Human Shields: From International Law to Legitimate Political Violence (Peace and Conflict Series)

 

Nicola Perugini on the weaponisation of human bodies and the increasing justification of the killing of innocent civilians through international law

 

Nicola Perugini is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh. For this exclusive blog post in the Global Justice Academy’s Peace and Conflict Series, Nicola was asked to answer the following question about his research:

What does human shielding tell us about the link between international law and contemporary political violence?

 

Nicola Perugini

Human shielding is growing phenomenon intricately linked to the increasing “weaponisation” of human bodies in contemporary warfare. The term refers to the deployment of civilians in order to deter attacks on combatants or military sites as well as their transformation into a technology of warfare. From Gaza City through Mosul in Iraq to Sri Lanka, accusations of using human shields as an instrument of protection, coercion or deterrence have multiplied in the past few of years.

Indeed, the dramatic increase of urban warfare, including insurgency and counterinsurgency, terrorism and counterterrorism, has inevitably meant that civilians often occupy the front lines in the fighting, while the distinction between civilians and combatants is blurred. This, in turn, presents a series of ethical dilemmas relating to the use of violence and whether the violence deployed complies with international law.

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Peace and Conflict Series: Conflict and Syria, Think-tanks, and the Academy, Interview with Thomas Pierret

Universities find impact beyond academia increasingly important. In situations of violent conflict, however, it can be difficult for experts who are working on evolving conflicts such as Syria to remain relevant outside of the academy.  The increasing influence of think-tanks, and use of social media, together with pressures of wider academic life, pose serious questions as to what the academy has to offer.  In an interview with GJA Peace & Conflict blog series editor Andreas Hackl, Thomas Pierret looks back at 13 years of research in Syria and reflects on the changing role of his expertise within and outside of the academy.  Thomas suggests that academics may uniquely contribute the ability to locate specific events and moments in a conflict within wider conflict patterns and dynamics.

Thomas Pierret is a Senior Lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He has worked on the Syrian insurgency with a focus on the leadership of insurgent movements and the role of various brands of Salafism. As an expert on the Syrian crisis, Thomas Pierret’s commentary was featured on hundreds of occasions in dozens of media outlets, among them the BBC, The Financial Times, The Guardian, the New York Times, and Le Monde.

How has your research field changed since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis?

I have done research in Syria for almost 13 years now, and at the beginning I was almost alone on my topics of expertise. In a matter of years, the field has become extremely crowded, including non-academics such as think tank analysts. The problem is: they are good. It is no longer true that academics know more than they do. Once we could look at think tanks and say that their research is superficial, with some exceptions. But this has changed.

It seems academic expertise on Syria is becoming less relevant. How did this happen? Continue reading

Peace and Conflict Series: Into the Grey Zone of Human Rights Violations with Political Theorist Mihaela Mihai

The many ways of being complicit in violence and injustice

An interview with Mihaela Mihai, Senior Research Fellow in Political Theory at the University of Edinburgh

 

Mihaela Mihai

What is your current research about?

The Auschwitz survivor and great Italian writer Primo Levi – who coined the term ‘the grey zone’ to refer to moral ambiguity in a situation of violence – said that ‘we all make our deals with power, willingly or not.’

In our research project, we are using his concept of the ‘grey zone’ and his insights into the ambiguity of moral responsibility as starting points for an inquiry into the many ways in which people are complicit in violence and injustice. We analyse complex accounts of moral and political complicity in four cases: Vichy France, apartheid South Africa, totalitarianism in Communist Romania and the military dictatorship in Argentina during the Dirty War in the 1970s and 80s.

Our claim is that the ambiguous roles of collaborators, bystanders and beneficiaries has not been properly reckoned within the current theory and practice of transitional justice in post-conflict societies. We ask how historical sources, cinematic and literary representations illuminate this murky reality of political conflict.

Can they then reinvigorate efforts at justice and reconciliation in societies wrought by violence and division?

To give one example, we’re exploring how powerful films that touch on this space between victims and perpetrators can promote debate, public engagement and historical understanding. Think of how Louis Malle’s classic film Lacombe, Lucien unsettles viewers’ preconceptions about the motivations of perpetrators in its portrayal of the thoughtlessness and divided loyalties of its lead character. Likewise, the disturbingly ambivalent relationship between a torturer and his young female victim in the powerful 1999 Argentinian film Garaje Olimpo challenges the way we normally think about responsibility and culpability.

 As you can imagine, this research takes in many disciplines, including philosophy, history, political science, law, literature and cinema. Within that general project, each of the four team members has developed specific interests.

As the principal investigator in this project, I am currently exploring two themes of relevance. First, I am working on delineating an account of the epistemic functions of artworks. The main question is: by virtue of what characteristics do films, novels and poems help us better understand the thorny issue of complicity?  In addition, I explore the significance of feminist theories of responsibility and complicity for the ‘grey zone’. Feminists have long worked on unpacking the issue of how one becomes complicit with an unjust structure. Their insights into this phenomenon bear a great relevance for any sophisticated attempt to illuminate the ‘grey zone.’

