It’s easy to condemn those who use violent means against others. Since September 11th 2001 one of the most frequent claims repeated in the United States and Europe has been that “violence can never be justified”. We recite this over and again, secure in our feeling that we must be right because violence must be wrong. We know this because we remember our own skins: we don’t want people on our well-paved American streets to come up and accost us. And most of us climbing the stone steps of Europe’s ancient culture feel no urge to assault others as we pass.
The picture gets a bit more blurry, however, if we broaden our view of the world and look to how our nations, instead of our neighbours, behave. Regardless, the above-mentioned mantra is still repeated. The prohibition of the use of force is in fact embossed on the gilded papers of irrefutable value, starting with the Kellogg-Briand Pact and culminating with the magna carta of the Charter of the United Nations.
The Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1929, which is signed by most major powers including the USA, outlaws the use of force as an instrument of foreign relations. It was hammered-out through months of strenuous negotiations between then American Secretary of State Frank Kellogg and the French Minister for Foreign Affairs Aristide Briand. After WWII, an even stronger statement outlawing the use of force was included in Article 2, paragraph 4 of the UN Charter. This famed paragraph states unequivocally that “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” It doesn’t say “some states”. It doesn’t say “sometimes”. It says “all states”, “all the time”.
Unfortunately, this admirable demand has not been followed in practice. And embarrassingly for the memory Mr Kellogg, it has been the United States which more than any other country in the world has violated the prohibition on the use of force. As Robert Kaplan reminds us in the July/August 2003 Atlantic Monthly, America has used force almost a hundred times against other countries since 1945. Or, as the India-based publication Humanscape informs us in its “Human Index” published in May 2003, America has used force overseas 40 times since 1990. The lesson being learnt, if not taught, in practice is indeed very different from the pristine expectations expressed in legally binding agreements.
Let’s be fair. The big players have been respected. After all, the United States does not unleash its deadly military capacity against just any country. It has chosen countries like Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq, Cambodia, Vietnam, Panama and Grenada. Not the likes of Russia, France or China. Indeed, the objective observer might well conclude that the wars American soldiers fight are not wars at all but rather simple acts of cowardly bullying peoples who cannot fight back effectively. Of course, there has been Vietnam, and now Iraq and Afghanistan where the people have fought back. But this fight has hardly been a fair match. Instead, it is a struggle against great odds—much greater than most Americans would be willing to brave. The Afghans and Iraqis fight more with their pride than with adequate military means. And if we were able to view the use of force from the perspective of some of these underdogs, we might see a much different picture. We might see brave people fighting colossi or giants, instead of the violent savages that Western media so often portrays.
In any event, the individuals who are fighting back against state violence do not seem irrationally wedded to the use of force. Instead, they appear as victims who have met an adversary that understands no other language except carnage. They have experienced the lesson of American force in Iraq and Afghanistan and Panama and Grenada and Haiti, which teaches that those who are unarmed and who refuse to resist are often put to the sword anyway. These five conflicts alone have accounted for well over 100,000 innocent civilian casualties—who, incidentally, the United States government refuses to count as casualties of war. Is this because America realises that these are the victims of unjustifiable vengeance? These victims see the example of generations of Palestinians who are deprived of their most basic human possessions, and have no means of protecting the last vestiges of their human dignity. For these victims of our violence what alternatives are there but to stand up in honour and in the name of rallying calls that continue to echo through time, such as “Give me liberty or give me death”? Is non-violence still an alternative, or have we erased it from memory by our consummate ignorance and constant brutality?
When we speak of others using violence against us, we might want to think about who we are talking about. We might want to remember that our adversaries lack soldiers armed with the latest protective gear and the most technologically advanced killing machines, which Americans and Israeli have exclusively. The average American soldier carries more than $100,000 of material with him into battle. The average Iraqi or Afghan freedom fighter carries only a weapon, often manufactured by a rich industrialised country, that he purchased for as little as $10 on a second-hand market. The individual freedom fighter often lives on the food he can find from day-to-day. He or she possess only one set of clothes, or the remnants of what can be obtained from others. And he or she gets little or no pay—no life insurance, no medical plan. It would be a wonder if we could recruit a single British or American if we offered them the material benefits that accrue to freedom fighters in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Carrying little more than the Quran and a gun, these Afghani resistance fighters know with conviction that they are waging a just war.
