danger. Danger would have found you anyway. Everyone knew that you were a Jew, and tactical maneuvering motivated by fear could have helped you escape only in very few cases.
Self-interest, power hunger, sadism, revenge or other utilitarian motives were seen by the Nazis as diversions from the genocidal operation that was undertaken for the benefit of mankind. As was the military self-interest of Germany’s success in the war. The project of extermination of the Jews and the protection of mankind was more important than the risk of a possible military defeat of Germany. Pity as well could not stand in the way of the demands of nature and history. The pleas of the victims were not heard and people convinced themselves of the historical and natural necessity of the Holocaust. Like pity, the taking of money from a victim as a bribe for letting him or her live was a betrayal of nature. Germans had to be the superhumans that they were destined to be, free from all that makes us ordinary humans: pity, self-interest, hate and the will to power.
The Holocaust wasn’t a crime. A crime is a deed that goes against social order and established law and that challenges the powers that represent social order. In this case, we have an atrocity that emanated from the state and that had become the moral and legal law. Murder had become a form of government. Evil no longer had to fight the Good, and no longer had to hide and to be hypocritical. Evil ruled. There was only evil. The world was without a horizon, without hope or salvation. Another reason why the Holocaust can’t really be called a crime is the fact that the perpetrators didn’t have criminal motives. They just carried out the verdict of nature and implemented the laws of nature. A deeper legality defined the actions of government. Murder had become the law of nature as well as the legal law and the law of morality.
More on the Holocaust here.
An amazing image from Amnesty International, of Beirut City before (June 19, 2006) and after (August 12, 2006) attacks during the 2006 Lebanon war:
Between 12 July and 14 August, 2006, a major military confrontation took place between Hizbullah and Israel, following the capture of two Israeli soldiers, and the killing of others, by Hizbullah in a raid across the border between Israel and Lebanon. Israel conducted attacks throughout Lebanon from land, sea and air, killing some 1,000 civilians. Hizbullah launched thousands of rockets on northern Israel, killing some 40 civilians.
The war caused large scale devastation, with war crimes committed by all parties, and civilians bearing the brunt of casualties. AI found Israeli forces had committed indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, including the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas. Israeli forces also appear to have carried out direct attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, seemingly to pursue a strategy intended to punish Lebanon for not turning against Hizbullah, as well as harming Hizbullah’s military capability. Hizbullah used both indiscriminate rockets as well as direct attacks on civilian populations in towns and villages in northern Israel, which were seen as reprisals. (source)
More posts in this series are here.
It sounds like a somewhat antiquated concept and it may very well be true that it’s useless as a descriptive device for current politics. However, I believe that it remains a necessary tool for the correct understanding of 20th century history. Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Mao-era China were very different countries and very different political regimes, but it can be argued that what they had in common was more important than what separated them. And what they had in common separated them from all other authoritarian governments before and after them. (Hannah Arendt was one of the first to notice this). That is the reasoning behind the concept of totalitarian government. Those three governments – and perhaps a few others – can be described as totalitarian states and were therefore instances of a separate type of government, like oligarchy or democracy. They were not just particularly brutal forms of dictatorship. We’re not talking about a difference in degree. Of course, some of the elements of totalitarian rule which I describe below can be found in other dictatorial governments as well, but other elements can’t. (Just like some elements of democracy can be found in non-democracies). And what certainly can’t be found elsewhere is the combination of all those elements.
Totalitarian government is a post-democratic form of government. It couldn’t exist in the era before mass democracy. It’s post-democratic in the sense that it is an outgrowth of modern democratic traditions. Political parties, party ideologies, mass movements and mass mobilization, the pseudo-popular legitimacy of rigged elections and referenda, the mass idolatry, the personality cults, mass indoctrination, propaganda, Potemkin constitutions, show trials etc. all show the totalitarian debt to democracy. The same is true for the focus on re-education and rectification of thought when some parts of the popular will are considered to be deviant: this is proof of the importance of popular consent (when consent is absent, it’s fabricated).
Contrary to older forms of despotism, totalitarianism admits that the state is no longer the natural property of a ruling class, the private tool of a sovereign or a gift of God. It is the expression of the will of the people. Not, as in a democracy, of a divided people or of a people who’s identity fluctuates over time as a consequence of public debate. The will of the people under totalitarian government is permanently defined as a unified whole. The people are defined as a race or a class. The people have a homogeneous project, namely racial supremacy or the liberation of the proletariat. The will of the people, which is also the basis of democracy but which is always kept vague, heterogeneous and fluctuating in a democracy, now becomes a singular, clear and permanent will. All individuals and individual projects or interests are identified with a collective project. Everything which is in accord with this project, is part of the people; everything else is not – is foreign, alien, “entartet”, bourgeois or capitalist – and must be destroyed. If it’s the whole of the people that works towards a certain project, then those with another opinion are enemies of the people and have to be destroyed to protect the people and its project.
That is the origin of the genocidal nature of all totalitarian governments but also of their less extreme forms of exclusion of the other. Every internal division is seen as external. The other is not part of the people. Society isn’t divided but is divided from its enemies. Every sign of internal division is externalized: dissidents are foreign spies, the other is a member of the international jewish conspiracy, a tool of international capitalism, the fifth column etc. For example, long after it was clear that the attack on Hitler in 1939 was the work of a single German individual (Georg Elser) the nazis maintained that the British secret service was to blame. The other attack by von Stauffenberg in 1944 was framed as the work of aristocratic officers who were alienated from the German people. This division between internal and external is consciously cultivated because it confirms the image of the people as a unified whole. If real foreign spies or class enemies can’t be found then they are created. and duly suppressed. Hence everyone can become the enemy, even the most loyal followers.
The fixed will of the people is subsequently represented by the party and the state. The party doesn’t represent a majority, but the people. Hence, other parties have no reason to exist. All people and the whole of the people are represented by a single party. And since this party perfectly represents a perfectly clear and unified popular will, it can infiltrate all parts of society: school, church, labor union, factory, the press, the judiciary, the arts and all other social organizations cease to be independent. The party is everywhere and submits every organization to its will. It believes it can do so because its will is the will of the people. And the party uses the means of the state to be everywhere: the secret service, the department of communications, the police… As a result, the state is also everywhere. Totalitarian government simultaneously bans people to the private sphere – all free and deviant public actions and expressions are forbidden – and destroys the private sphere, to the point that people can’t even trust their friends and family. All private actions are potentially public. Wiretapping, surveillance, public confessions… Even the most private things of all, your own thoughts, are attacked by way of propaganda and indoctrination. Totalitarianism strives for total control of private and public life. All spontaneous and independent individual or social projects are doomed unless they are completely trivial. They can only survive when they are part of the common project, because they make sense only when they are part. When they are not, they are potentially in opposition to the common project.
But we should understand that the identification of the party with the state is only temporary. The state in fact is bound to disappear. That becomes clear when we consider the imperialism that is typical of totalitarianism (to a lesser degree in the case of China). By definition, the projects of totalitarian governments – racial supremacy or a classless society – go beyond the borders of a state. Aryans aren’t only meant to rule within the borders of Germany. They deserve global supremacy in part because they are the best race and in part because the Jews are a worldwide threat. And the classless society can’t exist when it is surrounded by a capitalist world; the proletariat in other countries also deserves to rule.
Totalitarianism is a form of rule that goes beyond the state. A particular state is just a convenient tool for a certain stage in the popular project. The people as well is a concept that goes beyond the group of citizens of a given state. There are also Aryans and workers in other states. In non-totalitarian dictatorships, political rule is essentially tied to the state. A normal dictator may attack other countries, but will do so while enhancing his state or expanding his country. His rule will never go beyond the rule of a state, suitably redefined if necessary. If necessary he’ll redraw the boundaries of the state, but he will never go beyond the state as such. Totalitarian rule, on the other hand, is ultimately larger than the state. It’s the rule of a race or a class, on a potentially global level.