Hugh McDonnell has recently published his book, Europeanising Spaces in Paris, c. 1947-1962, which examines contested conceptions of ‘Europe’ and ‘Europeanness’ in the post-World War Two French capital. He is now undertaking historical research on aspects of the ‘grey zone’ in Vichy France, and is also working on an article on Jean-Paul Sartre’s varied engagements with the idea of Europe and what it means to be European.

Maša Mrovlje is currently exploring ways of judging instances of violent resistance to oppressive systems, looking particularly at South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle. More generally, she is interested in how existential philosophy illuminates the dark realities of conflict. She is also finalising a book manuscript on existentialism and the ambiguity of political judgement, with a focus on transitional justice as the area where these philosophical frameworks clearly show their value.

Last but not least, Gisli Vogler’s PhD project focuses on the issue of responsibility and is located between social and political theory. Gisli draws on the work of Hannah Arendt and Margaret Archer to provide an account of political judgement that takes seriously its situatedness and limited emancipatory power. This has great relevance for transitional justice in general, and for our understanding of resistance and complicity in particular.

How does your research contribute to global justice and peace?

We address what we consider to be weaknesses in current approaches to transitional justice: their unsatisfactory take on the ‘grey zone’. Post-conflict societies worldwide understandably seek clear answers and solutions, but these obscure the messiness and ambiguity of human interaction. We argue in favour of sustained efforts to understand the shadowy zone of collaborators, bystanders and beneficiaries of violence. By grappling with invisible injustices in various historical and geographical situations, we call attention to the fragility of peace and the incompleteness of justice in societies that have neglected the ‘grey zone.’

We should also say that our work is not about dismissing or overthrowing existing approaches to transitional justice processes. Rather, it is about supplementing or enriching the toolkit of scholars and practitioners of transitional justice. As already mentioned, one innovative aspect of our work is our belief that art might be better placed to provoke societal processes of reflection on invisible forms of participation in violence and injustice.

What impact has your work had so far, and what impact do you hope it will have?

Not least because of the broad scope of our work, we are excited about its future impact. In the first place, it raises awareness of the dangers involved in ignoring general complicity with violence and allowing undemocratic attitudes to reproduce across generations. In this vein, it aims to make a convincing argument about why and how cinema and literature should be used in civic education aimed both at deterrence and reconciliation.

And as part of giving wide exposure to our research goals, last April the team organised and participated in the prestigious European Consortium for Political Research – The Joint Sessions in Pisa. We organised a workshop on “Imagining Violence: The Politics of Narrative and Representation,” which brought together scholars from all over Europe and North America to discuss the role of imagination in understanding and responding to the complex issues of political violence. The fruitful discussion has in turn led to a special journal issue on Imagination and Violence, forthcoming with Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy.

We also aim to translate our academic work for a broader public audience, to promote dialogue between academia and the wider community, and to develop cultural and educational resources on the issue of ordinary complicity in injustice. We are especially excited about our film series on “Complicity and Resistance” that will be held in March 2017 at Cameo cinema in Edinburgh. Films like The Secret in Their Eyes and The Headless Woman from Argentina, Une Affaire de femmes and Lacombe Lucien from France, Quad Erat Demonstrandum and The Paper Will Be Blue from Romania, or Fools and Skin from South Africa will be screened to highlight exactly these sorts of troubling questions about complicity, difficult choices and agonising dilemmas confronting individuals in the grey zone.

What other research questions are you discovering which you think need to be addressed, and others you would like to move on to?

It’s certainly the case that our research is always generating further avenues of fruitful inquiry. For instance, an examination of the ‘grey zone’ of resistance as the other side of the coin of complicity in injustice. What are the moral dilemmas, tragedies and human cost involved in (violent) struggles against oppressive systems?

Another example would be the further investigation into the distinct nature of complicity and responsibility of artists and intellectuals, and the significance of varying representations of the grey zone.

The project also raises the problem of how the political effects of failures to engage complicity in human rights violations might be transmitted and reinforced not only over time, but across different geographical and spatial contexts. The questions we raise are of course applicable far beyond our case studies. Similarly, the colonial links or global interconnections in histories of complicity in violence need to be further addressed.

We are also finding that the issue of complicity raises new questions about silence and memory, betrayal and revenge, friendship and trust – notions that remain at the margin of transitional justice scholarship, which yet contain important insights.

Finally, the exploration of cinematic and literary narratives poses the question in turn of the potential moral and political significance of other art genres, such as music or architecture, and their relevance to the issue of ‘grey zone’ and transitional justice more broadly.

