Posts Tagged ‘globalisation’

Loud thunder, little rain: China’s new leaders target corruption

by Kenneth Chern

China’s new leaders are aware of the danger that corruption poses to the nation’s social stability and economic development.

But entrenched corruption at the local and national levels, including among the families and friends of those very leaders, will make it difficult for them to break the link between money and power that frustrates the masses but sustains the power of a Communist Party that long ago abandoned political belief for economic gain.

A 2007 report of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace by Minxin Pei called the level of Chinese corruption “astonishing,” noting that it cost $US86 billion a year, more than China’s annual education budget. Things have not gotten any better. The Bo Xilai affair – Bo’s wiretapping of other top Chinese leaders, his son’s privileged lifestyle abroad, and his wife’s murder conviction — was but the most lurid case of rampant corruption that has shaken the trust of the Chinese people in their government.

Other high-profile cases have left the public seething: the melamine-laced milk that poisoned hundreds of infants; the Wenchuan earthquake that toppled “tofu schoolhouses” onto pupils while government buildings stood firm; the bullet train crash in Wenzhou that disgraced railway czar Liu Zhijun; and the sale by Wukan officials of prized farmland to real estate developers that triggered villager demonstrations and violence.

In his speech to the 18th Party Congress last week, outgoing President Hu Jintao stressed the need to fight corruption, warning that if the issue is not addressed, “it could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.” Significantly, he warned leading officials to “strengthen education and discipline over their family and staff.” Along the same lines, incoming Party general secretary Xi Jinping in 2004 instructed, “Rein in your spouses, children, relatives, friends and staff, and vow not to use power for personal gain.”

But Chinese leaders have made similar warnings for years without making serious headway. That’s because of what Kenneth Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution terms the “marriage of wealth and political power” which supports an economic strategy based on rewards to local officials for “producing rapid GDP growth while keeping a lid on social unrest.” Put another way, the breakneck speed of Chinese economic development provides wealth that is distributed as patronage and provides support for the Party’s continued political monopoly. And campaigns against corruption evoke the Chinese proverb, “Loud thunder, little rain.”

More specifically, Minxin Pei cites two characteristics of corruption — the corruption of local state institutions through the purchase and sale of government appointments, and “collusion among local ruling elites” or “groups of local officials who cooperate and protect each other.” These practices drain the economy and feed public cynicism but they nurture the political and economic ambitions of entrepreneurs and government officials who thrive in a poorly defined regulatory and policy environment.

This is the social context in which Chinese leaders and their families operate, which is why the calls of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping for discipline of families and staff is so interesting. Politicians, their relatives, staff, and friends use their political clout to build businesses and line their pockets. The average wealth of the richest 70 members of the National People’s Congress in 2011 was over US$1 billion. China’s central bank reportedly has evidence that up to 18,000 officials and employees of state-owned firms have fled China since the mid-1990s, taking $127 billion with them.

And recent reports have shown how relatives of top Chinese officials have grown wealthy. Xi himself reportedly has sisters and brothers-in-law with “huge interests in China’s real estate, minerals and telecommunications sectors.” And the family of Premier Wen Jiabao, perhaps the strongest reform advocate of all China’s top leaders, has been reported by the New York Times to have US$2.7 billion in wealth.

The reality is that Chinese leaders, even those who call for (and may sincerely believe in) reform and a crackdown on corruption, find themselves in a social web of political influence and enrichment that sustains the status quo. That reality will make it just as hard for the new leaders as it was for their predecessors to make a serious tilt at corruption.

Corruption and influence peddling are as old as the Chinese nation, and as old as human history. What is new is the demand of poor farmers, workers, and China’s growing middle class for a level playing field and a fairer chance for opportunity. Growing social tensions and environmental stresses make the current system unsustainable for the long term.

How Ji Xinping and the new Politburo meet that test will determine history’s verdict on whether they are authentic leaders with the courage to take the needed steps for the common good of the Chinese people and the welfare of the Chinese nation.

Kenneth Chern is Professor of Asian Policy at the Swinburne University of Technology and Executive Director of the Swinburne Leadership Institute.