As the people and the state are subject to the rule of the party, so the party is subject to the rule of one individual. The leader makes sure that the party remains unified, because a divided party can’t claim to represent a unified people. So there’s a series of identifications going on: the people is identified with a class or a race; this unified people is then identified with the party that represents it; the party in turn identifies itself with the state because it (temporarily) needs the tools of the state to realize its project (class rule or race rule); the state then takes over society and identifies with it; and ultimately a single leader takes over everything in order to guarantee unity.
The people are like a collective individual, a body with a head controlling all its coordinated movements. State terror and genocide can then be seen as the body removing sickness and parasites. The other is often explicitly identified as parasitical or infectious. Violence and oppression are medicines used to safeguard the integrity of the body of the people and their purpose. The Great Purge wasn’t called a purge by accident. The Jews weren’t depicted as pestilent rats for no reason.
The image of the body also means prophylaxis: why wait with punishment until the crime is committed? We know that certain persons are enemies of the people. Crime in the sense of opposition to the project of the people is a fatality for them, sooner or later. There may be good Jews, but we can’t take the risk that they marry an Aryan and defile the race. And some capitalists may be less harmful than others, but why wait until their presence undermines collectivization or until they betray the country and invite an invasion?
Totalitarian government isn’t like a normal lawless and arbitrary dictatorship. Of course, the laws under totalitarian government are regularly broken or changed to serve certain goals. But there are deeper laws that the totalitarian government has to protect, namely the laws of nature (in the case of Nazism, and more specifically the laws of natural selection) and the laws of history (in the case of communism, more specifically the laws that say that economic and industrial development will necessarily destroy capitalism and inaugurate communist production). Those “deeper” laws aren’t human laws; they are historical laws that drive mankind towards the realization of the project that animates totalitarianism. Totalitarian government serves to facilitate and fasten the operation of those deeper laws. Jews are exterminated because that promotes the ultimate and inevitable supremacy of Aryans. Capitalists, bourgeois, kulaks etc. are exterminated (or reeducated in order to become communists) because that promotes the ultimate and inevitable supremacy of the proletariat (the proletariat is doomed to rule given the evolution of capitalism, but its rule can be hastened).
There is no “regis voluntas suprema lex” as in previous forms of despotism. The legal lawlessness covers a deeper lawfulness. Legal laws have to be adapted to best serve the deeper laws. If terror and violence are required for the realization and hastening of the evolution postulated by the deeper laws, then the legal laws will mandate and require terror and violence. Terror and violence don’t only serve to intimidate, destroy opposition, isolate people from one another and coerce compliance. They serve the project of the people.
I think all this justifies grouping Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Mao-era China under a separate form of government. That doesn’t mean that everything about those regimes was new and typical only of totalitarian government. Obviously, genocides, terror, show trials etc. have occurred before and since. Those are not inventions of Hitler, Stalin or Mao. There are historical parallels, just as there are parallels between contemporary art and ancient art, but still we prefer to distinguish these two forms of art. We have to look beyond the phenomenology of despotic regimes throughout history, and identify the particular logic of different forms of despotism.
The Siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. The capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina was besieged by the Army of Republika Srpska from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996 during the Bosnian War. They assaulted the city from the surrounding hills. An estimated 12,000 civilians were killed or went missing.
The Sarajevo Red Line is the name of a memorial event commemorating the Siege’s 20th anniversary. The installation of 11.541 chairs represents the number of people killed in Sarajevo.
The Nanking – or Nanjing – massacre occurred when Japanese troops occupied the city of Nanking in 1937, during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians and disarmed soldiers were murdered and raped by the Japanese. Read the full story here.
There’s also this particularly gruesome one, but I couldn’t verify its authenticity:
More iconic images here.
The War on Terror, started by the U.S. government as a response to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks and later joined by other governments, is 11 years old today, with no end in sight. It has had and continues to have grave consequences for the human rights of people worldwide. Osama is dead, and the war in Iraq is over, and yet people are still stuck in Guantanamo, drone strikes are more numerous than ever before and the internal security forces of Western states are increasingly powerful. It’s a high price for an uncertain gain.
However, before I discuss the consequences for human rights, I would like to make it clear that I believe, as any rational human being, that terrorism is evil, that it has to be stopped and that democracies have a right to defend themselves against violent, anti-democratic fanatics (see this post for example).
I also believe that democratic governments should be especially vigilant because the freedoms that they are elected to protect, offer opportunities for those who hate freedom, opportunities that do not exist in other political systems. Potential terrorists find it relatively easy to enter a democracy and operate in it. A democracy is a very vulnerable form of government because of the freedom it gives to everyone, even those who don’t mean well.
The freedoms of a democracy can be and are abused, but this, it seems, has frightened democratic governments to such an extent that they have decided to limit these freedoms up to the point that they are in danger of abandoning them altogether, and hence doing the work of the terrorists for them. It can be acceptable to limit certain rights for the protection of other rights (see also this post), but the right to security seems to have taken on an absolute priority, at the expense of many other rights. There is no reasonable balance anymore.
1. Civil liberties
Governments try to defend their countries against terrorist attacks by limiting civil liberties in their territories.
- The right to privacy has been limited: CCTV has become ubiquitous, DNA databases have been created, eavesdropping and wiretapping have been legalized etc.
- “No-fly-lists” have come into force, limiting the freedom of movement of even those who have written critically of the government or attended peace-protests.
- Hate speech laws have been voted to silence jihadist hate preachers, silencing others at the same time.
- “Racial profiling” by the police has turned innocent people into possible suspects, often inverting the burden of proof.
- Habeas corpus has been limited, periods of detention without charge extended, sometimes indefinitely (for “enemy combatants”).
However, in spite of all this, the constraints on a government’s actions within its territory are sometimes still considered to be inhibiting:
- “Extraordinary rendition” has been covertly practiced, allowing suspects to be tortured outside of the territory by professional torturers in other countries.
- Extra-territorial prisons have been created, in Guantanamo, but probably elsewhere as well, where suspects can be tortured or held indefinitely and where the Geneva Conventions supposedly don’t apply.
The war on terror has also changed people’s minds and attitudes.
- The media have started to censor themselves. Solidarity with the government at war and the commander-in-chief, or the fear of being perceived as unpatriotic, appeasers, “useful idiots” or even open allies of the enemy have turned many in the media into uncritical supporters of the war.
- Citizens have turned on Islam and Muslims. Xenophobia and more specifically islamophobia have undermined the ideals of tolerance and multiculturalism, and have in certain cases even led to hate crimes against Muslims.
- A ”culture of fear” has been created by the terrorist but also nurtured by irresponsible western politicians. This fear has damaged democracy. Not only have the media relinquished their traditional role as watchdogs. Politicians as well, and especially incumbents, have abused the fear of terrorism to harness support. Alert levels seem to go up just before elections.
3. Preemptive war
The US government has elaborated and implemented the strategy of preemptive war, a war
waged in an attempt to repel or defeat a perceived inevitable offensive or invasion, or to gain a strategic advantage in an impending (allegedly unavoidable) war. (source)
The Iraq war was deemed a preemptive war because Iraq was allegedly about to attack the US with weapons of mass destruction, or supply these weapons to terrorists. Whatever the merits of the case against Iraq – and with the passing of time these seem to become weaker and weaker – the war has been framed, correctly or not, as a necessary stage in the ongoing war on terror. It has, however, resulted in massive numbers of casualties on both sides. The human rights violations caused by the war stand in no relation to the violations caused by terrorism or the violations that could have been caused by Saddam.
In any case, you can’t solve the problem of terrorism by violent means only. Terrorism has causes, and there will be terrorism as long as these causes exist. (Mind you, I don’t want to excuse or justify terrorism).
It is now widely believed, even in US government circles, that the war on terror is counter-productive. Especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the torture in Abu Ghraib and the detentions in Guantanamo have produced a backlash and have increased rather than reduced the terror threat. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate issued the following among its “key judgments”:
The Iraq conflict has become the “cause celebre” for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement. (source)
The war on terror has created and exacerbated resentment, hatred of the West and anti-americanism. And with anti-americanism often comes hatred of democracy and freedom, as wellas Islamic radicalization. Apart from the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, there is no evidence that any of the strategies in the war on terror has done any good (source). Any even this tiny success seems to be far from certain.
