What Explains Israel’s Military Tactics in Gaza?

24 Jul

Since Israel’s dismantled its few settlements in the territory, Gaza’s residents have suffered from a blockade and repeated engagements between militants and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), costing thousands of lives. The conflict originated in mid-June, when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed by an unknown group of Palestinians. While Hamas’ Gazan leadership almost certainly had nothing to do with the kidnappings, the Israeli government used the boys’ disappearance to launch a crackdown on Hamas, first in the West Bank, and subsequently in Gaza. In turn, Hamas responded with an increased volley of rockets directed at Israel.

Israel’s approach to the conflict in Gaza makes little strategic sense. It cannot eliminate Hamas (without a lengthy and unlikely occupation), and doing so would likely only provide an opportunity for even more radical groups to come to power. The initial stated goal was to destroy Hamas tunnels, but Egypt managed to do just that without any kinetic military action. Attacking Gaza has increased the number of rockets heading toward Israel and resulted in the deaths of 31 Israelis.  As Israel expert Brent Sasley argues, Israel’s strategic objective of creating a “quiet” Gaza is vague and likely unattainable.

If Israel does indeed lack a strategy in dealing with Gaza, then what is guiding its tactics in the current conflict? 680 Gazans have been killed by the IDF since Operation Protective Edge began. According to the UN, 74% of those have been civilians (though this is statistic reflects the death toll from a few days ago). Human Rights Watch, while being conservative in its claims, notes there is evidence that Israel likely deliberately targeted civilians. Additionally, there is evidence Israel has used anti-personnel flechette shells. In all likelihood, Israel has repeatedly and intentionally shelled civilian targets.

Hundreds of civilian deaths in a few days is a horrendous record, but it should also be noted that Israel does have the capacity to kill more. Consequently, Israel has walked a fine line between portraying itself as a protector of Gazan civilians and publicizing fairly transparent attempts to deny the category all together. What explains Israel’s seemingly schizophrenic strategy of intentionally targeting civilians (knowing these incidents will end up in local and international news) while simultaneously trumpeting its humanitarian credentials? Why kill huge numbers of civilians while also targeting Hamas? Why not just one or the other?

 

Factors that lead Israel to target civilians

Domestic politics: Going after Hamas has long been popular in Israel, and this current flare-up is no different. The drawn-out saga of the kidnapped teenagers was manufactured to gain public support for the Netanyahu administration, and the subsequent blaming and targeting of Hamas seems to represent a continuation of the strategy. Creating a high body count, be the victims militants or civilians, in a war against Hamas garners public approval, especially among the Israeli right.

Revenge: Some within Israeli’s government and military may genuinely believe Hamas was responsible for the kidnapped teenagers’ deaths or that they deserve to be punished for launching rockets at Israel. This desire for revenge and may cloud their differentiation between Hamas militants and innocent civilians. If these officials have the ability to authorize airstrikes, then civilian targets may appear as fair game. In sum, ideology alters strategic perception.

Poor strategy: The IDF may be targeting civilians in the misguided hope this will deter future support for Hamas. While there is ample evidence that Gazan suffering at the hands of Israel increases support for Hamas, a purely militaristic vision of incentives for altering behavior may result in the counterproductive targeting of civilians. The competing role of Israeli institutions also likely plays a role here. As Brent Sasley argues in an interview, despite the rise of impressive government-sponsored research institutes, the IDF still tends to have the final say. Civilian agencies that may tend to favor more dovish approaches are losing out.

Poor intelligence: While the Israeli government would be loathe to admit it, it’s possible that the IDF consistently lacks the necessary intelligence to consistently strike locations containing Hamas members. Commanders are under pressure both from military superiors and political officials to kill militants, and therefore they frequently launch airstrikes against targets that may be of no military value to appear successful.

Malfunctioning technology: Despite lauding its “pinpoint strikes”, it’s possible Israel does not have the ability to hit the targets it intends to consistently. While I am no expert on military technology, this explanation seems unlikely considering the IDF’s ability to warn homes it is about to bombard. I have not come across a case of the IDF warning a house only for them to then miss.

