Sunday, June 29, 2008

Arms and the Civilian

So my 12-year-old asks me out of the blue:

"So suppose you're a civilian in Iraq and you'd like to buy a handgun to protect yourself in your home. You go into the gun store and look around. You even put your hand on one of the guns, to see what it feels like. Would it be legal for a soldier in Iraq to treat you as if you are an armed combatant?"
Huh. Never really posed this question to my humanitarian law students before. (The answer would of course be no: not unless you were pointing the gun at an armed combatant. The right question is whether the gun store, in such a situation, might be a legitimate military objective.)

But her curiosity brought to my mind the US Supreme Court's landmark decision last week on second amendment rights. The court ruled that the second amendment to the US constitution protects an individual's right to own firearms (not just the right of states to form militias), which means states with gun bans will need to change course.

Common sense, I'd say - which doesn't, however, mean a) that the second amendment couldn't one day be repealed if enough US citizens were swayed by the evidence or b) that guns can't be regulated, rather than banned per se. (Just like the right to free speech is limited when it comes to things like libel or incitement to genocide).

But my daughter's question got me thinking about the implications under humanitarian law, should civil war erupt in the US as it has so many other places, of a default assumption that the "civilian" population is armed. The International Network Against Small Arms reports that in fact, 74% of small arms are in civilian hands already worldwide.

The Huffington Post summarizes reactions to the rulings, including statements by Presidential candidates Obama and McCain.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Free the (Women Fighters And) Children?

The UN News Service reports:

Although the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) does not seem to be recruiting children in Uganda, women and children are still present in its ranks, and the rebel group is allegedly enlisting young people from neighbouring countries, according to a United Nations report released today. The LRA, which has fought a civil war with the Ugandan Government since the mid-1980s, became notorious during the conflict for abducting as many as 25,000 children and using them as fighters and porters. The children were often subject to extreme violence shortly after abduction, with many girls allocated to officers in a form of institutional rape. 'Owing to the apparent absence of LRA from Ugandan territory, there have been no recent cases of recruitment and use of Ugandan children, or other grave violations against children attributable to LRA,' Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon writes in a new report to the Security Council. 'However, children and women are still present in the LRA ranks, and there has been no movement on their release,' he adds. In addition, he notes there are reports alleging that the group has been recruiting children from southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic (CAR).
The detailed UN Report can be read here.

At a glance, I'm wondering: what does Ban Ki-moon think the presence of women in the LRA ranks has to do with the problem of child recruitment? While recruiting children is a war crime, enlisting adult women is not.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Just Because Torture is Something we Did, Doesn't Mean It's Something We Would Do.

Jake Tapper at ABCNews' Political Punch blog reports on the release of the new Physicians Without Borders report today, in which Retired Army General Antonio Taguba's preface proclaims the following:

"There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account."
If this seems to you like a strange thing for Taguba to say, it's probably because you recognize him as the author of the infamous Taguba Report, the US Army's initial investigation into the situation at Abu Ghraib once the prisoner abuse scandal broke in March of 2004. In it, he wrote (among other things):
"Numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees . . . systemic and illegal abuse."
Ahem, since systematic, cruel and illegal abuse of detainees during an armed conflict fall under the basic definition of war crimes, how exactly is his current statement news? And whose "doubt" is he talking about as being "no longer"? His own? Wouldn't that have been pretty much shattered by his original report? The Bush Administration's? Not judging by their reaction to the repeated attempts by the Supreme Court to rein them in.

Certainly not certain blog commenters over at Political Punch, who seem to harbor plenty of doubts. Check it out.

It's not clear to me how the legal or political environment has changed since 2004. Those who understand and are committed to the Geneva Conventions know that Common Article 3 always applies to all noncombatants, and covers the kinds of abuses at Abu Ghraib. These are the vast majority of the US public, for whom the pictures spoke for themselves and triggered justifiable outrage three years ago.

Those who care little for the letter or spirit of the law have bought the Bush Administration's 2004 position that if a detainee is not a prisoner of war, it's fine for the gloves to come off. (Even the White House has backed away from this, but the damage is done.)

What will remove doubt is the November elections, which will bring one of two men to public office, capable of genuine leadership, either of whose position on humanitarian law will be an improvement.

It Starts.

I was wondering how long it might take for Barack Obama's principled approach to politics to begin giving way to the pragmatics required to win again John McCain, much less exercise effective leadership in Washington. Looks like it's happening already: CNN has reported that women wearing headscarves were prevented from sitting near Obama at a rally, in order to combat the perception that he is Muslim.

