Democracy Vs Geneva Conventions

June 6, 2012 at 5:33 pm (tWP) (, , , , , , , , , )

It would seem a natural consequence of our belief system that the more egalitarian political system should go hand in hand with the most humane legislation but it may very well be the opposite, the Geneva Conventions may be fundamentally incompatible with a democratic system.

Interestingly, of the 12 original signatories of the first Geneva articles on conduct in armed conflicts, Baden France, Hesse and Prussia were not democracies. Belgium was a democracy on paper but an oligarchy in practice and so was Italy Spain and Portugal. Most importantly the political regime is not mentioned in the Conventions and seemed of little or no importance to the original signatories which should take us to the obvious conclusion that coming out of a Westphalian order, the agreement was between states and not regimes.

This is an essential fact given that according to Clausewitz war is a continuation of politics by other means, while the sacrosanctness of the physical integrity of civilians in armed conflict can only be preserved if they are dispossessed of political power and are therefore ‘innocent’ to the political process in question.

The term ‘innocent’ is important as it is supposed to signify the opposite of ‘sinful’ and is usually applied to individuals who are yet to either experiment sexual relations or the assassination of another human being. In political terms of course it is related to political power, meaning thus those who do not exercise it. However in liberal democracy the political system is representative which means all citizens possess political power to a greater or lesser degree.

If one were to contend representative democracy would preclude equating citizens to politicians, one has but to look at new experiments at direct democracy with referenda or online legislating and initiatives under the scope of universal jurisdiction to bring rulers who waged war to justice for not having respected UN Charter procedure. Saddam Hussein was allegedly targeted because he was the supreme commander of the Iraqi Armed Forces and not because he was part of the military. Well most heads of state/government in democracies are simultaneously commanders-in-chief.

Traditional democratic theory’s view of citizens relation to war is more like that of the Grande Armée which is why some of the most envied systems of democracy in the world still preserve mandatory military service and stockpile weapons to be distributed to reservists in emergency mobilisations. That is the case with Israel, Finland, Switzerland and others.

Why then should a terrorist not target civilians if these have the power to recall their rulers or prevent them from waging war? It is easy to argue that sanctions that target the wider population of a given country are pointless when the regime in question is a dictatorship but if said country is run by a democracy, how then to justify abstaining from collective punishment?

Russian army in Chechnya

The source of the dilemma is old and two fold: states are not regimes and Europe is not the world. As Edward Luttwak explains, terrorism is  a new phenomenon because in the days of old the army held the ‘monopoly of legitimate violence terror’. No one would challenge an army without expecting retribution and such retribution outside the battlefield was not discriminatory; it targeted insurgents and civilians alike until any challenge was bettered. In fact most invading armies would routinely eradicate an entire city when entering a foreign polity so as to discourage resistance to occupation from the others. The army was the main source of ‘order’ as well as ‘security’. The army was the main source of political legitimacy and therefore also of legitimate political violence, which granted it solely the authority to carry out ‘exemplary deterrence’.

This system became peculiar in Europe after the end of the Roman Empire. On one hand the Catholic Church held normative precedence in the whole continent and on the other the feudal system depended not on equal citizenship but rather on unequal social stratification without citizenship rights but only class duties. Harmony was achieved through a chivalrous code which instituted the obligation of feudal vassals to obey and the obligation of feudal lords to protect. In this order with no social mobility, the aristocracy was thus naturally armed both to protect and to oppress and all those of no noble birth had to be defended from other competing ‘war lords’.

This state of affairs was later extrapolated by renaissance writers into what became known in modernity as ‘sovereignty’. Max Weber ending up defining the situation of ‘monopoly of legitimate violence’ by the state. The ‘state’ emanated from Machiavellian concepts which clearly separated domestic from exogenous relationships. The prince was to have absolute power within the state but take care to relate equally to other princes. The interest of the state or raison d’état therefore translates the concerns of its political leadership and bureaucratic apparatus and only at large that of its population. The principality’s militia is to comprise all citizens but receives its orders from the prince, not the citizens.

The chivalrous definition of combatants and non-combatants thus passed into the modern age since it still made no sense to punish the individuals who had little to do with the ultimate political outcome of any military contest. Republicanism and democracy changed this forever as today citizens are an integral part of the political process and in many demagogic cases, the constant source of decision-making by popularity dependent politicians.

Rwandan refugees

In the rest of the world the masses remained unemancipated and enjoyed only nominal rights until the advent of Pax Occidentalis. In no other society did individualism go so far as to equate all the nationals’ political rights.

The next logical step in the West was then to separate uniformed individuals from non-uniformed but then we reach our contemporary problem of insurgents and terrorists who do not comply with the Geneva Conventions. Are they civilians or military? If we have to ask, the answer is given: they are not ‘innocent’; nor are for that matter the populations that sustain their political activities – Hezbollah in Lebanon being a paradigmatic example. The crux of the problem being of course non-uniformed civilian political constituencies.

The best example of this is the Rwanda genocide: the genocidaires were violating the law but they carried the control of the ‘order’ in the country, not the UN. The peacekeeping forces did have a mandate but even if that mandate had included the provision to ensure the preservation of security in the country and there had been enough peacekeepers they would have had to target ‘guilty innocent civilians’ and perhaps even have had to exercise ‘exemplary deterrence’ in order to keep the mobs away from the Tutsis as well as from themselves.

Another curiosity would be the case of the Wars of Yugoslav Secession in which this rationale may even play out more interestingly since the secessionists claimed to be acting democratically whereas the Yugoslavs/Serbs were still living under an authoritarian regime. In this case the moral authority as far as war atrocities go, would have to rest primarily with the Serbs who did not declare war nor claimed to be a liberal democracy.

Simply put, one cannot have it both ways: power encompasses responsibility and to have one without the other is a childish delusion. Humanitarian law is not compatible with democracy or any totalitarian system that equates the masses to the political decision-makers (national-socialism). The decision to apply or not the Conventions should then be taken bilaterally on a case by case basis. This would be the only way to assure a modicum of justice and proportionality in any conflict. This of course would mean that any democracy intervening abroad would have to refrain from targeting any civilians, and insurgents devoid of conventional military assets would have to voluntarily accept the new political order of the intervention forces…

This may appear absurd but it would at least be logical, fair and in the interests of both parties – maybe. The alternative is to see terrorists and insurgents get away with murder; at least according to the opinion of those who were opposed to the  targeting of Osama bin Laden.

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