This article was first published at www.theconversation.edu.au

 

Besides being scientifically illiterate, why does Abbot place so much importance on acquiring a foreign tongue?

“Mr Abbott’s goals for Australia’s linguistic future can be achieved only with the express support of state leaders, who must mandate the study of at least one language other than English for all students from Year 4/5 to Year 10.” And “The Leader of the Opposition’s proposal to have 40% of Year 12 students learning a foreign language within a decade is seriously intelligent policy.” Fiona Mueller

More seriously unintelligent thinking from Tony Abbot?

Our children’s study time is limited. What they learn before they move out of the education system and into the rest of their lives is crucial. The most successful people are those who are comfortable with their own existence. We have a responsibility to shape the minds of the young when it is most plastic in a way which will enhance their chances of being at ease with their own existence. In other words, we must ensure that they have the necessary life-philosophy.

In the matter of language, John McCrone, author of The Ape that Spoke,has something of far more substance to say than has Tony Abbot:

We arrive in the world with the naked brain of an animal and through the moulding power of speech, we become equipped with the thought habits which make us human.

What makes us human! Contemplations at that level are seriously intelligent thinking.

Tony Abbot has studied Latin and Ancient Greek. An interesting and probably enjoyable mental exercise, but it did nothing to warn him against making bizarre statements regarding climate change and the national optic fibre rollout.

Besides being scientifically illiterate, why does Abbot place so much importance on acquiring a foreign tongue? It’s the global market place he sees where riches beckon. But the evolution of differing languages was never a barrier to the spread of ideas. In the 21st century, this has never been truer.

Setting the right priorities

In my final two years at school, the question as to what use was a BA majoring in a language going to be to anyone was occasionally asked. The stock answer was that it might lead to a career in the diplomatic service. The clear message was that learning a foreign language was not the means to the making of a living to aim for.

Today the focus is no longer on doing business with Britain. We are on the world stage and, if you can speak  Chinese, a company which does business with China could use you.

However, in the bigger picture, I cannot see much urgency in learning Chinese or Japanese when public signage in China and Japan is becoming bilingual – with that second language being our native tongue. English is the first language of India’s middle class. Indonesia is doing what the rest of South East Asia has been doing for years – which is to use English as the language to do business in. So, why not just sit back and wait for the rest of the word to learn to speak the way we already can?

Besides, English is the world language of science and technology – and that is what really matters.

How important is knowing why we are who we are?

Such knowledge has become increasingly important as society became less religious. Religion built a deep structure into our lives. It was the reference point. It was where we touched base. Scientific revelation can now fulfil this role. An awareness of the process of the acquisition of language is an example.

“Astonishing” hardly seems to be the appropriate word to describe the acquisition of language. At two and one half years my grand-daughter was putting sentences of three or four words together, but her words were difficult to understand. At age five she can now express simple ideas.

While others thought her way of speaking as being cute, as a reader of the new books of revelation, I saw the wonder in it. I was aware that I was observing the results of the neural networks in her speech centres being steadily hardwired – seemingly by the week. This was not cute. This was awesome.

The brain cells of my grand-daughter function very similarly to those of a fish and the structure of her brain is almost the same as an ape. It is social contact which is accelerating the growth and abilities of her frontal cortex in a feedback with the developing speech centres in her brain.

René  Descartes famously said: “I think – therefore I am.” Could Descartes think without using words? No, he could not. You might say that you are not thinking in words about what you are doing when you are driving (e.g. you don’t have to say: “I now have to turn the steering wheel to turn around that corner.”) However, when learning to drive, then talking to yourself is what you did. Now the network of brain cells that was constructed by words holds the program enabling you to drive.

If Descartes was alive today he would be saying: “I speak – therefore I am.”

Abbot fails to see wealth where it really is

The humanities people fear that an increasing emphasis on science and mathematics will desensitise the young mind to the feeling side of human nature – the side which enjoys poetry and music. It would be a very rare scientist who does not have a keen (even passionate) interest in some aspect of life outside of science. And science tells the  human side of history which the history of nations our children study does not.