Instead, the earnings of the freedom fighter accrue from the knowledge that he or she is defending the faith, people, country and pride which are so important to human dignity. This means something to the freedom fighter because he or she comes from among these people. The freedom fighter is “the people” who have suffered from our use of force and our exploitation. He or she is “the people” whose daily lives hang on threads over the abyss that is death. We have taught the freedom fighter the lesson of survival by our use of force. We have schooled him or her in development at the point of a gun. It is our violence that has created the freedom fighters’ defensive struggle.
In such a world, who are we to criticise those who take up arms against us? Nevertheless, we do not shy away from doing so. After 11 September, many Americans, Canadians and Europeans reaffirmed their rejection of violence, broadening that principle out as one to be followed by all people everywhere. Among our intellectuals this demand often appeared in print. Naomi Klein, for example, added an “Afterword” to her book No Logo, which is touted as a bible of the anti-globalisation movement. In this addition she argues that of course, violence is bad, and the attacks on America’s twin towers and Pentagon must be unequivocally rejected because they were violent. Reading these words uttered from the cosy cradle of a highly industrialised and materially comfortable society leaves them reverberating with astounding hollowness. What right do we have, we who live in a society built on the blood, exploitation and resources of so many, to criticise the use of force against us? What is it that protects us from the use of force, and gives us—and us only—the sanctimonious right of peace?
Even the people who we proclaim as our leading advocates of non-violence built their understanding on the regret that violence might have to be used. Moreover, they frequently recognised that the state was the greatest purveyor of violence. Jesus Christ saw fit to use violence against those unjustly blaspheming the temple. The prophet of Islam saw fit to use violence to defend the rights of his people against unjust attacks. The American President John F Kennedy almost started the first, and what would have probably been the last, all-out nuclear war to protect American interests that he equated with justice. And even Mohandas Gandhi did not rule out the use of force by the weak against the strong, especially the state, in the search for justice. Indeed Gandhi recognised that the “State is violence in a concentrated and organised form”. And perhaps Gandhi’s most pointed message is one of a logic directed more at states than at individuals, when he said: “If I kill a man who obstructs me, I may experience a sense of false security. But the security will be short-lived. For I shall not have dealt with the root cause. In due course, other men will surely rise to obstruct me. My business, therefore, is not to kill the man or men who obstruct me, but to discover the cause that impels them to obstruct me and deal with it.” This caution is today of greatest relevance to the United States and other governments who use force against those whom they claim use, or intend to use, violence against them.
My point, however—here as always—is not to absolve the use of violence. Most people do not want to use violence. And most people, whether they be Muslim, Christian, Hindi, Jewish or non-believers, reject violence. Our governments, on the other hand, do not reject violence despite their public professions and the apparent progress that has been made in international legal instruments. By example, our governments’ acts of violence, more than any individual acts of violence, encourage widespread intolerance. It is thus difficult to see how relatively rich inhabitants of the countries most frequently perpetrating violence against impoverished and vulnerable people abroad, can claim that these victims should not fight back violently. Having travelled to Iraq and Afghanistan before the respective wars against these people were started by the USA, I am unequivocally able to testify that the overwhelming majority of the people in these countries rejected violence. But we, in the West, did not ask them before we began bombing them. Instead, we reacted to individual acts of violence with our own massive vengeance. We escalated individual actions to the level of international actions, and gave them the legitimacy of state action. How do we expect others to respond?
An optimistic pacifist might conclude that, in general, and especially when perpetrated by the state, violence is wrong. History has proven that deeds usually speak louder than words. If good- willed activists in rich countries of the world were sincere about their interest in ending violence, then they would ensure that action is taken at home. But until they do, it seems quite hypocritical for anyone to be telling people who are subject to massive violence by our governments that they should set the example of non-violence.
Curtis Doebbler is an international human rights lawyer who has lived or worked in more than 50 countries. His latest book is called “International Human Rights Law”.
Article courtesy of Al-Ahram Weekly