 

Factors That Prevent Israel From Targeting Civilians

International pressure: The extremely unequal casualty rate from this conflict, combined with significant public evidence of intentional targeting of civilians, provides Israel with a significant incentive to halt deliberate attacks against civilians. Even the United States, Israel’s normally staunch ally, has quickly called for a ceasefire. Israel is already fairly isolated internationally, and it risks becoming even more so.

The remnants of strategy: Simply, removing Hamas militarily will only lead to an even more radical alternative. Prior to the conflict, Hamas was at its weakest point in recent years and its unity deal with Fatah meant it would likely play a subservient role in any future Palestinian government. While political calculation seems to have generally won out over strategical concerns in this conflict, it’s possible those within the Israeli government concerned about the conflict’s bolstering of Hamas are encouraging a lower body count.

Fear of Israeli deaths: While the Israeli government has recently shown itself to be fairly willing to escalate conflict to suit political needs, it may also fear a backlash if too many Israeli soldiers and civilians die in the conflict. Killing Gazan civilians will only increase Hamas attacks, and this presents a dilemma for Israeli politicians and military leaders.

 

Conclusion

While there are factors pulling Israeli military tactics in multiple directions, there is one element that may be doing both simultaneously. Israel’s long-term strategy for dealing with military threats has been an attempt to manage, rather than destroy, them through periodic engagement (or “mowing the grass”, itself a deeply unsettling term). This strategy emerged out of Israel’s earlier conflicts with conventional Arab armies, but Israel is now much stronger and its enemies much weaker. Mowing the grass may have made strategic sense in 1967 and 1973, but in the present day it is highly counterproductive. However, it may be nothing more than strategic inertia that causes Israel to engage in semi-regular medium-intensity conflicts. Killing a few hundred civilians is a part of mowing the grass, and if Israel’s strategic logic does not evolve, a similar conflict will erupt a few years from now.

All of these factors likely play some role in determining Israeli behavior, and I’ll leave it up to those that know more about the conflict than I do to identify the more influential ones.

How Civilians Protect Themselves Nonviolently During Mass Killings

16 Jul

*This post originally appeared in the Monkey Cage.

International interventions in mass killing episodes often fail to adequately protect civilians.

The UNMISS peacekeeping operation in South Sudan is a case in point. Bureaucratic, political, and financial constraints consistently inhibit the deployment of well-staffed interventions, and often prohibit them outright.

Therefore, many civilians must survive without external assistance, but we know surprisingly little about how this occurs.

No scholar has produced a work combining empirical examples of civilian self-protection with a theory of the mechanisms that allow it to function during mass killing or even conflict more broadly. The lack of focus on civilian self-protection is symptomatic of a larger issue of how scholars envision violent conflict.

Conflict’s inherent complexity makes it analytically less difficult to envision armed actors as the main influences on the course of conflict, rather than civilians, who are more numerous and whose motivations are less explicit (though it should be noted the civilian/combatant dichotomy is fuzzy).

Without an understanding of civilian action during conflict, it becomes difficult to imagine how civilians protect themselves. However, the last 10 years have seen a shift, albeit incomplete, toward a research agenda focused on civilians as agents of conflict and conflict resolution.

Stathis Kalyvas’s The Logic of Violence in Civil War argues for a new reconceptualization of civil wars as driven by civilian action.

Building on Kaylvas’s work, Oliver Kaplan’s scholarship on civilian autonomy in Colombia highlights the ways in which civilians protect themselves through small-scale organization.

Additionally, Casey Barrs has sought to understand the specific dynamics of civilian self-protection and how outsiders can aid this phenomenon.

It is principally from these two bodies of work that my undergraduate thesis, “Filling the Gap: Nonviolent strategies for civilian protection during mass atrocities” draws from.

My thesis provides a theoretical and empirical grounding for nonviolent civilian self-protection. I make four central claims about the nature of civilian self-protection.

First, most self-protective actions are nonviolent. While civilians do sometimes protect themselves violently, most do not have the capacity to do so effectively.

