Afghanistan: Looking Back to See the Future

Written by Courtney Andrews and Faiza Mawani

Photo of armored car driving through mountains of Afghanistan
Mountains of Afghanistan. Source: Creative Commons

Twenty years after the events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent war on terrorism, the United States military has ended its operations in Afghanistan. The country, ravaged by war and too fragile to stand on its own, was immediately overtaken by the very forces the U.S. sought to defeat. After two decades, three administrations, and 170,000 American lives lost, the U.S. is leaving Afghanistan in much the same shape as it was found.

What is to become of Afghanistan and what toll will the inevitable economic and humanitarian crisis take on its people, many of whom do not know where their next meal will come from? What will happen to a generation of women and girls whose education and employment are now at stake and whose rights are tenuous under the new/old regime? What will happen to the millions of children under five that are expected to become acutely malnourished in the next year? What will happen to those that managed to escape – will they find safe refuge in neighboring countries, or will they suffer the plight of many refugees and displaced peoples around the world? All remains to be seen, but at this point, the outlook is dire. Here we provide a brief history of Afghanistan over the past century and consider what lies ahead for the struggling nation.

Afghanistan: A Retrospective

Afghanistan is located centrally in southeast Asia and shares a border with Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. It is home to at least 14 distinct ethnolinguistic groups, and the mountainous terrain has kept these clans separate and made it difficult for a central government to take hold. The strategic location of the country, however, has made it very enticing to those seeking to procure a hold on southeast Asia. After a period of relative stability after its independence from colonial rule in 1921, the country has been plagued by invasion and power struggles since the 1970s.

In 1953, the pro-Soviet General Mohammad Daoud Khan became prime minister of Afghanistan, and in 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to help Khan establish economic and military ties. At this time, women were granted a more public presence and were allowed to attend university and join the workforce. In 1973, Khan abolished the monarchy and replaced it with The Republic of Afghanistan, naming himself president and keeping close ties with the USSR. While creating his new government, Khan proposed a new constitution in which women were granted more rights, and the country set out on a path to modernization. This did not sit well with local clan members who believed in a strict interpretation of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. Tensions rose under the surface until they eventually boiled over.

In 1978, an armed revolt broke out in the countryside, led by conservative Islamist and ethnic leaders who were protesting social changes Khan was trying to implement. This group became known as the mujahideen, or “holy warriors.” Backed by the United States, the mujahideen killed Khan, and a full-scale war broke out from 1979 to 1989: communists versus mujahideen. This being the height of the Cold War, the US continued to provide weapons and tactics to the rebels in order to defeat the Soviets.

Around 1988, Saudi Islamist Osama bin Laden founded the group al-Qaida (“the base”). Though the US had backed the mujahideen in defeating the Soviets, bin Laden argued that the US stood as the primary obstacle to the establishment of a truly Islamist state. By 1995, a newly formed Islamist militia, the Taliban, rose to power, promising peace to the war-torn people of Afghanistan. Calling themselves “students of Islamic knowledge,” the Taliban imposed strict sharia law, stripping women and girls of their basic human rights and instituting public floggings and amputations of those who broke the law.

Photo of soldier crouched down pointing gun
Afghanistan. Source: Yahoo Images

The War

September 11, 2001: Al-Qaeda operatives hijack four commercial airliners and crash them into the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Close to 3,000 people die in the attacks, thousands more are injured, first responders are exposed to toxic fumes that will later be listed as the cause of cancer, and a nation that has never before been attacked on its own soil mourns an incomprehensible loss.

Most of the 9.11 hijackers originated from Saudi Arabia, none from Afghanistan, though the mastermind behind the attack, Osama bin Laden, was operating out of the country. The ruling authority in Afghanistan, the Taliban, was accused of harboring terrorists. In the coming weeks, George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” provided the U.S. blanket authority to invade any country accused of sympathizing with or aiding Muslim extremists. On October 7, 2001, the U.S. military began a bombing campaign against Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Ground combat troops arrive two weeks later. Thus began what would become the longest war in U.S. history.

