War and the rules of war in an era of perpetual armed strife
There is no such thing as a civilised war. But having ‘laws’ that govern the conduct of warfare is useful in at least helping to avoid some of the worst atrocities, even if these laws are breached almost as much as they are observed, and we have seen terrible examples from both Hamas and Israel, not to mention what is happening elsewhere in the world such as Sudan or Ukraine. The development of such laws, like the banning of landmines and cluster munitions, is again a progressive move even if some of the ‘great powers’ of the military variety refuse to be bound by them. Warring parties may not adhere to the standards but these laws may set a means for the conduct of the war concerned to be judged, and, hopefully perpetrators face some reckoning with justice subsequently. This includes ongoing issues about the British army’s SAS executing unarmed civilians in Afghanistan around 2011.
Attempts to limit warfare are nothing new with many examples coming from antiquity around the world. Our own Adomnán (or Adamnán) was a brilliant example of this with the Synod of Birr which he called in 697 CE and which in the ‘Law of the Innocents’ sought to offer protection to women, children and non-combatants. It is told that when he was in a position to do something about the effects of warfare, which he was as Abbot of Iona, he responded to a promise made to his mother, Ronnat, to do what he could when as a young person accompanying his mother they stumbled across the pitiful aftermath of a battle.
Unfortunately today warfare has continued currency as a means of behaviour found acceptable to many, at least for those who are ‘on our side’. Mediation and conciliation has a long road to travel to be the only accepted methods for dealing with conflict – along of course with nonviolent action.
None of this, of course, mean that those of us who reject war as a methodology need to be complicit in such war-making, though depending on where we live our taxes may be contributing financially to such warfare. Avoiding this complicity is extremely difficult but is also an aim worth striving for. We can still see the value of laws or rules which curtail atrocities in war even if we reject the concept of war as a legitimate methodology of struggle. Further extending those rules, and getting existing ones respected and implemented, is an important area of peace work.
As to what the laws or rules of war state, plenty of information can be found online including about their historical evolution. One short cartoon video from the International Committee of the Red Cross offers a simple overview, available at https://www.icrc.org/en/document/what-are-rules-of-war-Geneva-Conventions However we would dispute their unproven assumption at the start that humankind has always been violent as a way to settle disagreements; maybe they haven’t visited the Céide Fields, regarding which the jury would be very much out on such an assertion.
The main aspects of the laws of war includes international treaty law as well as established customs. It is evolving as the outlawing of landmines and cluster weapons in recent decades show. But there are still many uncertainties, as for example with current bombing of Gaza by Israel, and while most people might come to the same conclusion in relation to a particular incident, others on a partisan basis may dispute an action or actions being contrary to the laws of warfare. So greater clarity is needed.
Those of a nonviolent persuasion, who reject the use of warfare as a tool of policy, have much work to do. We do have research in our favour such as the work of Chenoweth and Stephan on violent and nonviolent campaigning within states where the nonviolent approach comes out much stronger in terms of success. However while some international conflicts, particularly ones between close neighbours, can have similar characteristics to intra-state conflict, others do not. Making even detailed judgements in this area is not easy. And the mechanisation and autonomisation (drones and military robots etc) of war removes any human element ‘at point of contact’.
We also have aspects of humanity in our favour which the military seek to breed (bleed?) out in their soldiers. Rutger Bregman in his book ‘Humankind’ points out many of the ways in which humanity intervenes even for soldiers on opposing sides looking to avoid killing the other.
But we do need to develop new tactics including possibly mass civilian intervention or intervention by symbolic leaders to ‘stand between’ warring parties as well more dynamic approaches to mediation and making mediation available and acceptable. Of course there are risks involved. But as Martin Luther King said “The choice is not between violence and nonviolence but between nonviolence and nonexistence.” We have avoided nuclear war by the skin of our teeth in the past, we may not be so lucky in the future, with another nightmare scenario being numerous wars in different locations making whole regions intolerable to live in (if global warming does not do that first). The Irish constitution supports the pacific resolution of international conflicts – though you would not know this from the behaviour of recent governments.
The failure to overcome violence and avoid war is partly a failure of imagination. War and violence are regarded as a ‘realistic’ option in many circumstances by most states, very much including the ‘western democracies’ of which Ireland is a part. However the likely outcome is that war will lead to a pyrrhic victory with extreme human costs and ongoing problems, not to mention economic and environmental costs. And still states expect to do the same thing and get different results the next time.
In Dublin’s fair(ly violent) city…..
The recent night of violent rioting in Dublin has been well analysed in all the media so that it is difficult not to be making points which have not already been made elsewhere. For this reason we will keep our comments fairly short.
The rioting was organised by far right individuals or groups who sought to create trouble around the fact that a very emotive stabbing of young children and an adult had been perpetrated by an immigrant, albeit one living in Ireland for a couple of decades and a naturalised Irish citizen. While the motivation of the attacker is unknown it is fair to assume that an attack of this nature is likely to be due to mental health issues. As well as a few injured children, one very seriously, an Irish born woman was badly injured trying to defend the children; men of Brazilian and French origin were involved in disabling further attacks by the man, and an Irish woman was involved in preventing retaliatory attacks on the assailant. The disgust held for the incident was shown by online funding for the Brazilian man who helped to disarm the assailant reaching hundreds of thousands of Euros.
Having to date failed at the ballot box, far right anti-immigrant campaigners sought – and succeeded by their speedy assembly from around greater Dublin through using social media – to make their point through violence. No one could have foreseen the situation getting out of hand so speedily with perhaps five hundred people involved in rioting, property destruction and looting. Only some of these would have been far right activists, others were obviously opportunists of various kinds.
The case has been made https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/2023/11/28/irish-fascism-is-not-a-reaction-to-immigration-or-poverty-its-not-even-a-new-phenomenon/ that fascists in Ireland do not need immigration to create violence since communism was used as such a focus in the 1930s in Ireland. However it is still clear that the far right methodology is to create a scapegoat which can be blamed for the ills of society. If you wanted to find a current scapegoat for the housing crisis in Dublin, a better one would be the multinational companies which have created so many jobs and thus influx of people, or better still successive governments who have done such a poor job in ensuring the requisite housing and accommodation was built. An open door policy to Ukrainian refugees, leading to upwards of a hundred thousand people coming since the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, has been a generous response but has made accommodation scarce around much of the country.
There are many answers and solutions to this upsurge in a threat from the far right. One is further solidarity with newcomers, something of which there are many good examples, and some very bad examples (the continuation of the direct provision system for asylum seekers is atrocious for many reasons including that it isolates newcomers from the rest of society). Another is dealing effectively with issues of housing and health so that current deficiencies cannot be blamed on immigrants, aside from the fact that this is necessary for justice and equality for all. Showing the positive contribution that immigrants have made to Irish life – and they have in many ways – is again an important aspect. Civil society has an extremely important role to play in all of this. Immediately challenging false information by far right groups in social media is another necessity so distortions and falsehoods cannot get traction.
It is unlikely, though certainly not impossible, that the far right will make a significant electoral breakthrough in any part of Ireland which means they may continue to focus on exploiting any situation they can use to foment division through creating on street mayhem. It would be unwise to have a knee-jerk reaction to the recent rioting in Dublin and, though obviously the Gardaí need to be prepared, escalation in the policing response can lead to escalation in rioters’ response in any future altercations. Authoritarian reactions could just encourage further attempts to destabilise things and lead to chain reactions.