Imagine a camp fire scene of 50,000 years ago. Those huddled together from the cold and staring into the light are making many sounds that those of 50,000 years earlier were not making. The sounds we now call words are connected into strings we now call sentences. The strings are very short. Linking the names of objects we now call nouns there are action words we now call verbs. The human ear is ready for many more differing words and the human tongue and larynx ready to utter many more differing words. Words we now call adjectives will be added. This will occur around camp fires in the millennia ahead when ideas of increasing complexity will be exchanged and entertaining stories told.

In the above scene stretched over millennia the most important series of events in the history of the planet is occurring. The software and the hardware are developing each other in the brains of our ancestors. One day that brain being shaped around campfires will be composing symphonies, designing 100-story buildings, replacing defunct human organs sending probes to the edge of the solar system.

Science tells other stories which remind us of the other life forms who we should be unselfishly sharing the planet with and not destroying in the pursuit of economic growth. To regain the spiritual that religion once provided, there is a lot to learn from the new books of revelation.

Our children do not have the time to be distracted by Tony Abbot’s interpretation of enlightenment. We don’t need 40% of our senior students ploughing through text books and sitting for exams in some foreign tongue because some politicians believe we need a sales advantage in the world market place more than we need the holistic and nourishing life-philosophy that scientific revelation is waiting there to give all who show an interest in receiving it.

Brian Holden has been retired since 1988. He advises that if you can keep physically and mentally active, retirement can be the best time of your life.

This article was first published online at Online Opinion

You talkin’ to me? Gerry Harvey’s one-man, online retail debate

Gerry Harvey is great media talent. When I first became interested in online retail, I almost immediately became interested in Gerry.

As far back as 2000, Gerry told ninemsn on a live chat forum “that most of the online business will be conducted by traditional retailers and that over 90% of the e-retailers will in fact all go out of business one after the other”.

In 2008, he famously told Smart Company that online retailing “is a complete waste of time”. During his short-lived campaign to have GST applied to all goods bought by Australians from overseas websites he said that online retail was “escalating to proportions that are quite unbelievable” and was threatening to put scores of retailers out of business.

By June 2011, he was sanguine: “We find people will order smaller things online, but for bigger items they’ll mostly come to the store, go home and order online”.

You might think this was Gerry changing his mind over time about the implications of online retail. But then I saw this interview on Lateline. If current affairs television consistently reached this level of rollicking entertainment, I would watch it a lot more often.

Gerry came across as a more avuncular and amusing version of Queensland’s late Joh Bjelke-Petersen. It became obvious watching this interview that there was no evolution to Gerry’s opinions on online retail – he held them all simultaneously.

There’s a popular line of thought that Gerry is a dinosaur, a man out of time who doesn’t get the internet. On the contrary, I think that there a lot of people who don’t get Gerry, or perhaps his business, and its complicated relationship with online retail.

When Gerry talks about the internet he is addressing at least two very different audiences. The first is the investment community who want to know that Harvey Norman has a digital strategy, understands “omnichannelling” and is forward focused.

The second are Gerry’s army of franchisees who want to hear that someday this war will be over. All of Harvey Norman’s Australian stores operate as franchises, aside from the recently acquired Clive Peeters and Rick Hart outlets. In the last financial year, franchisee sales revenue fell by 2% and the fees Harvey Norman Holdings received from their franchisees fell 5%.

Gerry has to walk a tightrope – being seen to embrace or at least understand online retailing while convincing his franchisees that the internet is not going to destroy their livelihood.

The franchisee structure makes it incredibly difficult for Harvey Norman to wholeheartedly embrace online retail. This underscores a very important point about the internet. It’s a disruptive technology. For a lot of businesses, it is not simply a matter of adding another channel. The landscape will change so much that a new business or business model is required. This is something that Fairfax Media and News Limited know only too well.

When Gerry talks about online retailing, most people think they are listening to a retailer. But Harvey Norman is also a major retail property owner and developer. It owns 74 sites across Australia and has a $2 billion property portfolio that includes properties in New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore and Slovenia.

