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Recently after yet another military campaign coming to an end, social media lit all over with opinions about what should and should not have been done as military and civilians are moving out. Who was at fault, and where lies the responsibility with. There are those who see the problem as a matter of logistics something here and now and those who explore the history of conflict and try to explain it. Either side however does not note perhaps the most significant issue; that the continuation of wars and the maintenance of conflict around the world is not a failure of politics, but an international crime that is largely neglected. For context, lets explore this conflict’s origin; 20 years ago one of the wealthiest countries on the planet declared war to one of the poorest; the military operations carried the code name “Enduring Freedom”! perhaps irony is lost on those in positions of power. The war was declared as part of a wider foreign policy by the wealthy country (and its allies) on what was called the “war on terror”. It ostensibly aimed to curtail, and eventually defeat, extremist groups around the world from using violence and oppressing people. Yes, that is right, they used war in order to stop others from using violence.
In criminology, when we talk about violence we have a number of different ways of exploring it; institutional vs interpersonal or from instrumental to reactive. In all situations we anticipate that violence facilitates more violence, and in that way, those experiencing it become trapped in a loop, that when repeated becomes an inescapable reality. War is the king of violence. It uses both proactive and emotional responses that keep combatants locked in a continuous struggle until one of them surrenders. The victory attached to war and the incumbent heroism that it breeds make the violence more destructive. After all through a millennia of warfare humans have perfected the art of war. Who would have thought that Sun Tzu’s principles on using chariots and secret agents would be replaced with stealth bombers and satellites? Clearly war has evolved but not its destructive nature. The aftermath of a war carries numerous challenges. The most significant is the recognition that in all disputes violence has the last word. As we have seen from endless conflicts around the world the transition from war to peace is not as simple as the signing of a treaty. People take longer to adjust, and they carry the effects of war with them even in peace time.
In a war the causes and the motives of a war are different and anyone who studied history at school can attest to these differences. It is a useful tool in the study of war because it breaks down what has been claimed, what was expected, and what was the real reason people engaged in bloody conflict. The violence of war is different kind of violence one that takes individual disputes out and turns people into tribes. When a country prepares for war the patriotic rhetoric is promoted, the army becomes heroic and their engagement with the war an act of duty. This will keep the soldiers engaged and willing to use their weapons even on people that they do not know or have any personal disputes with. Among wealthy countries that can declare wars thousands of miles away this patriotic fervour becomes even more significant because you have to justify to your troops why they have to go so far away to fight. In the service of the war effort, language becomes an accomplice. For example they refrain from using words like murder (which is the unlawful killing of a person) to casualties; instead of talking about people it is replaced with combatants and non-combatants, excessive violence (or even torture) is renamed as an escalation of the situation. Maybe the worst of all is the way the aftermath of the war is reflected. In the US after the war in Vietnam there was a general opposition to war. Even some of the media claimed “never again” but 10 year after its end Hollywood was making movies glorifying the war and retelling a different rendition of events.
Of course the obvious criminological question to be asked is “why is war still permitted to happen”? The end of the second world war saw the formation of the United Nations and principles on Human Rights that should block any attempt for individual countries to go to war. This however has not happened. There are several reasons for that; the industry of war. Almost all developed countries in the world have a military industry that produces weapons. As an industry it is one of the highest grossing; Selling and buying arms is definitely big business. The UK for example spends more for its defence than it spends for the environment or for education. War is binary there is a victor and the defeated. If a politician banks their political fortunes on being victorious, engaging with wars will ensure their name to be carved in statues around cities and towns. During the war people do not question the social issues; during the first world war for example the suffragettes movement went on a pause and even (partly) threw itself behind the war effort.
What about the people who fight or live under war? There lies the biggest crime of all. The victimisation of thousands or even millions of people. The civilian population becomes accustomed to one of the most extreme forms of violence. I remember my grandmother’s tales from the Nazi occupation; seeing dead people floating in the nearby river on her way to collect coal in the morning. The absorption of this kind of violence can increase people’s tolerance for other forms of violence. In fact, in some parts of the world where young people were born and raised in war find it difficult to accept any peaceful resolution. Simply put they have not got the skills for peace. For societies inflicted with war, violence becomes currency and an instrument ready to be used. Seeing drawings of refugee children about their home, family and travel, it is very clear the imprint war leaves behind. A torched house in a child’s painting is what is etched in their mind, a trauma that will be with them for ever. Unfortunately no child’s painting will become a marble statue or receive the honours, the politicians and field marshals will. In 9/11 we witnessed people jumping from buildings because a place crashed into them; in the airport in Kabul we saw people falling from the planes because they were afraid to stay in the country. Seems this crime has come full circle.
I’m a great believer in human rights and when the topic comes up, I make it clear to my students that you either buy into human rights wholeheartedly or you don’t buy into it at all. There is no halfway house. You cannot pick and choose which bits you like, or decide that there is a time limited offer, a bit like a sale, on one month but not the next, and then on again. Nor can you decide that such rights only apply to some and not others (Home Office take note regarding refugees and asylum seekers). But the more I think about human rights the more I question how rights can work on an individual level without impacting on others’ rights.
A good example is the protests over the last year or so, particularly during ‘lockdown’. I ought to hasten to add before someone protests vociferously, that this blog is not about the validity of the subject matter being protested about. The blog is simply about how the exercise of rights that we hold so dear, can and do impact on other’s rights.
The government and its agents have a duty to ensure that human rights are facilitated as best as possible. Whilst there are some caveats, this duty extends to taking positive steps to ensure that we have a right to protest, a right to associate with whom we like, a right to express what we want to express and I would suggest above all else a right to life. I have prioritised the right to life but, in the arguments about the rights to protest, few if any question the impact that such protests have on that one fundamental right.
And I can hear the arguments now, what the people are protesting about is far bigger, too important not to be allowed to protest. The argument can even be extended to the fact that the protests are about the right to life, a valid argument. So, it is ironic that protesting about the right to life impacts on others’ right to life. If you don’t agree then please tell me what the purpose of ‘lockdown’ was if it wasn’t at least in part to save lives. The problem with protests, peaceful or not is that they do not suddenly happen in one place, people are not just beamed in. Would be protesters have to get to the venue thereby creating multiple opportunities for the spread of Covid. But even when we are not in ‘lockdown’, many protests have a detrimental impact on the rights of other members of the public through the disruption caused. In exercising fundamental rights, we trample on the rights of others. Whilst we may agree with the sentiments of the protests, it is and should not always be the case. Protests are not always about what we hold or ought to hold dear, in fact sometimes the opposite.#
I cannot say I am in favour of the new proposals to regulate protests, but I do understand the rationale, at least in part. I also understand the concern and the possible impact on our freedoms. But I find it somewhat bemusing that so many are quick to criticise and yet so few offer solutions. One day, when I am particularly annoyed about something and decide to join a protest, I wonder whether I will think about other people and the rights I am depriving them of?