Violent tactics are also combined with a myriad of nonviolent tactics. Second, civilians survive with the aid of small-scale social networks.  Every existing social structure takes on a protective capacity as civilians seek to negotiate with combatants, gather resources, and/or facilitate flight.

Third, local knowledge is key.

During the LRA insurgency in Uganda, Baines and Paddon note that civilians developed sophisticated early warning networks and relocation plans using their superior knowledge of local human and physical geography.

Finally, civilians transmit norms of behavior to soldiers. Combatants are often sensitive to civilian opinion for emotional, moral, and strategic reasons, and civilian appeals can facilitate rapid changes in combatant behavior. Many scholars have dismissed nonviolence as a way for civilians to protect themselves from mass killing; however, this viewpoint ignores the process through which violence develops.

Mass killing occurs through the escalation of violence, but it is very rare for an episode to reach the level at which combatants have the ability and desire to kill all non-allied civilians in their area of operation, leaving space for civilian self-protection.

Civilian agency, however, does decrease as conflicts intensify; violence rather than the provision of benefits becomes the central avenue for exerting power. Other scholars, such as Semelin and Cormier et al., argue for nonviolent civil resistance in response to genocide and mass killing.

The problem here is that during mass killing, the existing space for civilian nonviolent action is not large enough to facilitate large-scale resistance.

Combatants will not tolerate explicit oppositional civilian organization, and therefore attempts to do so will likely be suicidal.

The dynamics of civilian self-protection is not dissimilar to civil resistance, but the increased potential for repressive violence in the context of mass killing limits civilians to small-scale organization and apolitical goals. In a cross-national study, Local to Global Protection found that self-protective ability is not evenly distributed across communities experiencing conflict.

Therefore there is potential for outsiders to improve protective capacities through establishing effective localized early warning systems and rapidly-deployed survival aid.

However, for these practices to be widely adopted and accepted, much more research on civilian self-protection is needed.

Moving past an external assistance-focused research agenda and top-down approaches to civilian protection is crucial for scholars and practitioners hoping to lessen the terrible toll of mass violence.

The Girls That Brought Themselves Back

9 Jul

The #BringBackOurGirls campaign began with a crescendo of indignation, only to fade as those paying attention quietly accepted that the girls were probably never coming back.  Since then, good news in Northeastern Nigeria has been hard to come by.  Fortunately, that changed two days ago.  U.S. media outlets began reporting that approximately sixty-seven women kidnapped by Boko Haram in mid-June escaped their captors and fled to safety over the weekend.  It seems that these are not the individuals originally kidnapped in mid-April, but the news nonetheless is a bright spot in an exceedingly bleak saga.

The recent history of online humanitarianism seems defined by a number of sponsored campaigns that find traction very briefly, punctuated by the occasional cause célèbre–sometimes sponsored, sometimes not–that lingers in the public imagination.  #BringBackOurGirls was the first landmark campaign since Kony 2012 able to permeate into political, humanitarian, celebrity, and public circles.  The campaign, though less centralized than Kony 2012, was likewise able to achieve concrete policy changes.  The US sent a team of consultants to aid the Nigerian government, while the public pressure forced the Jonathan administration to acknowledge the kidnapping had taken place and launch a search effort.  Even though, unlike most humanitarian campaigns, #BringBackOurGirls successfully altered policy, the policies themselves have had no discernible effect on status of the kidnapped women.  Additionally, the campaign risked increasing the domestic and international support for a brutal counterinsurgency strategy that has killed thousands of civilians.  #BringBackOurGirls has succeeded in providing some degree of democratic accountability where it is sorely lacking in Nigeria, but it has failed to achieve its primary objective.

Despite the international cooperation, the extensive search effort, and a willing public, the kidnapped women themselves proved the most able to ensure their own survival.  Those cast as the least powerful did the most good.  The concept is simple, really.  Those at risk of violence have both the most motivation to protect themselves and the information to make it happen.  Outside forces face political, logistical, and financial barriers to civilian protection, which even solid intelligence often cannot surmount.  This incident should give us pause about the wisdom and effectiveness of top-down humanitarian interventions, especially in politically and geographically remote areas.  It is not that outside solutions have no place in global humanitarianism; such an attitude would amount to throwing out hands up in the air.  However, we must remember that the most effective actors at pursuing civilian protection are also the likely victims of violence.  Aiding them to do what they are able to do most effectively, rather than working to save their lives from the outside and without their assistance, is usually the best we can do.