For retail property owners, online retail is not such a good thing. The investors who want to hear that Harvey Norman has a digital strategy also need to hear that the internet is not going to devalue its retail property portfolio. This is a tricky message to sell.

The strategy of banks and other businesses in the 90s and 2000s to divest themselves of property now looks very sensible. Australian banks have wholeheartedly embraced the internet and their customers have in turn embraced online banking. Banks may be affected by other people’s commercial property devaluing, but mostly they don’t have to worry about their own.

Online retail promises or threatens to greatly change how Australians buy and sell over the next few years. However it works out, I hope that Gerry Harvey is around a fair bit longer, saying things to provoke and amuse us.

Anybody who tells us omni-channelling, a glib and ugly expression if ever there was one, is “bullshit”, deserves an audience.

Scott Ewing is a Senior Research Fellow – The Swinburne Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University of Technology.

This article was original published online at The Conversation

 

The Far Right Takes Root in Europe

by Mariano Aguirre
 
Anders Behring Breivik’s attacks are part of a worrying trend in Europe: the far right’s rise within mainstream politics.

 
The bloodthirsty attacks perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway on July 22 last year (leaving 77 dead) provided a brutal awakening for all those in Europe who had been passively observing the rise of the Islamophobic far right. As the trial opens, around thirty political parties that openly call for a “pure European identity” are effectively in the process of consolidating their parliamentary positions (occasionally even signing agreements with mainstream right wing parties, as is the case in the Netherlands), and are claiming an ever greater media presence.

 These parties, following the example of the Nordic Forum, are adept at using new technology and social networks, which gives them an even greater platform to spread their messages of hate and bolster their national and international alliances. 

Those responsible for this noxious propaganda always hide behind the principle of freedom of expression, and, when they are criticised for the speeches they deliver encouraging the Breiviks of the future, they assert that the carnage perpetrated by this “lone wolf” has nothing to do with the climate that they have helped to create. Indeed, they present themselves as victims that are being suppressed. They make out that Europe will ultimately lose its “Christian identity”. These demagogues are active both inside and outside the electoral system: just as they have an elected presence in the parliaments, on the other hand they endlessly criticise democracies, accusing them of being far too liberal on the issue of immigration.

The European far right is seduced by the fantasy of a “pure” Europe as opposed to a real Europe, which is in fact successfully diversified. Like Anders Behring Breivik, thousands of individuals that haunt websites and blogs (Gates of Vienna, Brussels Journal), organisations such as the English Defence League, Platform per Catalunya, or Militia Christi, as well as religious leaders are all actively preparing fertile ground for the growth of extremism. 

A study at the University of Nottingham undertaken for Chatham House by Matthew Goodwin demonstrates that extremist parties are primarily characterised by their visceral opposition to immigration (particularly Muslim immigration), to ethnic diversity, and finally to multiculturalism, alongside social behaviours that they consider to be a great danger to Europe. 

Further, they think that mainstream political parties are far too “soft” in their responses to the issues surrounding immigration. Another study, by Elisabeth Ivarsflaten , shows that populist parties have always had their greatest electoral successes after integrating a strong anti-immigration strand into their speeches and manifestos. 

These “new” populists carefully avoid the usual racist and anti-Semitic discourse, and prefer to position their stance more subtly, around questions of culture and identity. Paradoxically, they claim two conflicting identities: Christian through their recognition of a mythological European past, and secular in their fight against Islam. 

They fight “Marxist” politicians, or those that are too liberal. It’s with this in mind that Anders Behring Breivik attacked the government buildings in Oslo and subsequently the summer camp of young labour party activists on Utøya island. They are generally pro-American, have close working relationships with the far right in the United States, and consider Israel to be a defensive western bulwark against Islam. During times of crisis they also use the argument of the welfare state to justify themselves: they contend that immigrants are stealing jobs and scamming the welfare state, in particular social security, as they have many more children than the European average, and so on. 

In his manifesto – a vast copy and paste job of the greatest hits of extremist ideas – Anders Behring Breivik opposed the welfare state and a pluralistic hegemonic identity. “European societies” he wrote “must be able to rely on a solid social cohesion, which can only really exist in a monocultural system where everyone has complete confidence in one another.”