Peace and Conflict Series: What is so ‘Modern’ about Modern Conflict?

Eavesdropping on a roundtable conversation at the Centre for the Study of Modern Conflict…

‘Modern conflict’ is commonly used to refer to conflicts in recent history that used particular modernised means of waging war and share a number of other elements. Why the label ‘modern’ is used to describe some conflicts and not others, and what its analytical purpose should be was heavily debated during a roundtable organised by the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for the Study of Modern Conflict. Hosted by Emile Chabal, four young experts put their own research into the context of the debate on the utility of Modern Conflict as a concept.

For Fraser Raeburn, the label ‘modern’ explained ‘for how long we can look back in time and find things we recognize in conflicts’. It was thus a question of familiarity and continuity. Researching the Scots who fought against fascism among the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, Raeburn suggested that the concept of Modern Conflict allows for comparisons between similar types within a particular time period. Moreover, he suggested that a certain cultural continuity defines Modern Conflict – that it remains central and defining in one way or another within a given society’s culture.

The first modern war

However, Catherine Bateson, whose research explores the American Civil War (1861-1865), suggested a different approach. Speaking about songs invoked about the Civil War, she said that a whole sub-culture of war and music relates modern conflicts back to the origins of war. In this sense, the ancient practice of songs about and within wars represents continuity across time, but also deeply “unmodern” roots of supposedly modern conflicts.

The American Civil War is in many ways considered to be an early, or even the ‘first modern war’.  The role of mass mobilization, industrialization, new technology such as submarine prototypes, and the number of deaths are among many other factors that are known to distinguish this war as ‘modern’.

Yet one of the most important aspects, explained Bateson, was the fact that modern conflicts were and continue to be much more visible than earlier ones: they were photographed. ‘Photography opened a new lens, it changed how the image of war was perceived’, said Bateson.

Sounding the taps in the Civil War / Flickr, Cc license

Modern civilisation

Anita Klingler has been researching political violence and political culture in interwar Germany and Britain, saying that one important concept attached to modern conflict is civilization: the emergence of the Second World War shows that the ‘protective shell of civilization was not thick enough’.

At the heart of this realisation lies the question of whether violence is an enemy of civilization or one of its central characteristics. Or, as Klingler asked in reference to the interwar period, ‘how did violence become the enemy of our civilisation?’

Don’t say war

However, violence has also been institutionalised and legitimised as a motor of civilisation, whether in the wake of colonialism or contemporary interventions. Indeed, as Sissela Matzner argued in the case of Libya, France has defined its military intervention as an extension of its own national culture and global leadership ambitions.

Matzner’s research compares the foreign policy of Germany and France on Libya from the perspective of political parties. Her findings suggest that the military intervention was framed in ways that may relate to a particular periods of contemporary modern warfare:  responsibility as a central elements in their ‘national role conceptions’, and the fact that most interventionists avoid using the word war altogether. ‘The categorical avoidance of the term war reflects the changing nature of war itself, and the controversy around interventions’, said Matzner.

As the nature of conflict and war is changing, so should the concepts that help us to understand and compare them. But as Catherine Bateson put it: ‘How long can modern conflicts remain modern? What about 50 or 100 years from now, will we still talk about these wars as modern conflicts?’

Peace and Conflict Series: Can Data Bring Peace? The Gains and Caveats of Data Science in Peace and Conflict Studies

What can social and political scientists learn from data science? And what can data science contribute to the research on peace and conflict?

‘Most importantly, one has to know what questions to ask’, says Gabriele Schweikert, Research Fellow at the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh. ‘And secondly, one needs the necessary data to answer that question.’

For example, researchers on urban conflict might be interested to find out how different instances of violence distribute across a city over time. Available data from media on the location and intensity of violence can be harvested with the help of automatised bots searching for keywords. ‘But if researchers have only a vague idea of their question and do not know what data can do and what not, they might end up with a trivial answer’, she says, adding: ‘Such as the simple result that violent conflict in cities tends to take place in streets.’

Can data predict conflict?

Gabriele’s colleague, Guido Sanguinetti, a Reader in Machine Learning in Informatics at Edinburgh, is an expert in running prediction models, usually in the field of computational biology. But when a friend who worked as a data scientist for the New York Times sent him a visualisation of violent incidents in Afghanistan, taken from the WikiLeaks Afghan War Diaries, he realised that he could ‘do much more with the available data’.

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New Blog Series: Rethinking Peace and Conflict Research in Edinburgh

The University of Edinburgh’s research expertise on peace and conflict is growing fast, making it ever more important to connect and communicate across disciplinary lines. To this effect, a new blog series titled Rethinking Peace and Conflict Research in Edinburgh will foster exchange and make this ongoing research and its challenges more visible. Its aim is to build new interdisciplinary capacity and exchange around challenges and themes that connect experts working on peace and conflict across and beyond the University.   Continue reading