Killing in Vain: “Unstrategic” state-led mass killing during wartime

9 Jul

*This post originally appeared on the Center for Genocide Prevention’s blog.

For all the hatred, fear, and chaos they produce, mass killings are, at their heart, strategic endeavors, as Benjamin Valentino so persuasively argues in his landmark study Final Solutions. Leaders with extreme political goals only settle on mass killing when other, less costly means have been eliminated. Just because mass killing is an instrumental process, however, does not mean that it’s always successful. There are many examples of states carrying out mass killings during wartime, only to lose power through military defeat; Nazi Germany, Cambodia, and Rwanda come to mind.

The correlation makes sense. Committing mass killings risks sparking international and domestic opposition, and requires massive financial and human resources that could be used to fight armed opponents. Mass killing also frequently has corrosive effects on the perpetrating organization, a point frequently made by Daniel Solomon. This presents a puzzle: why do some states carry out mass killings when they are “unstrategic,” or in other words, clearly detrimental to a war effort?

Three influences can explain this phenomenon: ideology, misperception of the effectiveness of mass killing, and intra-organizational competition. Any one of these factors can cause a state to carry out an unstrategic mass killing, but they may also all be present in a single episode.

The first factor, ideology, is really at the center of the three cases mentioned above. For these regimes, their extremist goals mean that even during wartime, certain ideological projects (such as creating an ethnically pure society) supersede military success, even when facing an existential threat. Valentino’s logic is consistent here. Mass killings are indeed instrumental process, but the specific goals of perpetrator organizations shift their perception of what actions are “strategic”.

The misperception of mass killing’s effectiveness is itself a result of two potential influences: ideology and an increased potential of military defeat/attrition (which are likely interrelated phenomena). Just as extremist ideology can shift perpetrators’ goals during war, it can also make perpetrator leaders excessively paranoid. For example, Hutu extremists before the Rwandan Genocide came to believe that all Tutsi were actively assisting the RPF, and therefore the only way to preserve Hutu life was to indiscriminately target Tutsi. Though the Genocide certainly played a role in hindering the fight against the RPF, for Hutu extremists, one front of the war could not exist without the other.

States frequently begin or enter wars believing victory will be quick and easy (the “planning fallacy”), but the reality of violent conflict is often quite different. When states face either the prospect of defeat or an extended entanglement, they often seek to quickly change their fortunes. Mass killing becomes an act of desperation. Alexander Downes writes, “Even if leaders did not previously believe in the efficacy of civilian victimization or think that they would use such a strategy, the costs of the fighting convince them that something must be done to win the war but also limit losses. Civilian victimization is a promising option on both counts.”

The third factor, intra-organizational dynamics, can be a powerful driver of unstrategic mass killing. Wendy Pearlman, writing in the compiled volume Rethinking Violence, argues applying the strategic logic of an individual to a group is empirically flawed. Instead, violent actors—in this instance, states—should be viewed as interactional organizations with complex structures and hierarchies. Decision-making power is diffused throughout the institutions, but to varying degrees depending on the organization. Consequently, in the right context, a mass killing may result because some individuals (who may not be formally recognized as leaders) see it as beneficial to their own goals, rather than the objectives of the entire organization.

Intra-organizational competition is another potential driver of unstrategic mass killings. Especially in a regime without a solidified power structure, different factions will vie for power. During wartime, these aspiring factions may see killing civilians as a low-cost method of proving themselves militarily and gaining political prominence.

A similar dynamic operates during counterinsurgencies. Selective violence, as Kalyvas writes, is unquestionably more effective, but a certain amount of intelligence is needed to carry out selective violence. To gather that intelligence, commanders must either expend significant human and financial resources or use selective violence to coerce it. If commanders are either unable or unwilling to commit to the slow and expensive process of intelligence-gathering, a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma ensues. And, lacking the ability to commit selective violence, commanders may choose mass killing to avoid appearing inactive or ineffective, even if indiscriminate violence is ultimately strategically counterproductive.