Goodwin’s study reveals that the majority of those who vote for populist parties come from a modest background or the middle classes. They are also often small business owners or farmers afraid of drastic economic and social change. “Market globalisation and economic deregulation have hurled the planet into an era of uncertainty which is inevitably provoking fear” reminds Javier de Lucas, professor at the University of Valencia. To this, the extreme right counters with a riposte made up of simplistic formulas, and lays responsibility for the all the economic and social woes on “the politicians”, “leftists” and immigrants. 

As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek concludes: “The only way to introduce passion into this kind of politics, the only way to actively mobilise people, is through fear: the fear of immigrants, the fear of crime…”

Timid counter-offensives 

Moderate politicians remain relatively impotent in the face of attacks from the far right, and when they attempt a riposte, they do so in a contradictory fashion: centre-left parties – to avoid losing a public that is sensitive to these issues – willingly revisit the pet subjects of the far right, in particular immigration. In fact, Europe is imposing ever more restrictive policies to limit the right to asylum and inward migratory flow, while at the same time political parties are lauding “greater tolerance” towards foreigners. The reality is that xenophobic sentiments are on the rise, and immigrant Muslim populations and their culture are being increasingly rejected. 

If Europe wants to sustain growth, then it will need to open the door wide to immigration. However, this argument does not succeed in halting the advance of Islamophobia. “There is something that worries me far more than the growth of the far right at the 2010 ballot, explains Thomas Hammarberg , Commissioner for Human Rights at the European Council:

“and that is the profound inertia and above all confusion that seems to reign amongst moderate democratic parties of both the left and right. One even has the impression that these parties have come to accept the narrative of hatred and that this unencumbered xenophobia has been integrated into the political discourse as though it were something quite ordinary: their leaders have totally failed to check this rise in Islamophobia.”

Leading media outlets have opened the debate, keeping centrally in their sights the fact that a major segment of their audience is sliding steadily, at least electorally speaking, towards the populist right. Meanwhile new ultra-nationalist media outlets are appearing on the media landscape, just as they have in the UnitedStates , along with thousands of websites and books, which for the most part, have been able to find a place in the unfolding discussions as though they were serious political institutions. 

It is thus that the British essayist Bat Yeor, using her real name Gisele Littman-Orebi, invented the famous Euro-Arabian axis (or Eurabia), abundantly referenced by Breivik in his manifesto, and in which Europe will sooner or later be conquered by Muslims. The author explains that Jews and Christians will be subjected to Islamic law. 

“Today, freedom of speech is complete and the essence of what is published is neither edited nor censored,” comments Sindre Bangstad, a teacher at the University of Oslo.

“Islamophobic discourse can spread much more easily than before. In this context, outlandish opinions like those held by Breivik are barely discernible from those found on some social networks, and sometimes even in the mainstream media in Norway…” 

Nevertheless, dangerous agitators are by no means all paranoid and bloodthirsty madmen. The highly respectable German social-democrat economist Thilo Sarrazin published a book in 2010 in which he very seriously explained that his country will become more and more impoverished and lose its identity as well as its potential, because Turkish and Arab immigrants possess a lower IQ. He maintains that his ideas are supported by a third of Germans who believe that the state should limit immigration and the practice of Islam. In October 2010 Angela Merkel declared, “Multiculturalism has failed”. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, said exactly the same thing a few days later. In September 2011, the German National Democratic Party (NDP) gained 6% of the vote in the Mecklenburg-West Pomeranian parliament, an unprecedented result in that country. 

On the question of immigration, centre-left parties have two options: ‘integration’ or ‘assimilation’. The concept of assimilation has suffused political discourse since the 1980s: it suggests that immigrants must adapt to ‘our’ society and renounce all or part of their religion, culture or traditions. ‘Integration’, for its part, allows ‘new citizens’ to keep their idiosyncrasies, as have all prior immigrant groups for that matter. In its modern sense, integration expects a mutual attempt to adapt and notably, the acceptance of the welcoming country of the religion of those that it is seeking to welcome. 