There is something fishy about the concept of a “war on terrorism”. This “war” is in fact no such thing. There is no well-defined enemy. Anyone can at any time become an enemy. For this reason, there is no conceivable end to the war. And if you claim to wage a war on terrorism, you might as well claim to wage a war on carpet bombing. Both are tactics or strategies, not something you wage war against.
If you insist on calling anti-terrorist actions a war, then you give too much credit to the riffraff you’re opposing. Rather than deranged criminals they can call themselves soldiers. And soldiers defend something. You legitimize them. You turn a crime into a two-sided struggle in which each side defends its positions. This in turn leads to the view that the war on terror is a war of the West against the rest, bringing back images of colonialism, imperialism and the crusades, again legitimizing the terrorists, helping to consolidate their often internally opposed forces, and making them honorable in the eyes of some ordinary citizens.
I can understand that the concept of a “war on terrorism” is useful for some Western governments, because an executive that is at war has more powers, less oversight, more popular support and less criticism, but it’s a meaningless and dangerous concept. Let’s give it up, or let us at least declare victory in the one we’re now fighting for 11 years.
(This post is hoisted from the archives and slightly revised. The original was published on August 6th, 2008 and is unfortunately still relevant today).
[We] have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s foot ever trod, we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where the mountains and rivers and lakes were. Lord Salisbury
It’s common knowledge that the territories of African countries are an inheritance of colonial rule. These territories correspond to the borders between the old colonial empires, which in turn were the result of occupation, aggression, imperialism and balance of power politics. The “scramble for Africa” resulted in a partition of the continent that took little notice of ethnic groups or pre-colonial African states and that has survived the end of colonialism:
[T]he “Scramble for Africa” … started with the Berlin Conference of 1884–85 and was completed by the turn of the 20th century. In this brief period, the prospective colonisers partitioned Africa into spheres of influence, protectorates, colonies, and free-trade areas. The borders were designed in European capitals at a time when Europeans had barely settled in Africa with little knowledge of the geography and ethnic composition of the areas whose borders they were designing. Despite their arbitrariness these boundaries endured after African independence. As a result, in most African countries a significant fraction (around 40-45%) of the population belongs to groups that have been partitioned by a national border. (source)
However, before we get into the story about the link between this historic fact and current ethnic troubles in Africa, I have to make a few general remarks about borders and diversity. All countries, not just those in Africa, are culturally and ethnically diverse. They are all the product of aggression and none of them correspond to divisions between ethnic groups. And this diversity is not in itself a problem. On the contrary: diversity is good because it helps to promote tolerance and it enriches our thinking and feeling. Purity, on the other hand, leads to exclusion and expulsion. The ideal of national purity is therefore not acceptable.
It follows that political states which do not perfectly align with pre-existing ethnic or national communities are not, by definition, problematic. And neither are they “unnatural”. If anything, ethnic diversity is the natural condition of states.
At the same time, we have to admit that national or ethnic groups may desire national self-determination and a state of their own, separate from other groups. This desire may spring from a history of hostility between groups, a hostility which is believed to endanger the cultural, linguistic or ethnic survival of groups. In extreme cases, this hostility leads to more than just difficult cohabitation and results in separatist conflict and civil war. To some extent, this is also the case in Africa. With the emphasis on “also”.
We should also remember that well-functioning democracies can deal with such problems, to a certain extent, and can do so a lot better than alternative forms of government. A democracy protects minority rights, religious freedom, tolerance and local self-government. The idea that a strong government is necessary to keep hostile groups from attacking each other is a myth. Violent suppression of antagonism will only make it worse in the long run.
However, those democratic solutions may not always prevent extreme hostilities between ethnic groups within a political state. Hence, secession or other ways of redrawing borders may be necessary.
The fact that many African countries have their fair share of ethnic conflict is, in part, the consequence of dysfunctional or absent democratic governance, but also of the history of colonialism. The colonial powers imposed the borders of African countries without consulting the populations or their leaders. These powers had neither self-determination nor peaceful coexistence in mind, only their own interests. African national liberation movements took those borders as given and had no interest in questioning them, which was understandable given the risks of conflicts with newly independent neighboring countries.
Because African borders cut across ethnic lines, politics in many African countries has, to this day, a strong ethnic and tribal component. (But, again, the same is true in many countries outside Africa). When combined with dysfunctional or absent democratic governance, tribal politics often leads to violence: minority ethnic groups feel excluded from power or discriminated in other ways; ethnic brethren in neighboring countries may feel the need to intervene; and so on. Difficult to say which is the dominant cause: 19th century map drawing or bad governance, or perhaps something else entirely, such poverty, resources or crime.
When we look at governance, the Europeans share part of the blame for present-day authoritarianism in Africa:
Africans often didn’t live in anything like the absolutist ethnic states which Europeans wanted them to live in — which would have made it easier to govern them [and extract labor and resources] — so Europeans colonial administrators worked very hard to create absolutist ethnic tribal groups and then force Africans to live in them. This is not to say that ethnicity didn’t exist before colonization; that sort of generalization is also hard to sustain, as most continental level generalizations are. But the general rule was that the sort of political state which was suited for organizing and controlling a population’s labor and resources did not exist before colonial rule, and had to be invented, and was, by Europeans. (source)
And Europeans also share part of the blame for the role of ethnicity in present-day conflicts. Not only did they draw the borders without regard for ethnicity, they in a sense enhanced the importance of ethnicity in Africa:
“Gikuyu,” for example, means “farmer,” and it distinguished the people (in what is now Kenya) who lived by farming, and took a pride in it, from the people who lived a more pastoral life in the same area, and spoke a different language. But the groups intermarried, crossed over, and traded with each other when they felt like it, and neither was a single political group anyway; there was no Maasai state or nation, nor was there a Gikuyu nation. That is, until Europeans — with their maps and censuses — decided that there was, and codified it into colonial law. After that, there were such “ethnic” groups. (source)
Not surprising then that there’s authoritarianism and tribalism in Africa today. However, there’s more than that. The colonial experience and the colonial need for authoritarian government created long running authoritarian national structures as well as national feelings and “peoples”, despite the artificial nature of African states. That’s why there are strong feelings of patriotism across ethnic groups in most African countries. Again, just like anywhere else in the world.
So, with this bit of context, I hope we can avoid simplistic and monocausal narratives about artificial African countries torn apart by ancient tribalism, and about the long term effects of 19th century map drawing by ignorant and self-interested Europeans. A lot of other stuff also explains current violence in Africa, and Africans aren’t simply tribalists.
how arbitrary border decisions have affected war and civil unrest in Africa, particularly among split ethnic groups and their neighbors. Not surprisingly, the length of a conflict and its casualty rate is 25 percent higher in areas where an ethnicity is divided by a national border as opposed to areas where ethnicities have a united homeland. Examples of divided (and conflicted) groups are the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania, and the Anyi of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The conflict rate is also higher for people living in areas close to ethnic-partitioned hot-spots. … Using a 1959 ethnic homeland map from ethnolinguist George Peter Murdock, the authors studied African conflicts from 1970 – 2005 (the “post-independence period”) and found that “civil conflict is concentrated in the historical homeland of partitioned ethnicities.” (source)
(source, click image to enlarge)
Here’s a more detailed version of the Murdock map:
And here’s a simplified version of the ethnic map of Africa:
(source, click image to enlarge)
The following map shows that African borders correspond less to ethnicity than borders in most other parts of the world:
Suicide in the Trenches, by Siegfried Sassoon
I knew a simple soldier boy…..
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
And no one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
More human rights poems here.
The US Administration has published declassified images that illustrate the disproportionate nature of the Assad regime’s violence against its own people and its willingness to attack civilian targets.
The first image below shows the Syrian army’s artillery aimed at the city of Homs and the fires in the city resulting from artillery shots. Those shots are supposedly aimed at armed opposition groups (that do not have artillery to shoot back, by the way) but they also hit civilians hiding in the city.