Mass killings are primarily instrumental processes directed by leaders with extreme political goals, but individual mass killings emerge through a wider range of dynamics. Mass killing is, at its core, a strategic endeavor, but ideology, misperception, and intra-organizational dynamics can detach mass killing from its military objectives.

The Problem with R2P

28 Jun

The Responsibility to Protect Doctrine (R2P) is arguably the watershed moment in the recent history of humanitarianism.  R2P cleared up the humanitarian intervention debate by providing the international community with a moral imperative to act, clear avenues for mitigation, and the weight of culpability when atrocities do occur.  R2P’s internationalization and institutionalization of civilian protection is, as Anne-Marie Slaughter writes, “…the most important shift in our conception of sovereignty since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.”

R2P though, as one might expect, is not without its troubles.  (The imperialism charge for me is not one of them, because R2P does not encourage the domination of small countries by large ones; it merely provides transparent rhetorical dressing for actions states would’ve undertaken anyways.)  R2P’s language frames civilian protection as occurring entirely between states and international institutions.  States themselves, of course, have the primary responsibility, but then the international community has the responsibility to aid states in protecting their civilians.

Therefore, R2P rests on two foundational assumptions.  The first is that states, with the occasional helping hand of the international community, have the capacity to adequately protect civilians.  This simply isn’t the case.  The UN suffers from severe bureaucratic, financial, and political difficulties in even predicting mass violence, let alone intervening to stop it.  While regional organizations are generally improving their ability to predict, mitigate, and respond to mass violence, their capability to push the same bureaucratic, financial, and political constraints is still hampered.  Most civilians will remain beyond the reach of international organizations and even well-meaning states when violence breaks out.

R2P’s second assumption is that even if there are barriers to current prediction, mitigation, and intervention by the international community, international institutions and states are theoretically best-placed to support civilian self protection.  However, this overlooks that the above problems are inherent in the international political system.  A few months ago, I wrote, “Despite early warning’s long history within the UN, it is still barely an institutionalized concept…As it stands, the existence of any system that combines an intelligence gathering mechanism, an early warning component, and results in capable prevention or mitigation strategies is a fiction and will be continue to be so for the foreseeable future.  The same institutional and psychological barriers that prevent successful atrocity early warning, prevention, and response will persevere.”

Unfortunately, R2P’s framing leaves no room for sub-state methods of civilian protection, and more specifically, the possibility of civilian self-protection.  Frédéric Mégret writes, “…formulations of R2P all stopped short of reorganizing that ‘victims’ (or intended victims) of atrocities might have a role in averting atrocities at the point when they are being committed.”  Mégret labels R2P as a component of a “salvation paradigm”, in which outsiders view themselves as the only ones capable of saving those at risk of mass violence.  The problem here is that most civilians who survive R2P crimes (genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing) do so without the help of outside actors.  The survival of this silent majority is mostly a result of small-scale social networks that take on protective roles in conflict.  Hillhorst estimates that less than 10% of civilians survive natural disasters because of outside aid, and due to the more advanced nature of disaster early warning systems and the relative lack of political complications caused by disaster aid, it’s a safe bet that this number is even lower for violent conflict.  R2P is the cornerstone of how to protect civilians, but yet it fails to engage with the avenue through which an enormous majority survive.

The distance between R2P’s vision of civilian protection and its reality is a problem that goes beyond the theoretical.  R2P’s wording ensures international strategies for civilian self-protection will continue to work through state and international institutional channels, where frankly there isn’t much improvement that can be made.  Even if  there is a shift toward collaborating with sub-state actors, R2P’s lack of recognition of these efforts means they will remain rare and continuously makeshift.  R2P is a potent mechanism for generating a global consensus that atrocities must not be ignored, but this does not translate into effective civilian protection.