Attempts to make religious symbols disappear from public spaces (minarets, burkhas, veils, mosques…) are more and more vocal, Olivier Roy noted in 2009 in ‘L’Islam en Europe, une religion qui doit être traitée comme les autres’, pointing out that Europe wanted to have immigrants working here, but wanted them to be invisible. 

In a general sense, both strategies have failed. Immigrant communities have more of a tendency to isolate themselves to avoid being assimilated. They often feel discriminated against, and the societies that are hosting them don’t feel the need to change anything at all to accommodate them since they consider the immigrants to be an undifferentiated and fragmented external group. In Germany, after forty years of communal living, Turkish and German populations still only know very little about each other. It’s a paradox.

Goodwin’s study has also dug up worrying results regarding the political response to the extreme right in general. Since political parties became ‘electoral machines’, populist parties have been fully exploiting their ability to directly address the electorate and respond to their concerns about immigration, which the other parties do not do. 

Are we ready to abandon our community-based approaches in order to adopt a multi-strand citizenry founded on fundamental shared norms and values? 

“European society in its plurality is collectively responsible,” explains Javier De Lucas. “We need to teach our societies to accept an evolution towards a multicultural world and to negotiate this change successfully. Unfortunately however, society is not moving. It is not very motivated, and very restrictive migratory politics are sending contrary signals: without negotiation, a desire to change, to evolve, the unilateral integration project of immigrant populations is doomed to fail.”

Mariano Aguirre is the director of the Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre (Noref) in Oslo

Translated by Tristan Summerscale. This article was originally published in French in Le Monde Diplomatique on March 10, 2012. 

 

The WikiLeaks War Logs Don’t Show Rare War Crimes–They Show The (Legal) Reality of War

by Chase Madar
 
The real problem with the laws of war is not what they fail to restrain but what they authorize.

Anyone who would like to witness a vivid example of modern warfare that adheres to the laws of war — that corpus of regulations developed painstakingly over centuries by jurists, humanitarians, and soldiers, a body of rules that is now an essential, institutionalized part of the U.S. armed forces and indeed all modern militaries — should simply click here and watch the video.

Wait a minute: that’s the WikiLeaks “Collateral Murder” video!  The gunsight view of an Apache helicopter opening fire from half a mile high on a crowd of Iraqis — a few armed men, but mostly unarmed civilians, including a couple of Reuters employees — as they unsuspectingly walked the streets of a Baghdad suburb one July day in 2007. 

Watch, if you can bear it, as the helicopter crew blows people away, killing at least a dozen of them, and taking good care to wipe out the wounded as they try to crawl to safety.  (You can also hear the helicopter crew making wisecracks throughout.) When a van comes on the scene to tend to the survivors, the Apache gunship opens fire on it too, killing a few more and wounding two small children.

The slaughter captured in this short film, the most virally sensational of WikiLeaks’ disclosures, was widely condemned as an atrocity worldwide, and many pundits quickly labeled it a “war crime” for good measure.

But was this massacre really a “war crime” — or just plain-old regular war?  The question is anything but a word-game. It is, in fact, far from clear that this act, though plainly atrocious and horrific, was a violation of the laws of war.  Some have argued that the slaughter, if legal, was therefore justified and, though certainly unfortunate, no big deal. But it is possible to draw a starkly different conclusion: that the “legality” of this act is an indictment of the laws of war as we know them.

The reaction of professional humanitarians to the gun-sight video was muted, to say the least.  The big three human rights organizations — Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, and Human Rights First — responded not with position papers and furious press releases but with silence.  HRW omitted any mention of it in its report on human rights and war crimes in Iraq, published nearly a year after the video’s release.  Amnesty also kept mum.  Gabor Rona, legal director of Human Rights First, told me there wasn’t enough evidence to ascertain whether the laws of war had been violated, and that his organization had no Freedom of Information Act requests underway to uncover new evidence on the matter.

