We have never been civilised!
26 September 2002
In his commentary on the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar justified the massacre of 40,000 people in Avaricum (Bourges) by the need for pacification, the extension of the rule of law... and the fight against the practice of human sacrifices. Since then, Western societies have continued to present their most brutal military expeditions as civilising missions; only wars conducted by others can be tarred with the brush of barbarity. There is thus little new to be found in the debate surrounding the battles in the past year. But at a time when the American and some European governments are envisaging a military offensive against Iraq, these sinister precedents lead us to wonder how this "defence of peace and civilisation" is today being conducted in Afghanistan. The symmetry between the war-like "terrorist" and "anti-terrorist" rhetoric is striking: on one side, America is vilified as the "Great Satan", on the other, the "axis of evil" threatens to engulf freedom. The evil nature of the enemy underpins the exceptional nature of the threat and justifies the massive, preventive use of force. On the slightest suspicion a wedding party is bombed and a prison mutiny is crushed by air strikes. If any misgivings are expressed regarding this disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force, it is sufficient to mention the massacre of the 2,823 people on the east coast of the United States in September 2001. Any scepticism immediately triggers the question: do you want a new September 11, or even worse? Doom-laden prophecies, demonisation of the adversary and the huge imbalance between the opposing forces. The worrying combination of these three factors brings other wars to mind. Those taking place in Chechnya and Palestine, of course, but also more distant conflicts that can be more easily classified as "less civilised". Since 1994, the year of the genocide of the Rwandan Tutsis, the same basic argument brandishing the threat of potential "genocidal terrorism" was used to justify the massacres of hundreds of thousands of people in Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We had however believed that the Great Lakes region of Africa had taught us at least this lesson: leaving these prophets of doom to act unchecked means that the prophecy has every chance of being fulfilled. Calling for preventive killings triggers the same reflex from the adversary: massacre today to avoid being massacred tomorrow. The return of the apocalyptic prophecy to centre stage of the Western political scene is a sign of a dangerous regression in the public debate, similar to that characterising the darkest periods in European history. This is not to say that the very real dangers of today's world can simply be brushed aside. But rather than the logic of escalation, they demand rigorous application of reason, all the more so as this sometimes suggests the use of force. Unlike pacifism, the humanitarian viewpoint does not say that the use of violence is always illegitimate but directs its attention to the conditions surrounding this use. It is in particular based on the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law, which stipulates that any violence used must be proportional to the threat and be justified by a real military need - which rules out attacks against non-combatants, be they civil populations, wounded or prisoners of war. How can we ignore the information emanating from a number of credible sources (British and American press, Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch) who state that hundreds, possibly thousands, of combatants in Kunduz were massacred last autumn shortly after surrendering? In the name of humanitarianism, it would be absurd not to welcome the defeat of the Taliban, but it would be equally deplorable to close one's eyes to the killing of large numbers of them held prisoner by the soldiers of a coalition led by the world's leading power. From the viewpoint of humanitarian action, the growing volume of serious information concerning acts of violence committed against civilians and prisoners of war is sufficient to warrant an independent international enquiry. It must be stressed that asking for an enquiry is in no way to pre-judge its results, which would make the enquiry pointless. The United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross have a mandate which allow them to conduct such an investigation. Firmly anchored as they are in the Western world, marked by freedom of expression and the intensity of the "information war", these institutions have so far remained relatively silent. Their apathy serves to reinforce the feeling that they are simply deferring to the more powerful, who ignore the law of war. This is a dangerous abdication of responsibility and anyone who takes the trouble to look at history will know that the West would be ill-advised to lecture the rest of the world on this subject: crusades, colonisation, genocides, totalitarianism, and so on. The excessive, abusive use of the humanitarian label by western governments over the last ten years cannot wipe out all traces of these events. It is more than ever the responsibility of the independent humanitarian movement to assume its role and to ask these questions publicly, in the hope of seeing the politicians and the military finally treating non-combatants with humanity, in accordance with the rule of law.