Trying to understand why R2P does not recognize the most common forms of civilian self-protection during mass atrocities throws up two divergent currents that pulled the doctrine in opposing directions, and what can be generally described as the “top-down model” won out.    The first set of influences will likely be more familiar to the reader.  R2P emerged out of the “humanitarian intervention” debate of the 1990′s, itself spawned by the conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, and Rwanda.  Especially in the latter two, humanitarians were frustrated by the international community’s inability to act effectively to stop violence.  This frustration translated into a constructed chain of causality that drew a direct  and almost monocausal link between international inaction and the occurrence of atrocities.  This ignored both the complex drivers and inhibitors of mass violence and the international community’s frequent inability to sufficiently protect civilians through military interventions.

Academics also contributed heavily to R2P’s top-down approach to civilian protection.  Scholars of violent conflict have tended to imbue armed actors with near-total agency in determining the course of conflict.  Norms might matter, but only rarely do scholars demonstrate how civilians can participate in the shaping of these norms.  Only recently have scholars like Stathis Kalyvas and Oliver Kaplan examined civilian agency during violent conflict.  Therefore, without a theoretical base to examine how unarmed non-elites may play a role in shaping conflict and aiding their own survival, it becomes difficult to imagine an international doctrine for responding to atrocities that has a role for these marginalized actors.

However, the more intriguing current that helped to shape R2P is the one that ultimately lost out.  Mégret notes the R2P was in fact out of step with thinking in related fields at the time, “Whereas neighboring branches of the international discourse (e.g. conflict mediation, development) are increasingly explicit about the need to forge direct relations with civil society actors even at the height of conflict, R2P seems marked by a reversal to the ‘high politics’ of international intervention in times of unfolding crisis.”  This positive influence was almost borne out, as the original draft of R2P created by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty included a section highlighting the agency of victims and domestic civil societies in protecting themselves from conflict.  For reasons unbeknownst to me, this vein of thought pushing for a more grassroots approach to conflict prevention and mitigation lost the ideological struggle.  Perhaps a more in-depth study how this conflict manifested itself in R2P’s creation will reveal deeper truths about R2P’s creation and its subsequent effect on how we conceive civilian protection.

R2P may leave little room for pursuing sub-state-led civilian protection efforts during conflict, but its success as a norm means that civilian protection is largely defined through the doctrine.  Despite its restrictive wording, R2P’s elimination would do far more harm than good for international civilian protection.  The answer lies in reform, not revolution.  The language of the second pillar provides a possible entry point.  It reads, “The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility…”  If the doctrine were amended to simply read, “…encourage and assist States and civilians…” the international community would, in two words, be able to recognize the ability of civilians and civil societies to protect themselves without undercutting the international responsibility to respond to R2P crimes.  There may be a normative mountain to climb to spark that change, but I for one am hopeful.

Finding a Niche in Atrocity Prevention

25 Jun

*This post originally appeared on The Center for the Prevention of Genocide’s blog.

I got involved with STAND during my freshman year at Swarthmore. The experiences I had and the people I met through that organization have motivated me to work professionally on atrocity prevention. I graduated from Swarthmore last Sunday, and it seems appropriate to take a moment to reflect, not only on my time in STAND, but also on what my experiences mean for others who could follow a similar path.

I came into college vaguely knowing I wanted to do something with social justice and international issues. Growing up with stories of my family’s experience during the Holocaust had sensitized me to notions of human rights. Still, I ended up joining STAND, in part, because Swarthmore didn’t have an Amnesty International chapter, and at first I didn’t see my participation in the organization as potentially transformative.

A few months later, I went to my first of many national conferences in Washington, D.C.  That conference, and subsequent ones I attended, were important for a few reasons. National conferences, for me, were always times to meet new people and reconnect with old friends who shared my interests. There’s never much sleep involved, and while conferences are nominally about atrocity prevention, they were also the most intense social periods of my college experience. Although the social aspect is the most apparent in the moment, with the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to see that it was not just the people but the opportunity to engage intellectually with new ideas that made conferences such landmark experiences. Before that first conference, I had never encountered so much in-depth information or such a myriad of opinions about atrocity prevention. That exposure prompted me to learn more about these issues so that I was better able to participate in debates on policy options and advocacy strategies.