The second image – a “before and after” image – shows some of the damage in Homs:
This is the same area from another angle:
And this is a before-and-after image of damage to a hospital:
The impact scars are said to be consistent with the equipment shown in the first picture and are evidence of the Syrian government’s indiscriminate use of heavy weaponry against civilians.
More posts in this series are here.
The Baghdad Zoo, by Brian Turner
An Iraqi northern brown bear mauled a man
on a streetcorner, dragging him down an alley
as shocked onlookers cried for it to stop.
There were tanks rolling their heavy tracks
past the museum and up to the Ministry of Oil.
One gunner watched a lion chase down a horse.
Eaten down to their skeletons, the giraffes
looked prehistoric, unreal, their necks
too fragile, too graceful for the 21st Century.
Dalmatian pelicans and marbled teals
flew over, frightened by the rotorwash
of blackhawk helicopters touching down.
One baboon even escaped from the city limits.
It was found wandering in the desert, confused
by the wind and the sand of the barchan dunes.
During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Baghdad zoo was completely destroyed.
For their own safety, zoo workers suspended feeding the animals in early April 2003, when Fedayeen Saddam troops took up defensive positions around the zoo as U.S. forces began the battle of Baghdad. Out of the original 650 to 700 animals in the Baghdad Zoo only 35 had survived to the eighth day of the invasion, and these tended to be some of the larger animals.
During the absence of zoo staff and officials, the zoo suffered from severe looting. Cages were torn open by thieves who released or took hundreds of animals and birds. Zoo staff claimed most of the birds and game animals were taken for food as pre-war food shortages in Baghdad were exacerbated by the invasion.
Many animals were found roaming the zoo grounds. The remaining animals were found in critical condition, dying of thirst and starving in their cages, including Mandor, a 20-year-old Siberian tiger that was the personal property of Uday Hussein, and Saida, a blind brown bear.
Several lions escaped from the abandoned zoo and were rounded up by American soldiers in armored fighting vehicles. Four that would not return to their cages were shot by the soldiers. (source)
U.S. military intervention abroad isn’t necessarily incompatible with respect for human rights. Sometimes it’s the only means to stop large scale violations. While military intervention always means imposing a certain level of harm on the local population, it’s possible to argue that in some cases intervention results in a net benefit. WWII could be viewed as belonging to this category of cases. Had the U.S. intervened in the Rwandan genocide, that could also have been a net benefit even if many Rwandans had died in the process. Of course, there are strict limitations to this kind of calculus – normally, it’s not OK to kill two in order to save three. However, in catastrophic circumstances, some sacrifices are probably morally acceptable if they are necessary to save thousands or even millions. That’s even more true if those who are sacrificed are responsible for the harm that triggered the intervention. (More on so-called humanitarian intervention here).
The argument that foreign intervention is necessary in order to protect the rights of U.S. citizens at home is somewhat harder to make. That was the rationale for the invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq, but those probably did not help to reduce the terror threat at home. Perhaps the contrary was the case. And if you count the harm done to the invaded populations – as you should – then the net result is clearly negative, even if the invasions did succeed in reducing the terror threat in the U.S.
Furthermore, very few if any of all the military interventions ever carried out by the U.S. – either before or during the War on Terror - were meant to protect anyone’s human rights – neither those of Americans, not those of the people in the invaded countries. The central concerns were about spheres of interest, balance of power, economic profit etc., and the usual outcome was a human rights disaster.
Those interventions were numerous, especially if you add the quasi-military ones, namely those that involved support for local guerillas, assassinations etc. Many interventions had long-lasting effects: military bases were established, autocrats received military training and long-term financial support and so on. In fact, there have been so many interventions that they can’t all fit on a single map, unless you want to have something awful like this. Here’s a better map showing some of the American interventions in one part of the world:
(source, click image to enlarge)
Here’s a map from an earlier period in history, just to show that this is nothing new:
(source, click image to enlarge)
The number of troops or military bases abroad is another way to represent the extent of U.S. intervention in the world:
(source, the sharp increase in the late 60s is of course due to the Vietnam war, the sharp decline in the early 90s follows the fall of the Iron Curtain)
(source, click image to enlarge)
Here’s a map of US military bases in the Middle East:
- Human Rights Maps (158): Women with Unmet Need for Family Planning (filipspagnoli.wordpress.com)
- Human Rights Maps (153): Female Life Expectancy in the U.S. (filipspagnoli.wordpress.com)
Democratic peace theory states that democracies are less likely to engage in war with each other, for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is the fact that in a democracy, the people vote, and the people are also those who shoulder the cost of war. In a regime in which the people can influence the decision to go to war, such a decision will only be taken very reluctantly. Conversely, a regime that doesn’t need to listen to its people can easily impose the cost of war. (More here, here and here).
What’s the link with targeted killings of terrorists? Let’s limit the discussion to drone attacks in the context of a war. Killing terrorists in any other context amounts to extrajudicial execution, since those terrorists are criminals rather than combatants and therefore have a right to a trial (unless killing them is the only way to stop an imminent attack). In the context of a war, targeted killings carried out by unmanned drone aircraft are supposed to have certain advantages compared to “normal” military engagement with the enemy. Two of those advantages are that
- drone attacks are said to be more precise and hence less likely to result in civilian casualties, and that
- you can avoid putting your own soldiers in harms way.
The supposed precision of drone attacks is contested, since it’s often difficult to judge from thousands of miles away whether the target is real, whether the informants on the ground are reliable and whether there’s no risk to innocent bystanders. There have been reports of civilian casualties resulting from drone attacks, although the true extent of this problem is difficult to measure since there’s no public information on those attacks.
In some cases, troops on the ground may be better able to judge these things. It’s also not commonly accepted that it’s ethical to focus on troop safety over and above the risk of civilian casualties. This focus is, of course, understandable in the case of a democracy engaging in a war. Public opinion is powerful in a democracy and doesn’t like it when troops are put in harms way – that’s one of the origins of the democratic peace theory. (It’s sometimes called the body bag syndrome). Hence, a democracy may be particularly tempted to use drone attacks and targeted killings, since a more traditional war is difficult to sell to a powerful public opinion.
If indeed a democracy is tempted to use targeted killings, then the price to pay may be the loss of democratic peace. Targeted killings remove one of the most powerful causes of democratic peace: the high cost of war. By making war less costly on the party initiating the war, targeted killings make war more likely.
[T]o me the reason to prefer human to robotic war is a cold and brutal one: because it brings war home to the citizenry in the form of the dead and wounded, and the citizenry may then be less likely to support future wars except out of clear necessity. (source)
More on targeted killings here.
- Drone attack in Pakistan kills at least 12 (guardian.co.uk)
- Gabriella Blum and Philip Heymann on Targeted Killing (volokh.com)
- Drone attacks to continue, says US official (teabreak.pk)
Another example of good intentions going wrong:
One of the many puzzles surrounding Muammar Qaddafi was his refusal to go into exile. Once NATO intervened on behalf of the rebels and Tripoli fell, Qaddafi must have known that he would eventually lose the war and that this would mean death. Instead of leaving the country, he decided to stay.
Why? One surprising answer has to do with the International Criminal Court. It used to be that exile was an attractive long-term option for dictators to take. Rather than stay and fight, they could live their lives in wealth and comfort in beautiful and stable places such as Paris or the Bahamas.
