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Mrs. International Humanitarian Law (IHL): The Pragmatist


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Photo taken from TheRiskyShift.com via Creative Commons

International Humanitarian Law - the Law of Armed Conflict - Laws of War… all different names for the same set of rules, put simply, regulating temperament during armed conflict. I prefer to employ the first term, as it seems to suggest a sense of intrinsic mutiny from its inception, implying an innate expectation so contradictory to the nature of the thing it is governing: war…steered and mentored by clemency.

Maybe I am wrong for imagining white-bearded men holding swords and sipping dark liquor while debating the “Laws of War” . I imagine them placing figurines atop landmarks on the map sprawled across their mahogany desk. In contrast, lowly greasy-haired aid workers holding clipboards sip bottled water and cite “International Humanitarian Law” violations while pinning red crosses and red crescents to dusty maps above their plastic desks.

Then there’s the Law of Armed Conflict; he seems to concede to the violence and watches from a distance, as if detached from its reality, objectifying its pain. He doesn’t take a stance, or speak out of turn, but rather provides a thin blanket of security to other onlookers while letting the children get the angst out of their systems, accepting the chaos that will be. Much to the contrary, International Humanitarian Law; she speaks with conviction and concedes to nothing unjust. She is assertive and principled but with an agenda, too. She embodies a tool kit that can be drawn from to fix some faulty kinks in the system of humanitarian accountability.

Yet, these are only nicknames of what I’ve come to know as the same level-tempered character. Perhaps then my jumping to conclusions regarding their wills is merely a character flaw of my own. But my intention is sincere; I only want to believe in the aspirations of one, to confide in her, to find a sense of solace in the idea that she will speak up when all other laws sit idly by.

I have been in the Middle East for a few months now and I have had no choice but to grow weary. With no other approaches proving too effective, I hoped some international laws would help frame an argument and propose a solution to wrongdoings that are often difficult to uphold as objectively so. Not to suggest that means for weariness did not predate my presence by the region’s thousands of histories, millions of misunderstandings, and countless dead-ends of reason - but I’m in no place to speak of these.

In the most literal sense, these past months have been an explosive few – a few car bombs per day in Iraq made for the deadliest months by far since the “end of the civil war” in 2008, not to mention the one down the street in south Beirut my first week here, and the car bomb in Tripoli the following week. Hezbollah and Israel had their own explosive exchange of opinions, and then Egypt being entirely derailed by an ideological power struggle - but that is a story of its own. Yet really, they are all a thousand stories of their own, only understood when prefaced with a million backstories that I, again, certainly cannot narrate.

And then we have 110,000+ dead in Syria, where hundreds continue to die every day, and quite often of a diverse variety – Sunnis, Shi’a, Aliwites and Kurds, mothers, daughters, brothers and fathers, soldiers, students, teachers, preachers, and all those on this complicated spectrum of histories sprawled across the region and its sometimes arbitrary borders.

Mrs. International Humanitarian Law (in Common Law Marriage with her better half, Mr. Human Rights Law, I suppose), after our brief encounter, I have learned that you might not be the catchall answer I was hoping for, but you are certainly a tool worth keeping at hand. The Syrian regime is not listening to mere arguments of morality, and rephrasing them to Assad and to his foes is only beating a deaf drum (though these stories surely help mobilise foreign empathy and should not be muted). Doesn’t it seem feasible that many of those on the side of the regime feel perfectly moral about killing “the terrorist destroying their country and threatening their families and livelihoods.” Just like non-state armed groups feel equally as moral about killing “the terrorists destroying their country and threatening their families and livelihoods.”

Arguments advocating for protection of the innocent and for peace talks can draw on IHL for the credibility she offers and for the black and white objectiveness she provides to cases of wrongdoing when morality is so clearly grey. Granted, most of us have differing parameters of wrongdoing, but she’s only one of many answers and tools to put to use. There is the idealism of daydreams and daisies, and there is the pragmatism of thorny-stemmed circumstance. As much as the idealists from the outside would like to think otherwise, there has to be truth to the notion that conflict is more complicated than we might hope when it is the case that human beings are fighting for a belief worth dying for. In no case will this ever rule out the potential effectiveness of dialogue and diplomacy, but it might hint at the fact that war will be a reality of this world far into the future, because what is human nature if not vengeful?

And you recognise this, Mrs. IHL, hoping only to minimise the suffering and protect the innocent as much as is lawfully possible. Yet your pragmatic stance will only be seen as sheer pessimism and cowardice – a cop-out from a sad and barbaric past when people so spinelessly cited the notion of world peace as contrary to the vengefulness of human nature. This time will come, my friend. But for now, your tools of limiting the excessive atrocities of war may sadly be the best we have at our disposal when fighting for reason and peace. This is just one depressing fact in a world of people who have both condoned the mass murdering of one another, and yet refused to see the utter futility of this savage game of war to begin with.

Written by Logan Sullivan and published on 10-November-2013




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