The creation of a social network and the exposure to new ideas through conferences were the first steps in my involvement with STAND, but a few other developments led eventually to my membership in STAND’s national managing committee. First, I happened to develop social relationships with many of the students in STAND leadership roles and found that I often had a lot in common with them. So, in a way, becoming a part of STAND’s leadership was a social endeavor. Within this social network, I was also fortunate enough to find a few mentors, particularly former national director Daniel Solomon. These mentors not only steered my engagement with STAND; they also helped expose me to the broader intellectual and organizational landscapes of the atrocity prevention community. Finally, my Swarthmore education increasingly provided me with the ability and the interest to evaluate policy and advocacy-based arguments and come up with ones of my own.

During my junior year, I applied to be STAND’s student policy analyst and was, fortunately, accepted. In this role, I created my personal blog, The Widening Lens, for which I’m still writing today, and was compelled to create a Twitter account. These two platforms allowed me to formulate in-depth opinions and to communicate with a much wider audience than I had previously within STAND.

The summer before my senior year, I interned with the Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention, which gave me my first real exposure to academic research on mass atrocities. I also served that year as STAND’s national policy coordinator. I learned quite a bit about the professional atrocity prevention world, how to manage a task force, and the challenges of creating long-term strategies for an advocacy organization.  Because of the interest I had cultivated (with the help of others) in atrocities prevention, I decided to write my thesis on civilian self-protection during mass atrocities. While the thesis itself is finished, I hope to continue working on this aspect of the issue in the future.

It would be easy to look back on my journey from a college freshman who enjoyed learning about international politics and human rights to someone intending to work professionally in atrocity prevention and see a path that was practically predetermined, but college could easily have had a different effect on me. Certainly, certain factors predisposed me to atrocity prevention work. I am from a highly educated family with a social science focus and went to an elite school. My family history gave me a personal connection to the issue of mass killing. And I had enough time between work and school to participate deeply in STAND.

Still, other things could have easily derailed this progression. Without conferences—and Swarthmore funding to get to them—I would not have had ready access to such a range of people and ideas. I also quickly ran up against a lack of realistic engagement opportunities in STAND. Organizing events on Swarthmore’s campus didn’t create change, and I could lobby members of Congress, usually unsuccessfully, only so often. Had mentors not provided an intellectual outlet for thinking about long-term atrocity prevention, I probably would have lost interest. Finally, if my involvement with STAND hadn’t put me in contact with individuals and organizations working professionally on atrocity prevention, I still would have enjoyed my time in STAND, but, like so many other things, I probably would have seen it as an activity that ended at graduation.

Lots of students are drawn to organizations focused on human rights or international affairs, but that interest doesn’t always lead them to pursue related careers. Many slip through the cracks. I sincerely believe this doesn’t have to be the case. I was fortunate enough to have people like Daniel Solomon in STAND and Shervin Malekzadeh at Swarthmore identify me as a dedicated individual and help foster my intellectual maturation. STAND is already shifting toward increased intentionality in moving students up the ladder of engagement. If professional organizations working in this field want a larger population of well-qualified potential employees, they should look to do the same.

Is FIFA a Mass Killer?

8 Apr
Photo courtesy of RT

Photo courtesy of RT

Qatar’s successful bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup has all the makings of a great underdog story.  A small country from a region that has has traditionally been a soccer backwater throws together an ambitious plan to build nine new stadiums.  Despite its inhospitable climate, it proposes a space-age cooling system that will allow players and spectators alike the ability to enjoy the game in comfort.  Its national team languishes in the middle of FIFA’s rankings, but has bigger aspirations.  Through an exhaustive bidding process, little Qatar beats out international powerhouses South Korea, Japan, Australia, and even the United States.

The real story of the the Qatari bid for the World Cup, however, is one of bribery, half-truths, and corruption.  In sum, Qatar used its oil wealth to buy votes and FIFA executives looked past the flaws in the voting process, a non-existent plan to air condition stadiums, and Qatar’s record of human rights violations in favor of a gravy train.  One example demonstrates the particularly ludicrous nature of Qatar’s bid: the city that will host the stadium that will host the World Cup final doesn’t even exist yet.  They plan to build it from scratch (they clearly haven’t read James Scott).

