Justice for the victims of massacre and war, 17 October 2001

Posted: December 13, 2009 in 2001, Afghanistan, war and peace

Martin Shaw

speech to 17 October 2001 meeting at the University of Sussex

I speak to you today as a scholar of war and genocide, but also as someone who tries to think and act as a citizen of the world. For me, the causing of harm to innocents anywhere is one of the most serious matters that can be addressed by either academic study or political practice. Slaughter is one of the gravest problems of humankind, whether the victims are Americans or Afghans.

So I start from where this crisis started, with September 11th. We are still without an adequate name for these attacks. George Bush was quick to call them an ‘act of war’ and this was correct so far as it went. However it was manifestly an incomplete naming. This was an immoral and illegal act of war, illegitimate according to all the standards accepted by worldwide humanity and agreed by its political representatives.

This was an act of murderous propaganda – which is the meaning of terrorism. Innocent travellers and workers were burnt alive, crushed, suffocated, or forced to jump to their deaths. It was directed overwhelmingly against innocent civilians for no other reason than that they were presumed to be Americans. In terms of the law and of the literature it would be accurately named as a genocidal massacre. And like many acts of war and most genocidal massacres, what presented as targeted violence was in fact indiscriminate slaughter, killing Britons and Indians, Jews and Muslims, everyone and anyone in the path of its assault.

Any response to this massacre that is remotely close to being adequate has to address its absolutely outrageous and horrific character. It will not do to say that the United States had itself committed, condoned or failed to prevent similar crimes against others. Not only do such claims, however true, provide not a scrap of justification or excuse for what was done – by themselves they also fail to provide a sufficient guide to our actions in the aftermath.

Mr Bush’s response has been popular with Americans, and has received grudging respect from the world, precisely because its decisiveness has appeared to address the outrage of September 11th. I say ‘appeared’ because it provides, in my view, at best a crude remedy, at worst a deeply flawed one that is spilling more innocent blood. However I think we must recognise that, on the surface at least, it has powerful legitimacy.

It now appears, from the responses of Osima bin Laden and Al Qaeda themselves as much as from the evidence gathered, that the United States was correct in identifying them as standing behind this massacre. It is also clear that the Taleban regime in Afghanistan has sheltered bin Laden’s terror organization. Although many details are still uncertain, there is no longer much cause to doubt these two principal facts. Hence in terms of traditional international thinking, and law, this was an act of aggression and there is a prima facie case that the United States has acted in self-defence in attacking these enemies.

Moreover, the United States and United Kingdom have distinguished themselves from the terrorists in that their counterattack on Afghanistan has been directed primarily against military targets and has caused civilian casualties only indirectly and by mistake. Again, by traditional international standards for the conduct of war, this could qualify their methods of war as just.

I say none of this out of any love for Mr Bush, but because I don’t think it helps opposition to the war either to minimise the crimes committed in New York and Washington or to exaggerate the wrongfulness of what is being done in Afghanistan. Bush may have been forced by the necessities of alliance to mostly confine his military campaign to Afghanistan. He has even tossed in Blair-style humanitarian gestures. Bush is not fighting an old-style total war with weapons of mass destruction, but the new type of relatively high-precision, relatively low-casualty, media-conscious conflict that has been practised in the Gulf and Kosovo.

That word relatively covers, of course, a multitude of sins. Despite the smallish numbers of civilians directly killed, despite the humanitarian parcels dropped haphazardly across the hillsides, everyone knows that the lives of millions of very poor people will have been badly disrupted, in some cases fatally. Whether or not the war is legal, there is something profoundly disgusting about military planners in their Pentagon offices coldly, even if accidentally, incinerating a whole village in eastern Afghanistan. There is something very smug about British politicians sitting in TV studios and implying that so long as the civilian death tally is less than September 11th, then everything’s OK. Does it really honour the office workers who died in New York and Washington to kill innocent shepherds in their names? Is this really justice for the victims of September 11th?

But then there is little to suggest that President Bush has ever been seriously interested in justice. The politics of Bush’s war are, in my view, fundamentally reactionary. The war is an old-politics response to a new-politics problem. Global terrorism is an issue of the new globalised world of transnational networks – not the old world of nation-states. It dramatises its cause through gruesomely spectacular media displays that owe more to Hollywood than realpolitik. This terrorism can be weakened and contained by determined political, policing and legal measures. Its mass support can be reduced, by addressing the kinds of world political and social inequalities to which earlier speakers have referred. But it cannot be ‘defeated’ by a military campaign. Everyone who watched bin Laden’s video knows that Bush’s war will bring thousands of new recruits to his cause.