Although "Presidential campaigns routinely invite audience members they believe will enhance the image their candidate wants to convey on TV to stand behind the candidate at rallies," the practice does run counter to Obama's message of unity and diversity.

The campaign has admitted as much and apologized for the incident, saying such actions are "not the policy of the campaign... It is offensive and counter to Obama's commitment to bring Americans together and simply not the kind of campaign we run. We sincerely apologize for this behavior."

Throws Like a Girl.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Norms, Shmorms? Maybe not.

In comments over at Duck of Minerva, Prof Burgos challenges us to show that international norms (especially the Geneva Conventions) "matter" - by which he seems to mean, will powerful states follow them when it's not in their interest to do so.

When I saw the Supreme Court had ruled that the USG's denial of habeus corpus rights to Guantanamo detainees was unconstitutional, at first I thought this demonstrated that such rules do matter and was all prepared to create a blog response.

Then I read this headline at Voice of America this morning: "US Attorney General Says Military Trials to Proceed."

"Mukasey told reporters in Tokyo Friday he was disappointed with the decision, because it will lead to hundreds of challenges from so-called "enemy combatants."
Then again, later in the article, the Bush Administration is quoted as accepting the decision:
"Mr. Bush said in Rome Thursday he will abide by the court's ruling but said, in his words, 'that doesn't mean I have to agree with it.' He said his administration will study the opinion and determine whether additional legislation might be appropriate."
Well, in measuring the impact of norms, the story isn't over. The question is not entirely whether a superpower will or won't try to break the rules. As Charli Carpenter writes, half the question is whether others will push back at that superpower. The human rights community and our allies have consistently done that. A second question is whether this pressure leads to any genuine response. Each time the Supreme Court has ruled against the Bush Administration, the White House has taken steps to modify its position - and has come a long way since January 2002, when it originally argued that the Geneva Conventions "don't apply" to GWOT detainees.

But what Burgos is waiting to see, I think, is whether the US will actually respond to the pushback in a meaningful way that results in protection for detainees, or will continue its search for new loopholes in the law. History will decide.

For more analysis on what the Supreme Court's ruling does and doesn't mean, Benjamin Wittes has a helpful op-ed in the Washington Post.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Check Out This Film.

Hat tip to Cleitus for providing some info on the Rape of Nanking, and the efforts of a few brave souls to stop the carnage. There was in fact a fascinating if grisly film released on the subject last year: trailer below.

On Moral Equivalence: Response to Cleitus

My co-blogger Cleitus the Black is arguing that since "we did it too" we have no right to call "them" on it when "they" do it. I'm glad that he points us to the historical facts about US barbarity.

But two points:

1) It's not true that citizens like myself and Chloe have no right to call the kettle black since the US also has targeted civilians in past wars. First of all, I'm not sure what intel leads Cleitus to be so certain Chloe is a US citizen. Second, the fact that I am doesn't make me guilty of my country's crimes. In fact, I would argue it makes me more responsible for opposing those crimes, not less, which is partly the point of this blog.

2) Since two wrongs don't make a right, I hardly see how any of these arguments invalidate my earlier claim: that we ought to call barbarism what it is. That's as true of the US' enemies as it is of the US. Just as I would call it "war crimes" when engaged in by US troops (because that is a secular term that resonates in the US), I would/will call it harabism when engaged in by Muslims in the name of Islam. Just as "war hero" is inappopriate for US troops who target civilians; "jihadism" is inappropriate for Muslims who kill innocents in the name of their crusade, however justified. I don't need to be an Islamic scholar in order for this to be a legitimate claim. So there.

A Rose by Any Other Name, Part the Second...

My dear Chloe, your statement Jihad doesn't mean holy war; it means "to strive to uphold the will of Allah" - most Muslims interpret it along the lines of Zen "right practice." In the Islamic laws of war, right practice does not include the killing of civilians.

Well, I must commend you for getting your second sentence only partly wrong. To begin with, since you're waxing philosophic on matters Islamic, I presume you are in fact, a scholar of Islam? No Lady Mujtahideh, perhaps, or even a hafiz, but you are a Muslim, and you've at least read the Quran in Arabic, and skimmed the hadith? No?

Because judging from your comment, I would have suspected that your exposure to the subject had been confined to watching Aladdin and perhaps shyly mumbling "marhaba" to the cute guy at the kebab shop.

Jihad has several meanings; one of them, jihad bis saif, or "jihad by the sword" does in fact mean war in defense, or on behalf of the Islamic State, and it is this meaning that the Western propagandists use, along with their polemic counterparts, the Islamic fundamentalists.