Predictably, the massive infrastructure needed for the World Cup is being built on the back of migrant workers, with lethal consequences.  A report by the International Trade Union Confederation states that at least 1,200 workers have already died, and the number is likely to reach 4,000 by 2022 (the wording is a bit unclear as to whether 4,000 more workers will die or if 4,000 will be the final total).  Even this estimate, though, is conservative because it’s working off deaths reported by the Indian and Nepalese embassies.  Some smaller worker populations hail from other countries and many deaths likely go unreported.  The mix of “subhuman” working conditions, long hours in the heat, and a lack of access to medical care has proved disastrous.  As a comparison, the most deadly sporting event in the last decade and a half was the Sochi Olympics, which caused the deaths of sixty workers.

Scholars have a range of definitions for what constitutes a mass killing, with most falling in the 500-1000 intentional deaths per year range.  Is FIFA then a mass killer?  That question in turn prompts two more, the first of which is: from a definitional standpoint, what kinds of deaths count as killing?  This is definitely a difficult question to answer.  In his thesis, Sean Langberg defines killing narrowly.  For him, it’s only deaths caused by physical violence that count toward the threshold of 1,000.  Alternatively, in my own thesis, I see mass killing as including a wider range of death experiences.  Starvation or death through disease may be just as central to perpetrators’ strategies as physical killing itself.  In this case, I think it’s fair to say that the actions of construction directors (hired by Qatar/FIFA) can be included in the tallying of potential mass killing deaths because they are creating conditions in which they can reasonably expect workers (aka civilians) to be killed.

If you follow my initial line of inquiry, I think the second issue you run across is differentiating structural violence (which should be noted can actually be lethal) from the physical violence of mass killing.  Some may see the two as one in the same, but I think this viewpoint stems from an attempt to use mass killing as a moral rather than an analytic categorization.  For example, the ebola outbreak in West Africa may claim more than a thousand lives because of poor sanitary conditions and a dearth of medical facilities.  This surely classifies as structural violence if we follow Galtung’s framework, but it shares few characteristics with the dynamics of mass violence against civilians.  I think including poverty or other instances of structural violence in categorizations of mass killing is unproductive because it obfuscates more than it clarifies.  Poverty kills for a variety of reasons and far more civilians die each year worldwide because of unorganized criminal violence than political violence, but neither qualify as a mass killing because it’s hard to locate a specific perpetrator or intentionality.  Neither is lacking in Qatar.

So is FIFA a mass killer?  I have to say I’m torn.  On the one hand the deaths are a result of a uniquely deliberate strategy led by a powerful institution to accomplish a specific goal, mirroring the dynamics, and particularly the instrumentality, of mass killing.  But on the other, it is inescapable that the dynamics of mass killing, as we imagine them, always involve an armed group.  In my thesis, I write that for a mass killing to qualify as such, not only must the death threshold be met, but that 20% of civilians must experience violent deaths.  It’s an inescapably arbitrary number, but just like the 1,000 death overall threshold, it is needed to distinguish mass killing as a distinct concept from related phenomena.  However, I think it’s possible to make a strong case for the existence of “corporate mass killing”, of which Qatar would be an example.  Parsing out the differences in the dynamics between this hypothetical category and existing ones is a very worthy topic for further investigation.

As I’ve already implied, I think calling FIFA a mass killer is probably technically incorrect.  First off, the death toll will probably fall short of the 1,000 a year mark, but more importantly, workers are not being killed in the context of violent conflict.  Morally though, I think there is a case to be made that what’s happening in Qatar is even more egregious than killing of civilians in war on the same scale.  There is no ideology that makes them migrant workers seemingly legitimate targets, no rampant fear that causes combatants to lash out.  The fog of war, and thus plausible deniability, doesn’t exist.  FIFA and the Qatari government have decided that the prestige of holding a World Cup and the potential for cheap labor outweighs the massive human consequences.  Shame on them.

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