This changed as more and more countries ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC. Now seeking asylum is no longer easy or particularly attractive. Dictators can try to convince countries such as France, Britain, Venezuela, Mexico or Spain to let them settle in their capital cities or along their coastlines. But since all have ratified Rome, moving there is tantamount to turning oneself in to be prosecuted for war crimes. Qaddafi could seek refuge in countries that have not yet ratified Rome, such as the United States or Cuba or Zimbabwe or Sudan or Saudi Arabia. But those countries are either unwilling to accept him (the U.S. and Saudi Arabia) or unable to credibly commit to protecting him over time (Cuba, Zimbabwe, Sudan). How long could Qaddafi trust that the current regime in Cuba or Zimbabwe will remain in power to protect him? …
What Qaddafi’s behavior reveals is a potentially unexpected and unfortunate side-effect of an increasingly successful ICC. By limiting the options nasty dictators have to seek exile, it is increasingly forcing them to stay. And by forcing them to stay, it could, inadvertently, be encouraging war. (source)
Starts a bit slow, but interesting nonetheless: the numbers and places of nuclear explosions throughout the years:
- Japan Commemorates 65th Anniversary of Hiroshima Bombing [Pic Of The Night] (gawker.com)
- “1945-1998″ by Isao Hashimoto: 2003 (edugeek.net)
On this 10th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, here is a repost of a mock OpEd I wrote some years ago. It’s mocking only in its form, not in its intentions. Warning: none of the opinions expressed here should be mistaken for my own.
“The date is October the 1st, 2011, exactly 20 days after the worst terrorist attack in US history, an attack in which Muslim extremists used nuclear bombs to inflict heavy damage on 3 American cities, embarrassing the security forces who were on high alert on the 10th anniversary of 9-11.
Today, the whole world was listening to President Obama’s first policy speech after the events. The most shocking announcement was undoubtedly the decision to no longer deploy US troops abroad. The President defended this “Coming Home” decision by citing the failure of 10 years of military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, the Middle East, Nigeria and Indonesia intended to bring about more security for the American people. Evidence has shown that US involvement abroad, even peaceful and objectively beneficial involvement, rather than promoting US security, actually fosters hate, resentment and fanaticism. The objects of American involvement, even if this involvement means billions of dollars of aid, seem to think that it is fundamentally a ploy to “imperialize” them, a crusade to take away their identity, religion and wealth. Independence, national pride and Allah is what counts for them.
It has also become clear that the US was wrong to think in terms of “frontlines” in its war with Muslim terrorists. The strategy to try to attack the enemy in their homelands, the “first frontline”, rather than wait until they get on American soil, has proven to be ineffective militarily, and possibly even counter-effective psychologically: it has provided fuel for anti-crusader and anti-colonialist rhetoric, convincing ever more young Muslim martyrs and extremist Muslim regimes of the anti-Muslim and hence satanic nature of the Christian unbelievers.
Unlike an enemy army in a classical 20th century war, this enemy cannot be defeated by an overpowering military attack. The strongest military in the world cannot defeat a relatively small group of undoubting and unthinking amateurs ready to die with a makeshift bomb in their hands. With every amateur it kills it only produces more evidence of the presence of Satan on holy soil. Hence, the more it tries to root out the enemy, the more enemies it creates. The President therefore, wisely in our view, decided to shift focus from the attack to the defensive. Bringing our boys back home to defend the American border, effectively turning the army into a super coastguard and border patrol, should not be viewed as giving in to the enemy, a retreat or a Last Stand. That would only be a return to an inadequate and outdated military logic, useless given the kind of enemy we are dealing with.
Together with measures to prevent homegrown terrorism – which, fortunately, has been a limited phenomenon until now – a relentless border control should indeed be able to offer protection. The borders must, of course, include the entrances of airplanes and ships heading for the US. In order to be independent from foreign security services, the President has asked for legislation allowing only US aircraft and ship to enter the US. If economically necessary, the US will acquire a larger fleet. Anyway, unnecessary travel to the US will be discouraged.
The economic drawbacks of rigorous border controls will be countered by technological innovations funded by army budgets which become available when budgets for overseas operations start to diminish. The President also asked the citizens to prepare for the possibility of a certain number of years of economic depression. Energy supplies may also suffer as a consequence of the US drawback. Traditional allies will be disappointed by their abandonment. The loss of US military assistance will even endanger the existence of some regimes. Those which are also oil suppliers will resent the US and will disrupt the supply. The President is conscious of the economic impact this will have but asks the scientific community to tackle the problem of oil dependence. Existing alternatives, including nuclear energy, will be developed. Repatriated nuclear warheads, if not necessary for domestic security, will be recycled in the energy industry.
Some allies which are important for the US domestically, such as Israel, will not be abandoned without continued support. Military equipment not necessary for border control and security on US soil, will be handed over to them after they lose the protective umbrella of a US presence in their region. Financial assistance will continue to be possible.
Because US troops will no longer be stationed abroad, US expats can become easy targets for terrorists. The President therefore advises them to make plans to return home as soon as possible. The government will establish funds to incite people to come home and to compensate for damages they will incur. US multinationals will be legally forced to employ local people only in their foreign affiliates. The US government will immediately cease to employ its citizens in development projects in Africa and elsewhere. To alleviate the economic shock this will produce in developing countries, the US will double its funds for development aid for a period of 5 years. These funds, however, will be spend entirely by third parties. No US agencies will be active abroad. The US will also withdraw from NATO, the UN, and all other international institutions.
May God be with us, since it’s excessively clear that nobody else will.”
It’s obviously an exaggeration. And there’s nothing wrong with that in this case because it’s clear that the map doesn’t intend to convey statistically accurate information, although it is based on it (see here). The exaggeration is a deliberate tool in the dramatization of the wars, and that’s OK because war is tragic. However, exaggeration often occurs in statistics – meaning in forms of communication meant to convey accurate information. And then it’s a problem. There’s an example here.
Statistics in map form are particularly vulnerable to this: putting events on a map quickly overloads the map and gives the impression that a phenomenon is much more common than it really is. Take for instance the map below, which makes it look like the U.S. and especially the east of the U.S. is inundated by hate crime groups:
This can give an altogether misleading message.
- “Wikileaks Iraq War Logs on Google Maps” and related posts (googlemapsmania.blogspot.com)
- U.S. military says 77,000 Iraqis killed over 5 years (ctv.ca)
- Pixelating the Casualties in Iraq (infosthetics.com)
WARNING: this video is disturbing, and meant to be.
(imagine if land mines were a part of your everyday)
From an advocacy standpoint, this is probably way over the top. Some would call it badvertising and, indeed, I don’t see the need to shock people in this way in order to raise consciousness. More on landmines here. More human rights videos here.
- Denmark against landmines : Picnic gone wrong [Video] (scaryideas.com)
- Picnic gone wrong (osocio.org)
- U.S. still undecided on joining landmines treaty (reuters.com)
Pornography is not a necessary cause of terrorism. The abolition of pornography would not lead to the cessation of terrorism in the world. Terrorism existed well before graphic pornography and its mass spread via the internet.
Likewise, pornography is not a sufficient cause for terrorism. There are pornography users, even addicts, who do not become terrorists. Given how widespread the viewing of pornography is today, if the direct result of each individual’s pornography use were terrorist violence, one could conceivably argue that pornography proliferation would pose a more widespread threat to human existence than nuclear proliferation.
Yet pornography now appears frequently in the possession of violent terrorists and their supporters, including Osama bin Laden. …
I wonder whether the pornography of today—now ubiquitous and increasingly grotesque—is one of the influences warping the mentality of those who aspire to or who actually go on to engage in ever more grotesque public violence. … Why, after all, would an al-Qaeda affiliate, as reported in 2009 from interrogations in Mauritania, select pornography to target new recruits? We need to know.
As terrorism researchers Daniel Bynum and Christine Fair point out in an article about the modern terrorists we have been pursuing, especially since 9/11, the fact of the matter is that “they get intimate with cows and donkeys. Our terrorist enemies trade on the perception that they’re well trained and religiously devout, but in fact, many are fools and perverts who are far less organized and sophisticated than we imagine. Can being more realistic about who our foes actually are help us stop the truly dangerous ones?” (source)
Yes, indeed, “we need to know”. Perhaps. Or perhaps there is nothing to know. Who knows? I have rarely seen a pile of insinuations so completely devoid of data and evidence. I do admit that the effects of porn consumption on people’s actions are a worthy subject of scientific investigation. Some forms of pornography can have a dehumanizing effect and may change men’s perceptions of women, perhaps to such an extent that porn can lead to violent acts such as rape. But the evidence available so far is mixed. And in the specific case of terrorism caused by porn, all we have are flimsy anecdotes and insinuations. I’m sure you can find just as many little stories about terrorists and violent games, terrorists and early child abuse, terrorists and poverty, terrorists and beards and so on.