This collective non-response, it should be stressed, is not because these humanitarian groups, which do much valuable work, are cowardly or “sell-outs.”  The reason is: all three human rights groups, like human rights doctrine itself, are primarily concerned with questions of legality.  And quite simply, as atrocious as the event was, there was no clear violation of the laws of war to provide a toehold for the professional humanitarians.

The human rights industry is hardly alone in finding the event disturbing but in conformance with the laws of war.  As Professor Gary Solis, a leading expert and author of a standard text on those laws, told Scott Horton of Harper’s Magazine, “I believe it unlikely that a neutral and detached investigator would conclude that the helicopter personnel violated the laws of armed conflict.  Legal guilt does not always accompany innocent death.”  It bears noting that Gary Solis is no neocon ultra.  A scholar who has taught at the London School of Economics and Georgetown, he is the author of a standard textbook on the subject, and was an unflinching critic of the Bush-Cheney administration.

War and International “Humanitarian” Law

“International humanitarian law,” or IHL, is the trying-too-hard euphemism for the laws of war.  And as it happens, IHL turns out to be less concerned with restraining military violence than licensing it.  As applied to America’s recent wars, this body of law turns out to be wonderfully accommodating when it comes to the prerogatives of an occupying army.

Here’s another recent example of a wartime atrocity that is perfectly legal and not a war crime at all. Thanks to WikiLeaks’ Iraq War Logs, we now know about the commonplace torture practices employed by Iraqi jailers and interrogators during our invasion and occupation of that country.  We have clear U.S. military documentation of sexual torture, of amputated fingers and limbs, of beatings so severe they regularly resulted in death.

Surely standing by and taking careful notes while the Iraqi people you have supposedly liberated from tyranny are getting tortured, sometimes to death, is a violation of the laws of war.  After all, in 2005 General Peter Pace, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly contradicted his boss Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld by commenting into a live mike that it is “absolutely the responsibility of every American soldier to stop torture whenever and wherever they see it.” (A young private working in Army Intelligence named Bradley Manning, learning that a group of Iraqi civilians handing out pamphlets alleging government corruption had been detained by the Iraqi federal police, raised his concern with his commanding officer about their possible torture.  He was reportedly told him to shut up and get back to work helping the authorities find more detainees.)

As it turned out, General Pace’s exhortation was at odds with both official policy and law: Fragmentary Order 242, issued by Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, made it official policy for occupying U.S. troops not to interfere with ongoing Iraqi torture.  And this, according to some experts, is no violation of the laws of war either. Prolix on the limits imposed on the acts of non-state fighters who are not part of modern armies, the Geneva Conventions are remarkably reticent on the duties of occupying armies.  

As Gary Solis pointed out to me, Common Article 1 of the Fourth Geneva Convention assigns only a vague obligation to “ensure respect” for prisoners handed over to a third party.  On the ground in either Iraq or Afghanistan, this string of words would prove a less-than-meaningful constraint.

Part of the problem is that the laws of war that aspire to restrain deadly force are often weakly enforced and routinely violated. Ethan McCord, the American soldier who saved the two wounded children from that van in the helicopter video, remembers one set of instructions he received from his battalion commander: “Anytime your convoy gets hit by an IED, I want 360 degree rotational fire.  You kill every [expletive] in the street!”  (“That order,” David Glazier, a jurist at the National Institute for Military Justice, told me, “is absolutely a war crime.”)  In other words, the rules of engagement that are supposed to constrain occupying troops in places like Afghanistan and Iraq are, according to many scholars and investigators, often belittled and ignored.

Legalized Atrocity

The real problem with the laws of war, however, is not what they fail to restrain but what they authorize.  The primary function of International Humanitarian Law is to legalize remarkable levels of “good” military violence that regularly kill and injure non-combatants.  IHL highlights a handful of key principles: the distinction between combatant and civilian, the obligation to use force only for military necessity, and the duty to jeopardize civilians only in proportion to the military value of a target.

Even when these principles are applied conscientiously — and often they aren’t — they still allow for remarkable levels of civilian carnage, which the Pentagon has long primly (and conveniently) referred to as “collateral damage,” as if it were a sad sideline in the prosecution of war.  And yet civilian deaths in modern war regularly are the central aspect of those wars, both statistically and in other ways.  Far from being universally proscribed, the killing of high numbers of civilians in a battle zone is often considered absolutely legal under those laws.  In the pungent phrase of Professor David Kennedy of Harvard Law School, “We should be clear — this bold new vocabulary beats ploughshares into swords as often as the reverse.”