Both the Obama and the Trump administrations tried to leave Afghanistan, but the situation remained too precarious to do so safely. President Biden, convinced that there was never going to be a safe time to leave, was determined to put an end to the loss of American lives, especially in a situation of no measurable progress. “It’s time to end America’s longest war,” he declared. The remaining 3,500 troops in Afghanistan have been withdrawn despite the failure of intra-Afghan peace talks and the increase in Taliban attacks on Afghan security forces and citizens. The Taliban wasted no time storming the capital of Kabul, forcing president Ghani into exile, and reasserting its authority.

Biden says Washington will continue to assist Afghan security forces and support the peace process, but what does that mean? As the U.S. officially ends its military operations in Afghanistan with precious little to show for it, much is at stake for those who remain in the country, most notably women and children.

A Human Rights and Humanitarian Crisis

One of the central tenets of the Taliban’s ideology has been the opposition to girls’ and women’s education. It is predicted that around 1 million children will miss out on education due to increased attacks on schools and villages dramatically increasing in the past month since the Taliban has resumed control over Afghanistan. Rather than educate them, the Taliban have a history of enslaving women, increasing the risk of domestic violence, abuse, and exploitation, including forced child marriage. Many humanitarian agencies are concerned about an increase in violence against women during this time of crisis. In an apparent attempt to rebrand themselves as more moderate, the Taliban have made some statements alluding to protections for women, though some see this as an empty promise. The days of denying women the right to education and subjecting them to public floggings and mass executions seem part of a not-so-distant past.

The ensuing humanitarian crises is expected to affect nearly half of children in the country. Food stocks will soon run out, and a third of the country will not have access to basic goods and services. Afghanistan does not have sufficient funding in its international humanitarian response plan; as of August 2021, it is only 38 percent funded. This translates to approximately 1.2 million children losing protective services, leaving them vulnerable to violence, sexual exploitation, and forced early marriages, and about 1.4 million women left without a place of comprehensive support.

Displacement and a Refugee Crisis

Although President Biden did agree to allow Afghani people who worked with the US coalition to come to America with US troops, there were several tens of thousands that could not board the planes. Images of the Kabul airport being jam-packed with families awaiting airlift, along with videos of people handing their babies to American soldiersand absolute strangers for the sake of safety and refuge did circulate our social media pages the past few weeks. The outpouring of compassion did overwhelm the global community, but now that airlifts have ceased, about 39 million Afghans remain trapped in the humanitarian crisis that is yet to emerge in the country. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), around 3.5 million people have already been displaced due to violence in Afghanistan. These people are fearful of returning to their homes, but they also lack the finances to survive.

Consequently, the people of Afghanistan will seek refuge in neighboring countries, where many of their fellow citizens already live. For four decades, Pakistan and Iran have hosted millions of Afghan refugees. But these countries are also not capable of doing this for too long due to their own lack of international humanitarian aid. The UNHCR has called on countries to leave their borders open and permit refugee status to the people of Afghanistan in order to evade any more human rights violations and to prevent a greater humanitarian crisis from emerging.

 What Next?

In an article about the challenges that the Taliban now faces, Dan Bilefsky of the New York Times writes: “Will the Taliban engage the world with a more inclusive approach? Or will they return to the ways of the past?” So far, the Taliban have been cracking down on protests, rounding up known opponents, and violently suppressing the news media. Unfortunately, from a human rights perspective, it appears that the worst is yet to come.

 

An Overview of the Insurgency in Cabo Delgado

The country of Mozambique, a nation of 29.5 million in sub-Saharan Africa, is currently facing increasingly alarming violence at the hands of Islamist extremists. The violence has affected countless lives and is coming to the attention of international peace-keeping bodies, with the Human Rights Chief declaring a “desperate” situation in Mozambique as calls for intervention by Mozambique’s government grow by the day.