The story above is just a free floating riff. “The U.S. government has had opportunity to observe, and in many cases, acquire, personal media from untold numbers of those involved in terrorism and the support of terrorism … [we] may be sitting on a massive data set for studying the intersection of pornography use and support for twisted violence such as terrorism” [my emphasis]. But then again, we may not be sitting on a massive data set. However, that’s no reason not to speculate, right? As I see it, there isn’t even a correlation, let alone evidence of causation. Just random anecdotes that are of no help at all explaining terrorism. You need to do better than that if you want to find the causes of some of today’s most horrific human rights violations.
More posts in this series are here.
Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects killed 90,000–166,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000–80,000 in Nagasaki, with roughly half of the deaths in each city occurring on the first day. Of the people who died on the day of the explosion, 60% died from flash or flame burns, 30% from falling debris and 10% from other causes. During the following months, large numbers died from the effect of burns, radiation sickness, and other injuries, compounded by illness. In both cities, most of the dead were civilians.
In Hiroshima, the radius of total destruction was about one mile (1.6 km), with resulting fires across 4.4 square miles (11 square km). The residents of Hiroshima were given no notice of the atomic bomb.
Let’s focus on the area near ground zero, the hypocenter of the explosion, which is this part of the map above (the green lines are the rivers):
Below are a few 3D maps/maquettes of this area – which obviously suffered the most destruction – taken from an exhibition in the Hiroshima museum. They show the area before and after the explosion. In each one, you can see the famous dome structure which has become iconic for the event (I marked it on the images).
From another viewpoint:
Here’s a version that looks like it’s a bit more up-to-date:
(source, purple = ratifications, blue = signatories)
banning the manufacture, use and stockpiling of cluster munitions, … came into force last year , [and] has been signed by 108 countries and ratified by 60 of them [as of today, November 2011]. But 17 of the non-signatories continue to produce the weapons (see map below), and two have used them in conflict this year: Thailand during border clashes with Cambodia in February, and Libya under Muammar Qaddafi during the battle of Misrata in April. (source)
Cluster munition is a particularly horrible type of bomb that spreads large numbers of small bomblets over a wide area. Because of the aimlessness of the device, it poses high risks to civilians both during attacks and afterwards since many bomblets remain unexploded after they land. They kill or maim civilians long after a conflict has ended. Unexploded submunitions are costly to locate and remove. The UN estimates that 98% of victims of cluster munitions are civilians. More here.
- Cluster Bomb Ban Takes Effect Minus Support of Major Producers (waronterrornews.typepad.com)
- Cluster Bomb Ban Goes International Without U.S. (firedoglake.com)
- UN chief hails treaty banning cluster bombs (independent.co.uk)
In remembrance of Custer’s Last Stand, which earlier this week was 135 years ago to the day, a few words and maps about the Indian wars. This is the name for the series of violent conflicts between the native peoples of North America and the colonial settlers assisted by the federal U.S. government, lasting roughly from the beginning of the 17th century till the end of the 19th. The European settlers wanted to open land for westward settlement, land that was often occupied by native Americans. Although initial contacts were normally friendly and peaceful, increased settlement and westward expansion provoked resistance on the part of the natives, who saw their lands and other resources taken away from them. This resistance was also caused by cultural differences as well as mutual feelings of superiority.
Cultural differences–the failure of each side to understand the assumptions of the other–led to frequent misunderstandings that in turn led to warfare. One of the most elementary forms of misunderstanding, for example, was the anger felt by the Indians over the colonists’ allowing their cattle and hogs to roam in unfenced freedom. The consequence was often the destruction of the Indians’ corn, which led to the Indians’ killing the offending animals, which led to retaliation by the settlers upon the Indians who had killed the animals, and so on. And too often those retaliating failed to discriminate between the Indians who were responsible for the “offense” and those who were not. (source)
Another example of cultural differences leading to conflicts:
[T]he northern Europeans made only limited use of Indian labor. Rather, they wanted land; if it had not been acquired through war or simple occupation, they sought to purchase it. But often the Indians assumed they were conferring on Europeans only the right to use the land without losing their own right to continue to use it for hunting, fishing, or gathering food. (source)
These cultural differences, together with other factors such as railroad expansion, new mining ventures, the destruction of the buffalo, the deliberate slaughter of Indian horses and the often barbaric attacks on both parts led to bad faith and escalations in hostilities. The settlers and the government regularly engaged in scorched-earth policies, the destruction of entire villages and the murder of women and children.
A turning point in the history of the Indian wars was the American Revolutionary War. Most native Americans perceived the colonial pioneers as a greater threat than the British government, and hence sided with the latter, a decision for which they would pay dearly after the war’s end.
For the American rebels the American Revolutionary War was essentially two parallel wars: while the war in the East was a struggle against British rule, the war in the West was an “Indian War”. The newly proclaimed United States competed with the British for control of Native American nations east of the Mississippi River. The colonial interest in westward colonization, as opposed to the British policy of maintaining peace, was one cause of the war. Most Native Americans who joined the struggle sided with the British, hoping to use the war to reduce settlement and expansion onto their land. The Revolutionary War was “the most extensive and destructive” Indian war in United States history. … When the British made peace with the Americans in the Treaty of Paris (1783), they ceded a vast amount of Native American territory (without the consent of the indigenous peoples) to the United States. The United States treated the Native Americans who had fought with the British as a conquered people who had lost their land. (source)
Other Indian wars soon followed (there a list here) and lasted until the end of the 19th century. The French, Russians and Spanish also fought Indian wars, but obviously not to the same extent as the Settlers and the U.S. government.
The wars resulted invariably in the conquest of native Americans, their assimilation or forced relocation to Indian reservations, and ultimately in the near-destruction of the indigenous peoples. There’s disagreement about the claim that the settlement of North America was a genocidal assault by more powerful intruders upon weaker, more “primitive” peoples. Conservative estimates put the total population of native Americans at about 8 million before the arrival of the Europeans. Although infectious diseases brought over by the Europeans were the overwhelming cause of the population decline of the American natives, many of the latter, probably tens of thousands, died a violent death during the Indian wars or the forced resettlement. The fact is that by the end of the Indian wars, at the end of the 19th century, only around 200.000 native Americans remained. Some say that the destruction of the tribes was largely involuntary because it resulted from the imported diseases for which the Indians had no immunity. Others point to widespread murder, the destruction of the Indian economy, and the forced removals. Also, if the Europeans brought diseases, they could have done something to protect the natives. They didn’t. Some even claim that there have been cases of groups of Indians being purposefully infected.
Here’ a map depicting some of the battles in the Indian wars:
(source, click image to enlarge)
Here’s an interesting artistic rendering of these events, in quasi-map form:
O what is that sound, by W.H. Auden
O what is that sound which so thrills the ear
Down in the valley drumming, drumming?
Only the scarlet soldiers, dear,
The soldiers coming.
O what is that light I see flashing so clear
Over the distance brightly, brightly?
Only the sun on their weapons, dear,
As they step lightly.
O what are they doing with all that gear,
What are they doing this morning, this morning?
Only their usual manoeuvres, dear,
Or perhaps a warning.
O why have they left the road down there,
Why are they suddenly wheeling, wheeling?
Perhaps a change in their orders, dear,
Why are you kneeling?
O haven’t they stopped for the doctor’s care,
Haven’t they reined their horses, horses?
Why, they are none of them wounded, dear,
None of these forces.
O is it the parson they want, with white hair,
Is it the parson, is it, is it?
No, they are passing his gateway, dear,
Without a visit.
O it must be the farmer who lives so near.
It must be the farmer so cunning, so cunning?
They have passed the farmyard already, dear,
And now they are running.
O where are you going? Stay with me here!
Were the vows you swore deceiving, deceiving?