The relative weakness of the laws of war when it comes to preventing atrocities is not simply some recent debasement perpetrated by neoconservative Visigoths.  Privileging the combatant and his (it’s usually “his”) prerogatives has been the historical bone marrow of those laws.  In the Vietnam War, for instance, the declaration of significant parts of the South Vietnamese countryside as “free-fire zones,” and the “carpet bombing” of rural areas by B-52s carrying massive payloads were also done under cover of the laws of war.

IHL has certainly changed in some respects.  A century ago, the discourse around the laws of war was far more candid than today.  Jurists once regularly referred to “non-uniformed unprivileged combatants” simply as “savages” and the consensus view in mainstream scholarly journals of international law was that a modern army could do whatever it wanted to such obstreperous, lawless people (especially, of course, in what was still then the colonial world).  On the whole, the history of IHL is a long record of codifying the privileges of the powerful against lesser threats like civilians and colonial subjects resisting invasion.

Even though the laws of war have usually been one more weapon of the strong against the weak, a great deal of their particular brand of legalism has seeped into antiwar discourse. One of the key talking points for many arguing against the invasion of Iraq was that it was illegal — and that was certainly true.  But was the failure to procure a permission slip from the United Nations really the main problem with this calamitous act of violence?  Would U.N. authorization really have redeemed any of it?  There is also a growing faith that war can be domesticated under a relatively new rubric, “humanitarian intervention,” which purports to apply military violence in precise and therapeutic dosages, all strictly governed by international humanitarian law.

Here is where the WikiLeaks disclosures were so revealing.  They remind us, once again, that the humanitarian dream of “clean warfare” — military violence that is smoothly regulated by laws that spare civilians — is usually a sick joke.  We need to wean ourselves from the false comfort that the law is always on the side of civilians.  We need to scrap our tendency to assume that international law is inherently virtuous, and that anything that shocks our conscience — that helicopter video or widespread torture in Iraq under the noses of U.S. soldiers — must be a violation of this system, rather than its logical and predictable consequence.

Let’s be clear: what killed the civilians walking the streets of Baghdad that day in 2007 was not “war crimes,” but war.  And that holds for so many thousands of other Afghan and Iraqi civilians killed by drone strikes, air strikes, night raids, convoys, and nervous checkpoint guards as well.

Regulatory Capture

Who, after all, writes the laws of war?  Just as the regulations that govern the pharmaceutical and airline industries are often gamed by large corporations with their phalanxes of lobbyists, the laws of war are also vulnerable to “regulatory capture” by the great powers under their supposed rule. Keep in mind, for instance, that the Pentagon employs 10,000 lawyers and that its junior partner in foreign policy making, the State Department, has a few hundred more.  Should we be surprised if in-house lawyers can sort out “legal” ways not to let those laws of war get in the way of the global ambitions of a superpower?

It’s only fair that the last words on the laws of war go to Private Bradley Manning, now sitting in a prison cell in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, awaiting court-martial for allegedly passing troves of classified material to WikiLeaks, documents that offer the unvarnished truth about the Afghan War, the Iraq War, and Guantánamo.  They are taken from the instant-message chatlogs he wrote under the handle of “bradass87” to the informant who turned him in.  The young private saw very clearly what so many professors and generals take pains to deny: that the primary function of the laws of war is not to restrain violence, but to justify it, often with the greatest lawyerly ingenuity.

(02:27:47 PM) bradass87: i mean, we’re better in some respects… we’re much more subtle… use a lot more words and legal techniques to legitimize everything…

(02:28:19 PM) bradass87: but just because something is more subtle, doesn’t make it right

 

Chase Madar, is the author of a new book, The Passion of Bradley Manning (OR Books), is a lawyer in New York.   Madar tweets @ChMadar
 
First published at AlterNet.org

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