War was not the only possible response to September 11. Terrorists have never inflicted on Britain the scale of attacks that New York suffered. But even Margaret Thatcher, after she was personally bombed in Brighton, never bombed Fermanagh and Tyrone in response. It is very difficult to imagine any Western European state acting as America has done. For all its high-tech accuracy and humanitarian extras, this is a brutal response closer in kind to the Russian war in Chechnya than to a world politics based on democracy and justice.

Better methods are to hand. Serbian, Croatian and Rwandan leaders have been brought to justice for genocide, crimes of humanity and war crimes, in the two international tribunals established by the United Nations in the 1990s. And now there is a permanent body to do this job. Three years ago most of the world’s states, including a reluctant America, agreed to set up an International Criminal Court to try such criminals. But by 11 September only 41 nations had ratified the treaty setting up the world court, but its jurisdiction required 60 signatures to be operative.

Imagine the effect if George W. Bush had marched together with Rudy Giuliani and the firemen from Ground Zero to the UN headquarters on the East Side, and there had announced: ‘My administration will this week make America the 42nd state to ratify the world court. All I ask is 18 other nations to follow suit by the end of the month, so that the court can begin work. And I demand that the Security Council today establish a special tribunal and investigative branch to combat terrorism, the work of this tribunal to be taken over in due course by the permanent court.’

This would have been a powerful and enduring symbol of the global commitment to defeat terror. With America’s drive behind it, it is not too much to think that bin Laden, like Slobodan Milosevic, could eventually have been brought to justice. Unlike the bombing of Afghanistan this course would have had unquestionable global legitimacy. It would have required less cosying up to authoritarian rulers in Moscow, Beijing and Islamabad. And it would have been much more difficult to whip up anti-Western feeling on the streets from Gaza to Jakarta.

It would be nice to think that this is what we would have demanded, had the massacres taken place in London and Brighton not Washington and New York. Ironically, in the last month Britain has become the 42nd state to ratify the world court – a piece of good news that also got submerged. But the other 18 are still lacking. And although Bush talks of justice, he wants Bin Laden ‘dead or alive’. His kind of justice is more Wild West than world court.

The best way to challenge this war, then, is to demand that terror criminals are brought to global justice. We must draw strength from the traditions of human rights, democracy and justice – including social justice – that are the West’s best contributions to global society. We must beware of the dead-end variety of anti-war politics that denigrates all things Western, including international legal institutions. This kind of left-wing fundamentalism is the mirror image of Bush’s own reactionary response.

Let me make a final set of comments about the developing situation that draws on my own research on the Gulf War and its aftermath – the nearest precedent for the present situation. Then too, much of the European centre-left and left opposed the war. They focused most of their efforts on preventing any extension of the military campaign or any broadening of war aims. When the then President Bush called a halt with the liberation of Kuwait, the anti-war movement breathed a sigh of relief.

On the ground in Iraq, however, this was the very moment when people rose up against Saddam Hussein. American troops were so close that they could hear the Iraqi Republican Guard massacring the Shi’ite rebels in the city of Basra. But they did not intervene to save them. And back home in Britain and the US, hardly any anti-war protestors raised their voices to demand that the West protect these courageous people on the sharp end of a murderous army. The rebels’ defeat sealed the stalemate in Iraq that has impoverished that society and poisoned world politics to this day.

I mention this because, while it may seem fine for us to stand back from the war, the Afghan people, like the Iraqis in 1991, have no such luxury. Whether we like it or not, for them the war is a fact. The bombing and the intervention have already had big consequences – certainly sharpening the food crisis, maybe toppling the repressive Taliban regime. At some point soon, American and British troops may actually be on the ground in Afghanistan.

In this situation, the Afghan people deserve more than to become our latest propaganda tool against America. They deserve real concern for their actual and changing situation. We should demand proper food aid for the weak and starving. We should demand support for democratic forces against warlords of all kinds. We should demand that America and Britain, having got themselves into Afghanistan, take responsibility for the social and political crises that their war has brought to a head.

In short, this is a bad and unnecessary war, but it is not enough to be AGAINST the war. We must also be FOR the victims, all of them. And that means justice as well as peace.

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