Cabo Delgado is located in Northeastern Mozambique, shown here. SOURCE : Wikimedia Commons

Background

Beginning in 2017, Islamic groups intent on establishing an Islamic State in Southern Africa have terrorized the Cabo Delgado region of Mozambique. The population of Mozambique is extremely young, with about 45% of citizens being under fifteen years of age, and a median age of just seventeen. As Islamic groups began to move into the region, many exploited the high rate of poverty to recruit young people to their cause. These militant groups have brought destruction to Mozambique, killing an estimated 2,000 people in three short years and causing a refugee crisis as over 430,000 have been forced to flee their homes and begin their life again, only adding to massive rates of poverty present in the region currently.

Increasing Horror

The violence of the current insurgency in Cabo Delgado has reached new heights of horror in 2020. In April, it was reported that over 50 young people were murdered by insurgent groups for refusing to join their cause. Beginning on October 31, insurgents beheaded dozens in a series of attacks on the Muidumbe District. Survivors who returned reported dead bodies and buildings that burned for several days, completely uprooting the lives of many who called the Muidumbe District home. While the increasingly more violent attacks have drawn attention from international bodies, including the president of Zimbabwe, the situation continues unfold as more lives are stolen.

The violence even has grown to the neighboring country of Tanzania, where 175 houses were burned down in an attack on the border village of Ktaya. The violence in Tanzania can be traced back to earlier in October, when more than 20 were beheaded in another attack on Ktaya. The expansion of attacks into Tanzania led to a more coordinated effort by Tanzania to become involved in containing the insurgency.

Despite mobilization efforts by Mozambique’s government, backed by a coalition consisting of South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Russia, the ISIS-backed insurgency groups continue to lay siege to Cabo Delgado, with many fearing an all-out civil war breaking out in the region.

The current insurgency in Cabo Delgado has caused hundreds of thousands to seek refugee status, with many travelling by boat. SOURCE : Wikimedia Commons

Potential Motives

While the insurgents in Mozambique claim their ultimate goal is establishing an Islamic State in Southern Africa, it should be noted that region is also home to $60 billion in natural gas developments. Many of the recruits of these terrorist groups are also promised a better life, a message that preys on the impoverished youth of the nation and the region.

Theocratic states are also inherently incompatible with the promises of the modern human rights movement. Article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights is clear in its promise of freedom of religion:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

The methods of these insurgent groups use to establish power are also extremely problematic, leading directly to loss of life, destruction of property, loss of cultural identity, and violent intimidation that denies the people of Cabo Delgado their basic human rights on a daily basis.

The attacks have also led to the abandonment of many promising economic opportunities that Mozambique’s central government hoped would lead to poverty reduction in Cabo Delgado, which has lagged behind the rest of Mozambique in terms of economic development and poverty reduction. Norwegian fertilizer company Yara pulled out of a contract with the Mozambiquan government to make fertilizer from Cabo Delgado natural gas, mainly out of fear that the insurgency would lead to an inability for Mozambique to provide the gas at a stable cost. The region’s poverty rate has not been improved by the insurgent groups despite their promise to thousands of youths who joined a cause for increased economic mobility. Instead, the insurgency in Cabo Delgado has only led to senseless violence, destruction, and worsened Mozambique’s position to grow into a healthy economy in the 21st century.

A Promising Future?

The calls for international intervention in Mozambique have begun to grow as the violence increases daily. As well as the President of Zimbabwe and the United Nations Human Rights Chief, both the British Foreign Secretary and French President Emmanuel Macron expressed a heightened level of concern for the situation after news of the October 31 beheadings began to spread worldwide.

During an October visit to Cabo Delgado by Filipe Nyusi, current president of Mozambique, a man in the audience put in quite plainly in his urge to the president, saying “We want the war to stop.”

There have been signs that perhaps the insurgent groups are beginning to lose the war of attrition occurring in Cabo Delgado. On November 19, The Muidumbe District, which had been occupied by the insurgent groups, was retaken by over 1,000 Mozambiquan troops, killing 16 militants in the process.

