a third force in conflict

internationally we seem to agree that there is two different kinds of forces: a good one and a bad one. a legal and an illegal one. a state internal and a state external one. no matter the terminology and inherent connotation, what all of these forms have in common is a clear cut dichotomy.

clear cut? regular readers of my blog have probably come to understand by now that my thinking and writing hardly ever complies to the idea of there to be anything clear cut or easy to explain in this world. instead i try to hint towards hidden complexities in as easy a language as the subject allows me to present it. and today i want to present another force behind this seemingly clear cut dichotomy of good, legal, internal enforcement of laws against bad, illegal uses of force from state internal and external sources: the force of labeling.

ask yourself the following questions: if a woman kills a man on the streets, is it murder? what if this woman is a police officer, is it murder? what if the man is a bank robber on the run, is it murder? what if that man was a suicide bomber about to hit the switch, is it murder? what if the man is a suicide bomber but the woman is not a police officer, is it murder?
somewhere in these questions there is a line between what different people would consider murder and a legitimate act. it is the job of politics through the creation of law to set the dividing lines between legitimate (legal) and illegitimate (illegal) behavior. it is the job of the state to label behavior. but consider, just as any discussion about these questions between friends will likely result in a heated debate, it is likely that many different states will come up with many different lines for the labels “good” (legal) and “bad” (illegal).

on an international sphere, the problem of “right” and “wrong” behavior continues. what is absent however is an overarching authority that has the ultimate power to decide these questions. as states are considered equals, the only way for laws to be created is for representatives to come together, create a body of law that everyone agrees upon, and then have each national legislative accept these agreements as binding (called “ratification”). only then can there be an institution created that can demand accountability for state’s actions. not surprisingly, these agreements are rare and even more so, the ratification of such international laws is mostly limited to only a certain number of states. (let us for now disregard the idea of “conventional law”)

having addressed the basics of theory necessary to understand the case, let us now turn towards an actual example: when we differentiate between international (state vs state) and internal conflict, a crucial aspect arises in the consideration of humanitarian law. international humanitarian law (ihl) is, just as the name proposes it, an international law on the basis of prior agreement and later national ratification of states (meaning that all states that did not ratify ihl are not necessarily able to be held accountable for its disregard). more than that, even states who have ratified the law however can get around breaking humanitarian law. how, you ask? by labeling their violent suppression of the population as an “internal” matter and denying its status as “an armed conflict”. ihl after all usually focuses on war between states and hence between two equals. by assuming a conflict as an internal matter, any opponent against the state is discredited its legitimacy to use force by the label of “criminal”, “rebel”, or “terrorist”. it is not for nothing that a common saying reads “the one’s terrorist is the other one’s freedom fighter”. by applying these labels, any action on their side is automatically stripped off its legality, its legitimacy, and hence forward its moral value of “goodness”. in our prior mentioned example this would be the case of a police woman shooting a suicide bomber who is about to push the button. few people will find arguments to discredit the action of the police officer in this case. but what if – and bare with me – what if the suicide bomber was a man who’s state that is supposedly there for his protection discredited his family, neighbors and friends because of a different ethnic origin, even though they were all born in the same lands for generations. what if that same state had mistreated many in his community for decades that he tried to work with the government and gain an international audience for their suffering. and what if that man had nothing left to live for because his children were slaughtered by the state in an attempt to “de-root terrorists” and he saw himself forced by the deep depression and feeling of helplessness for being constantly overlooked and not heard by the international community that he decided to end his life in a last attempt to create some awareness. what if? is it murder then?

black and white does not describe the many colors of our world. a fight between good an evil is only fit for an acceptable hollywood experience. and yet, it is the state that yields a third force in conflict: the force reduce a complex reality to a simple dichotomy. by ascribing the suicide bomber a terrorist and everyone else a rebel humanitarian law does not apply. by not labeling a civil unrest an armed conflict the state maintains its power of formal sovereignty, claimed legitimacy, and the force to label good and bad, for only equal partners, so the law says, can enter into an armed conflict (proven by the fact that between states one shot can be enough to trigger a conflict, while state internal clashes require a “certain” (undefined) level of violence and rebel-group internal cohesion and structure before being deemed “an armed conflict”). consequently, any force fighting for a recognition of claims for a legal status might even find themselves on the morale high-ground of justified violence but ultimately they are on the wrong side of the label.

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