No, I promised to love you, dear,
But I must be leaving.
O it’s broken the lock and splintered the door,
O it’s the gate where they’re turning, turning;
Their boots are heavy on the floor
And their eyes are burning.
I can simplify this question a bit and focus on those rights violations that are caused by government action. Moreover, I’ll focus on governments in developed countries and say that those are generally democracies dominated either by left-wing or right-wing political movements, alternating. Now, if I want to judge whether it’s the left or the right that is most harmful to human rights, I need to define left and right. And that’s tricky. But let’s simplify some more and say that
- the right is generally conservative, concerned about respect for religion and religious rules/morality, in favor of capitalism and free markets, against taxation and government intervention in markets, not very interested in equality or equal rights in some areas (as a consequence of religious morality for instance), suspicious of immigration, in favor of a strong national defense, and focused on law and order;
- the left is worried about capitalism and free markets, in favor of government regulation and intervention in markets, suspicious of free trade, willing to tax and redistribute, and politically correct.
I know, highly simplistic, but I’ll try to make it useful. So bear with me. If we focus on present-day developed nations, which of these two political ideologies is most likely to lead to government policies and legislation that cause human rights violations?
If you look at national defense, you could claim that right-wing governments are most harmful. Although the left is often very supportive of the war on terror, especially in the US (but less elsewhere), it’s the right that is most enthusiastic and most eager to adopt extreme measures. In the name of this war, the US tortured, invaded, murdered civilians, eavesdropped, rendered, and arbitrarily arrested. After every new terror-scare, right-wing spokespeople are quick to demand more rights sacrifices (Miranda rights should be suspended, citizenship revoked etc.). On the other hand, it was a left-wing government in Britain that eagerly supported this war, and Obama seems to be continuing the work of Bush.
If we look at markets, the left is clearly more skeptical about it’s benefits. However, economists – also left leaning economists – generally agree that free trade is good and that many interventions in markets, such as trade restrictions, quotas, subsidies etc. aggravate poverty. And poverty is a human rights violation. Of course, right-wing governments also impose or maintain such restrictions, but arguably left-wing governments are more prone to such vices since they often depend on support of labor unions and other protectionist forces.
On the other hand, the trust in markets expressed by the right can result in a kind of blindness: the right often doesn’t notice market failures and the harm that a slap of the invisible hand can do. As a result, the poor are blamed for their poverty, which is why government assistance in the struggle against poverty is deemed unnecessary, unhelpful and even damaging. The right’s focus on private philanthropy is good but it’s naive to think that philanthropy alone will solve the problem of poverty.
Taxation is a difficult one. Very high levels of taxation are obviously economically inefficient and may lower living standards rather than equalize them. On the other hand, very low rates make it impossible to fund the welfare state, with the same result. Both right wing and left wing fiscal policy can be harmful from a human rights point of view. And there’s a problem of actions vs words here: it’s not obvious that right-wing governments impose low tax rates and left-wing governments high tax rates, despite the respective rhetoric.
If we accept that the right is more enamored of religion, then it’s clear where we should lay the blame for a host of rights violations, such as attempts to undo the separation of state and church, discrimination based on religion or sexual orientation and invasions of privacy. Take the example of gay marriage. A focus on religion can also lead to a lack of respect for the sexual privacy of consenting adults, not just homosexuals, but also adulterers, people consuming obscene or pornographic material, or engaging in sodomy. Laws against homosexuality, adultery, sodomy and obscenity usually come from the right. Moreover, the right can show a lack of respect for religious minorities, a result of the incompatibility of different religious claims (“there is only one God”). Opposition to Muslim headscarves for instance is often more prevalent among the right (although there’s also anti-Muslim sentiment in some parts of the feminist or atheist left).
Moving on to another topic. The right’s focus on law and order has led to high incarceration rates, especially in the U.S. These rates have also been inflated by a misguided war on drugs, apparently inspired by a puritan religious morality. Capital punishment is also more popular on the right.
Regarding the left, we can mention some of the harmful consequences of political correctness. PC can lead to exaggerated limits on free speech. Hate speech, for example, is in certain cases a justifiable reason for speech limits, but it seems like some of the limits go too far. An innocent use of a particular word can get you fired, for instance.
Of course, I did simplify. The left-right dichotomy as I have defined it here doesn’t accurately reflect all nuances of political ideology. Some on the left are more pro-free-market than some on the right. Moreover, the dichotomy doesn’t capture all ideologies (libertarianism in a sense is neither left nor right). Also, many governments are left-right coalitions. And, finally, many human rights violations are not caused by governments but by fellow citizens. And when they are caused by governments, they may not be caused by those parts of government that are made up of elected politicians of the left or the right. Bureaucracies or judges can also violate rights. Some violations are not based on left or right leaning ideologies, but on other things such as an extreme desire to regulate etc.
Still, I think that the overview given above is useful. It’s not useful in the sense that it allows us to quantify or compute the respective levels of (dis)respect and to conclude that either the right or the left is better for human rights. It doesn’t. In that sense the question in the title of this post is meaningless. However, the overview above highlights the fact that everyone can violate human rights and that human rights activists should be careful when affiliating themselves with a particular ideology. Neutrality, objectivity, fairness and a lack of double standards are crucial in the struggle for human rights.
The Wikileaks Iraq war logs have made it possible to map the occurrence of violent death during the Iraq war:
(source, where you can zoom in on the map)
This follows more or less closely the population density of Iraq, meaning that the war has been equally horrible for everyone, with the exception of some parts of the north of the country where violent death has been somewhat less common:
Some key figures:
- The Wikileaks database records 109,032 deaths in total, 66,081 civilians, 23,984 insurgents and 15,196 Iraqi security forces. Baghdad alone saw 45,497 casualties. Colation forces lost 3,771 soldiers in the period covered.
- There were 65,439 IED explosions (improvised explosive devices), resulting in 31,780 deaths. Another 44,620 IEDs were found and cleared.
- Here’s how some of these numbers evolved over time:
These numbers are probably low estimates because not every event is recorded.
Let’s focus on Baghdad for an instant, the epicenter of violence. December 2006 was the worst month. Below are the details of one of the city’s deadliest days, Dec. 20. There were 114 separate episodes of violence that day, resulting in the deaths of about 160 Iraqi citizens and police officers (an interactive version of the map is here).
(source, click image to enlarge)
- Iraq War logs released by Wikileaks shed new light (flowingdata.com)
- “Wikileaks Iraq War Logs – Part Two” and related posts (googlemapsmania.blogspot.com)
The Lord’s Resistance Army is a religious and military group formed in 1987 and headed by Joseph Kony, who claims to be the “spokesperson” of God and a spirit medium, primarily of the Holy Spirit. The inspiration is mainly Christian. The LRA first engaged in an armed rebellion against the Ugandan government, but later moved its activities to parts of Sudan, Central African Republic and DR Congo. It’s infamous for widespread human rights violations, including murder, abduction, mutilation, sexual enslavement of women and children, and forcing children to participate in hostilities.
(source, click image to enlarge)
These landmine-stickers with self-adhesive topsides are placed on the floor and are invisible until they stick to your feet. While removing them, people discover the landmine-picture on the bottom side and are informed that in many other countries they would have been mutilated at this moment.
Here are a few maps depicting the events of 9-11-2001. The first one shows the flight paths of the hijacked planes:
This next one shows the impact location in the two towers of the WTC, as well as the trajectory of some of the debris of the planes (the north tower, WTC 1 was hit first, 20 minutes before the second plane hit WTC 2):
(source, click image to enlarge)
This map shows which buildings were damaged or destroyed:
The following infographic explains why the buildings collapsed:
(source, click image to enlarge)
And this map shows the locations of human remains found on or around ground zero (never mind the indication of the “mosque“; some people believe that this is somehow relevant):
Indian removal, also called the Trail of Tears, was a nineteenth century policy of the government of the United States to relocate Native American tribes living east of the Mississippi River to lands west of the river. The Indian Removal Act was signed into law by President Andrew Jackson on May 26, 1830.