As for Zen, seeing as that is a pagan belief, I rather believe that few good Muslims would use it as a comparison for jihad bil qalb, the struggle of the heart to find the right way.

Now, you are essentially correct that the traditional Islamic law of war forbids the killing of non-combatants, especially women, children, and the aged; however, I am hardly the person with whom to discuss the possiblility of justifying these acts in terms of Islamic law - again, I should refer you to an Islamic scholar, preferably one aligned to the cause of the adversary.

As for you, Diodotus, really, I had expected better!

You address not a single point from my dissertation, but instead seek to muddy the water with talk of barbarism and burning babies.

Well, let me address each of your point for the edification of our distinguished audience.

First off, I can think of no one, with the possible exception of the soon-to-be released "Kung Fu Panda" who might label an enemy as a "snake" or a "rat"... Rather, propagandists (rather like racists) take a word out of context, or invent one, and use word-play (and more often, pictures) to create an image of a humanoid, yet inhuman beast. Thus is friendly Hans, the tow-headed youth from Salsburg, transformed into the monstrous HUN... So Hiroki, the rice farmer from Atsugi has the name of his ancestral home, Nihon, Land of the Rising Sun, transmogrified to Nippon, and reduced to NIP... This little trick worked so well, even President Truman must have believed it, stating (the day after the fireball rose over Nagasaki) "When you deal with a beast, you have to treat him like it beast. It is regrettable, but nevertheless, true."

Which brings us neatly to your next point.

If children are not meant to be burned in buses, where exactly may they be burned? The streets of Hamburg? Of Tokyo, Dresden, Yokohama, Berlin, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Frankfurt?

People who enjoy the best standard of living in the world largely because their Nation had no qualms over burning to death more babies (not to mention their Mummies, Daddies, Uncles and Aunties) in one war than have perished by the flame in the all the rest of mankinds inglorious history are in a rather poor position to point fingers at the rag-tag insurgent who incinerates the odd child in the course of attempting to drive the infidel from his (and her) lands.

That said, I do not endorse the methods of our current Middle Eastern adversaries, but then, I do not endorse our Hellfire-vs-Automobile methods, either. However, I have the decency not to be too critical of the collateral damage (another favorite bit of modern propaganda) that the adversary incurs, as he fights his war and we fight ours.

Postscript: I made it most clear that my reference to the Japanese as "defenders of the Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere" applied only after the Battle of Midway (but well before the devastastion of their homeland by American firebombs) - as every American schoolchild knows, the Rape of Nanking occured in 1937-38, and America, while knowledgeable, did nothing to stop it. In fact, the most effective resistance to the assault on the Chinese citizenry was, oddly enough, carried out by a Nazi businessman.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Climate Security 101

Considering the US Senate is deliberating at present over a "Climate Security Act" that would place limitations on US greenhouse gas emissions, I thought it would be useful to pass along the following: individual citizens can now track their contributions to climate security at the following website: Creative My neighbors have often said they'd like to be greener if only there were an alogrithm to tell them how... well this isn't exactly that, but check it out anyhoo.

Homeland Security Rocks

From the Onion News Network. Hat tip to Schneier on Security.

Reporters Expose Airport Security Lapses By Blowing Up Plane

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Rose By Any Other Name...

Dear friends, it appears that my illustrious compatriot, the learned Diodotus, has been led astray by a pair of fiends, i.e., P.W. Singer and Elina Noor, as referenced in a recent letter to the forum.

To set the record straight, had FDR called Adolf Hitler the 'leader of the National Socialist Aryan patriots' or dubbed Japanese soldiers fighting in World War II as the 'defenders of Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere,' he would have been right on the money (Herr Hitler being exactly that throughout the war, and the Japanese after Midway clearly fighting a defensive war against an American foe bent on their total defeat.)

America and her allies have no particular claim on the title of patriot - in fact, Georgian England would have had quite another term for the Founding Fathers - traitors!

Not quite such a nifty ring as patriot, I'm afraid -sadly, "insurgent" was not in vogue back in those days, although that would have been another, more accurate description of those rascally rebels.

A pity, really - don't you suppose people would have just thronged the theaters to see Mel Gibson star in "The Traitor"?

