08 April 2007

07 April 2007 - Moral carpet bombing

I’ve spent some time this weekend reading a new book called The Psychology of Resolving Global Conflicts: From War to Peace. The second volume, edited by Mari Fitzduff and Chris Stout, was recommended to me by Herbert Kelman when I met him here at Harvard several weeks ago, and includes several papers applying the insights of social psychology to understand both violent conflict and peacemaking.

Kelman’s own essay describes his work in the field of “Track Two” diplomacy—the “unofficial third-party approach to conflict resolution” that he calls “interactive problem solving.” Kelman has championed this approach over the years, and in his essay he described why it is important to keep such exercises separate from official talks—though he adds that official talks could incorporate informal exercises also.

I was most impressed, however, by Stout’s foreword, in which he attacks those “self-proclaimed experts” who pretend that complex conflicts can be simplified into issues about which it is easy to make judgments. His book, he declares, will have no “pseudointellectual sleight of hand, no moral carpet bombing from 10,000 feet, no preachy nonalignment . . . no indoctrination of readers into the theater of outrage.”

Stout’s criticism points to a division between human rights activists and conflict resolution practitioners. Activists want to intervene in conflicts on behalf of victims. Typically, both sides in a conflict victimize each other. But activists want to do something, so they often take the side perceived as weaker (or the side that is less tolerant of criticism). They then run the risk of exacerbating the conflict.

So much writing on the Middle East—particularly anti-Israel writing—is guilty of the kind of simplistic posturing that Stout attacks. (That is especially true at universities, which are supposed to cherish open dialogue and diversity of views.) But one must ask: isn’t there a place for moral outrage? After all, one wouldn’t describe the Nazi murder of Jews as a conflict between Jews and Germans.

Many of the worst tyrants in the world today—the Sudanese government, for example, or Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe—would be gratified if their gross human rights abuses could be re-framed as “conflicts” requiring patience instead of pressure. Indeed, that is how both of these regimes are treated by other African nations, notably South Africa, which has been called on to “mediate” in Zimbabwe.

The answer is that we have to set limits to what we regard as behavior that is expected within the bounds of “conflict.” And human rights can help us define those limits. When people are being beaten and tortured for peacefully supporting a parliamentary opposition party, for example, as they are in Zimbabwe, such behavior cannot be described as an outcome of conflict and must be condemned.

That is also the role played by international humanitarian law, and treaties like the Geneva Convention. We need not approve of war, but if parties are at war we ask them to respect certain limits. It was acceptable, for instance, for Israel to respond to Katyusha attacks by bombing Hezbollah bases, even in civilian areas. However, I believe it was unacceptable to use cluster bombs to do so in the war’s late stages.

But human rights and international humanitarian law cannot perform this boundary function if a) they are not applied equally to all people and b) they are stretched beyond reasonable definitions. The case of the International Court of Justice (IJC) 2003 advisory opinion for the UN General Assembly on Israel’s security barrier in and along the West Bank illustrates both of these problems.

The court, quite appropriately, spent a great deal of energy considering the question of Palestinian rights, but considerably less time on Israeli rights, specifically the right of Israelis to live in peace and security. And the court also considered the issue of territory to be a question of fundamental rights, when in fact the borders of Israel and Palestine are open to negotiation between the two sides and are not yet settled.

Treating the rights of one side as more valuable than another—or placing freedom of movement and enjoyment of property above the right to life—makes human rights and humanitarian law into polarizing issues. Moreover, turning all questions into issues of human rights removes the ability of human rights to set boundaries to conflicts—and, indeed, leaves no space for the parties to negotiate with each other.

So, human rights and humanitarian law have an important role to play in conflict resolution. They can define for us the area in which it is appropriate to express moral outrage or to intervene, diplomatically and even militarily, to stop a conflict. But to do this, they have to be limited in their definition and universal in their application. And that is where the “moral carpet bombers” have failed.

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