America’s policy had always been to allow Native Americans to remain east of the Mississippi as long as they remained “civilized” or assimilated themselves. Part of the expected assimilation was the abandonment of a hunting lifestyle in favor of an agricultural one. The latter didn’t require a lot of land and the loss of land would be compensated by the possibility of trade of agricultural goods with the white population. Needless to say, the land that would come available through this mechanism could be used by those of European descent.
In the words of Jefferson:
exchange [of] lands, which they have to spare and we want, for necessaries, which we have to spare and they want.
This policy of assimilation was accompanied by policies of land purchase – usually by treaty and sometimes under coercion – and land exchange: Native Americans would relinquish land in the east in exchange for equal or comparable land west of the Mississippi River.
In 1830, some of the “Five Civilized Tribes” — the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee — were still living east of the Mississippi and their lands were desired by whites, for economic reasons but also because of fears that the Natives would anew engage in wars. Governments of the various U.S. states wanted that all tribal lands within their boundaries be placed under state jurisdiction. The federal government assisted them by passing the Removal Act, which provided for the government to negotiate removal treaties with the various tribes. As a result, the five tribes were resettled in the new Indian Territory in modern-day Oklahoma and parts of Kansas. Some of them resisted, leading to new wars between the Natives and the settlers. Others suffered or died en route to their destinations, because of exposure, disease and starvation. An estimated 4,000 died. By 1837, 46,000 Native Americans from these southeastern states had been removed from their homelands thereby opening 25 million acres for settlement.
(source, click image to enlarge)
- For and Against: Two Sides of the 1830s Indian Removal (prweb.com)
- Before the Tears: The Cherokees’ Proud Past (online.wsj.com)
On July 7th 2005, during the morning rush hour, a group of Muslim young men carried out a series of coordinated suicide attacks on 3 of London’s subway lines and on one double-decker bus. At 08:50, three bombs exploded within fifty seconds of each other on three London Underground trains (the three red circles in the map below), a fourth exploding an hour later at 09:47 on a double-decker bus in Tavistock Square (the red and black circle).
Here’s some more detail about the specific events and the chronology (click image to enlarge):
The map below gives some detail about the second attack, close to Russell Square:
The map below shows the last attack on the bus:
Read the full story here.
Two weeks later, on July 21st 2005, London witnessed four attempted bomb attacks, this time without much damage because the bombs failed to explode. While the manhunt for the perpetrators was in progress, on July 22nd, the police shot and killed a Brazilian man, Jean Charles de Menezes, at Stockwell tube station shortly after 10:00. Officers had pursued de Menezes from a location under surveillance, believing him to be one of the men wanted for the attempted attacks of the previous day. They apparently believed de Menezes was about to carry out a new attack. Afterwards, the police admitted that de Menezes was not involved in any of the bombings or attempted bombings. Read the whole story here and here. Here’s a map depicting the tragic event:
(source, click image to enlarge)
The Armenian Genocide was the deliberate and systematic destruction of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire during and just after World War I. It was implemented through wholesale massacres and deportations, with the deportations consisting of forced marches under conditions designed to lead to the death of the deportees. The total number of resulting Armenian deaths is generally held to have been between one and one and a half million.
The starting date of the genocide is conventionally held to be April 24, 1915, the day that Ottoman authorities arrested some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople. Thereafter, the Ottoman military uprooted Armenians from their homes and forced them to march for hundreds of miles, depriving them of food and water, to the desert of what is now Syria. Massacres were indiscriminate of age or gender, with rape and other sexual abuse commonplace. The majority of Armenian diaspora communities were founded as a result of the Armenian genocide.
(source, click image to enlarge)
(source, click image to enlarge)
Imagine you’re the commander in chief of a country fighting a war with a fascist dictatorship. The enemy army is losing the war but is going to fight until the last man. You have to end the war quickly or millions of soldiers – and a good number of civilians – on both sides are going to die during years of skirmishes. You basically have only one option: one huge explosion killing almost the entire enemy army, but also a large number of civilians. You have two bombs, a traditional atomic bomb and a neutron bomb.
A neutron bomb, or enhanced radiation weapon (ERW), is a type of nuclear weapon designed specifically to release a large portion of its energy as energetic neutron radiation rather than explosive energy. Although their extreme blast and heat effects are not eliminated, the increased radiation released by ERWs is meant to be a major source of casualties, able to penetrate buildings and armored vehicles to kill personnel that would otherwise be protected from the explosion. Most of the injuries inflicted by an ERW come from the intense pulse of ionizing radiation, not from heat and blast. This intense burst of high-energy neutrons is intended as the principal killing mechanism, but some amounts of heat and blast force are also produced. Neutron bombs are commonly believed to leave a good deal of the infrastructure intact.
A neutron bomb is sometimes claimed to be morally superior to a regular atomic bomb since the survivors will be able to rebuild their societies relatively quickly after the end of the war: the destruction it causes is minimal. On the other hand, the neutron bomb is commonly abhorred and has become something like the ultimate horror in popular culture.
More moral dilemma’s here. Those other dilemma’s are still open to vote, by the way. So if you have a couple of minutes, we would very much appreciate your contribution.
We’re all aware of the horrors of recent history. The 20th century doesn’t get a good press. And yet, most of us still think that humanity is, on average, much better off today than it was some centuries or millennia ago. The holocaust, Rwanda, Hiroshima, AIDS, terrorism etc. don’t seem to have discouraged the idea of human progress in popular imagination. Those have been disasters of biblical proportions, and yet they are seen as temporary lapses, regrettable but exceptional incidents that did not jeopardize the overall positive evolution of mankind. Some go even further and call these events instances of “progressive violence”: disasters so awful that they bring about progress. Hitler was necessary in order to finally make Germany democratic. The Holocaust was necessary to give the Jews their homeland and the world the Universal Declaration. Evil has to become so extreme that it finally convinces humanity that evil should be abolished.
While that is obviously ludicrous, it’s true that there has been progress:
- we did practically abolish slavery
- torture seems to be much less common and much more widely condemned, despite the recent uptick
- poverty is on the retreat
- equality has come within reach for non-whites, women and minorities of different kinds
- there’s a real reduction in violence over the centuries
- war is much less common and much less bloody
- more and more countries are democracies and freedom is much more widespread
- there’s more free speech because censorship is much more difficult now thanks to the internet
- health and labor conditions have improved for large segments of humanity, resulting in booming life expectancy
So, for a number of human rights, things seem to be progressing quite a lot. Of course, there are some areas of regress: the war on terror, gendercide, islamism etc. Still, those things don’t seem to be weighty enough to discourage the idea of progress, which is still quite popular. On the other hand, some human rights violations were caused by elements of human progress. The Holocaust, for example, would have been unimaginable outside of our modern industrial society. Hiroshima and Mutually Assured Destruction are other examples. Both nazism and communism are “progressive” philosophies in the sense that they believe that they are working for a better society.
Whatever the philosophical merits of the general idea of progress, progress in the field of respect for human rights boils down to a problem of measurement. How doe we measure the level of respect for the whole of the set of human rights? It’s difficult enough to measure respect for the present time, let alone for previous periods in human history for which data are incomplete or even totally absent. Hence, general talk about progress in the field of human rights is probably impossible. More specific measurements of parts of the system of human rights are more likely to succeed, but only for relatively recent time frames.
More posts in this series are here.
- Human Rights and Utopia (filipspagnoli.wordpress.com)
This image is from the war in Algeria that followed the military government’s cancellation of the 1992 elections. During the war, which climaxed in 1997, Islamic fractions carried out numerous massacres of villagers, often in most horrific ways.
The day after the massacre of Bentalha, on 23 September 1997, Hocine Zaourar, who was working for AFP in Algeria, was prevented by the authorities from photographing the victims in hospitals. On exiting a hospital, he took this picture of a woman who lost three members of her family. Afterwards, she showed her displeasure at the name given to the picture since she was a Muslim and didn’t want to be identified with the Christian Madonna, and tried to sue AFP for defamation and exploitation of human suffering.