Radical Muslims ARE on a jihad; just like radical Christians a few hundred years back WERE on a Crusade. Not all Christianity endorsed the sack-and-pillage, conversion-or-death approach applied by such dubious ambassadors as those Bad Samaritans, the Knights Templar, just like not all Muslims today back the bloody antics of their fundamentalist brethren. However, to claim that today's suicide bomber or turbaned warrior launching an RPG is not a "true" jihadist is about as ludicrous as attempting to claim that the Lionheart's men who slaughtered the surrendered garrison at Acre were not "true" crusaders.

We must remember that there's two sides to every story, (and every battle), and those who apply their own labels to their opponents ought to be rightly scorned as mere propagandists and demagogues.

If you want to know the properly descriptive and politically correct salutation for Muslim fundamentalists (sorry, lads, I had to call you something!) - I strongly suggest that you go ask them how they prefer to be addressed.

Once that's been straightened out, you might ask them some other simple thing, like, what's your favorite color, what's your political agenda, and is there anything we could do to resolve this without further violence. (Hint - the answer might be similar to the one we gave ol' King George a few centuries back - get your redcoats off our land, and leave us to manage our own affairs - even if we do wish to, oh, I don't know - enslave our fellow man? prevent women and minorities from voting for a few decades? exterminate the majority of some native population and confine the rest? burn a few heretics at the stake, or engage in a brutal civil war for several years...)

Anyway, it's called dialogue, and yes, it's a tad more difficult (though probably more useful) than sitting around debating which distasteful colloquialism to apply to our military opponents.

Finally, a word from a warrior about the importance of language.

Ancient warriors honored their foes. Achilles does not scorn the Trojans as thugs, gooks, hajjis, barbarians, hirabis or terrorists. Instead, he exults that they are indeed mighty opponents, so that when he defeats them, great credit will redound to him, or, if he is defeated, it is not by some lesser creature.

What glory is there in crushing a weak opponent? That is mere slaughter, not battle, a task best confined to the abattoir and left to a lower class of man.

By labeling an opponent, you take the first step in dehumanizing them, and simultaneously, in dehumanizing yourself.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Monday, June 2, 2008

Labeling the Enemy

P.W. Singer and Elina Noor have an excellent short op-ed in this morning's NY Times, criticizing the USG's appropriation of the term "jihadist" to describe Islamic extremists, including those engaged in terror attacks:

"IMAGINE if Franklin D. Roosevelt had taken to calling Adolf Hitler the 'leader of the National Socialist Aryan patriots' or dubbed Japanese soldiers fighting in World War II as the 'defenders of Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.'

To describe the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese Army in terms that incorporated their own propaganda would have been self-defeating. Unfortunately, that is what many American policymakers have been doing by calling terrorists 'jihadists' or 'jihadis.'"
Singer and Noor make their case on three grounds:
"First, to call a terrorist a 'jihadist' or 'jihadi' effectively puts any campaign against terrorism into the framework of an existential battle between the West and Islam...

Second, these words locate the ideological battle exactly where the extremists want it to be. The terms of discussion are no longer about the murder of innocents in terrorist acts; they are about theology.

Third, when American leaders use this language it sends a confusing message to the Muslim world... Why, after all, would we call our enemy a 'holy warrior'?"
What do they propose instead? Singer and Noor present a novel proposal:
"If we want to say what we mean, what terms better describe Qaeda members and other violent extremists? “Muharib” or the more colloquial “hirabi” or “hirabist” would be good places to start. “Hirabah,” the base word, is a term for barbarism or piracy. Unlike “jihad,” which grants honor, “hirabah” brings condemnation; it involves unlawful violence and disorder."
This is an excellent idea, and I shall henceforth use this terminology on this blog unless anyone who understands Arabic etymology better than I do convinces me Singer and Noor are wrong. It should be added, however that the term jihadi probably has an appropriate use in US diplomatic rhetoric, and this would be to refer to individuals who, in the name of Islam, make efforts and even sacrifices to uphold basic standards of humane conduct and social justice in their societies. As Singer and Noor allude, this comprises not only many Muslim moderates but a great swath of Muslims who have spoken out against terrorism, risked their lives to promote human rights in their societies, or assisted the US in reconstructing Iraq, for example.

Unfortunately Singer and Noor then back away from this excellent idea, claiming in their last paragraph:
"Of course, it’s probably best not to engage in these nuances at all. Which is why American leaders would do best to call terrorists by their rightful name: “terrorists.” The label may seem passé, but terrorism is an internationally recognized word for an internationally recognized crime."
Not to my understanding. Terrorism is certainly internationally used, but it has never been defined through any consensus process in international law, and both scholars and diplomats use it inconsistently. This is why the crime is ironically absent from the statute of the International Criminal Court, for example.

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