Positive developments in Cabo Delgado can continue to occur if Mozambique’s central government is provided the adequate support and resources from international peacekeeping organizations like the United Nations. A statement by the Organization for World Peace critiqued the practice of simply condemning violence and called for more direct international support, saying:

“Though the UN’s condemnations of violence and appeals for humanitarian and investigative action are significant, the organization must carry out this action itself while motivating states and international courts to follow suit. The UN must also provide necessary assistance to Mozambican security forces while ensuring that this assistance is not abused to propagate more violence. This collective action will harness all the investigative legitimacy and humanitarian resources of the international community to uproot the militants and secure long-lasting peace.”

The citizens of Cabo Delgado deserve peace after years of violence. The region has enormous untapped potential for economic and cultural growth that has been stifled by the ongoing insurgency. No human being should have their life or home stolen by violence.

Assisting the Non-Assisted

On Monday, October 1, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event with local education, faith-based and law organizations, titled Addressing the Global Refugee Crisis – Part 1: Focus on Europe. Following, Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, Director of UAB Institute for Human Rights, and April Jackson-MacLennan, J.D., from the Law Office of John Charles Bell, L.L.C., covered the legal challenges of this phenomenon from an international and national perspective, respectively.

Dr. Reuter Presenting Refugee Statistics. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

The event began with a viewing of the documentary Non Assistance, sponsored by the Consulate General of Switzerland in Atlanta, which illustrates how sociopolitical crises in the Middle East and North Africa have galvanized thousands of people to flee their home countries, permeating the Mediterranean Sea with frail boats past occupancy, holding limited supplies. Just like its title, the film focused on the lack of assistance refugee boats receive during their treacherous journey, highlighting the tragedy on March 27, 2011 that lead to 63 Tripolitanian refugee fatalities.

Despite endearment from many Europeans citizens, like the vigilantes that aim to rescue whoever they can with their personal boats, many ships in the Mediterranean to do not strive to assist the refugees. However, in 2015 alone, Doctors Without Borders rescued over 23,000 people in the Mediterranean with a just three boats, demonstrating how non-governmental parties can be instrumental in addressing this crisis. One theory for this disparity is, since the first country of contact is responsible for reporting asylum, governments do not want to carry the burden of assisting refugees. Such an outcome begs us to ask: What steps are the European Union (EU) taking to address this issue? How would you feel being lost and abandoned at sea with just the shirt on your back? Where is the humanity?

After the film, Dr. Reuter and Mrs. Jackson-MacLennan fielded questions from the aghast, yet spirited, audience. People wanted to know what can be done; answers centered on policy change and contacting elected officials. Others asked why rescue ships are being held at the ports, leading to discussion about the legal entanglements that now restrict these boats from aiding refugees. Despite there being less rescue boats navigating the Mediterranean and a drop in migration via this route, often attributed to slowing of violence in the Syrian Civil War, there is still a need to assist refugees.

Mrs. Jackson-MacLennan Engaging with a Student. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

On November 12, the sequel to this three-part series, titled Addressing the Global Refugee Crisis – Part II: Focus on the United States will be held at Birmingham-Southern College and followed by the third event in early 2019, at Samford University, where action planning around this global issue will take place. Please join us for the following events whereas every voice and helping hand counts.

Bacha Posh: The Resilient Girls of Afghanistan

Three curly haired Afghan kids look up to the camera
Afghanistan Kids. Source: Army Amber, Creative Commons

Afghanistan has been embroiled in numerous civil wars and regime changes as global powers like Britain, Russia, and the United States have attempted to each bring their own version of peace and governance to the country for the past 150 years. The international community’s involvement has made little progress in quelling the violence during this time span, despite attempts at installing kings, providing assistance, backing rebels, and imposing sanctions. In some ways, the international community has instead reaped the consequence of empowering extremist groups like the Taliban, who have used the money and weapons funneled to the country for the original purpose of fighting the Soviets to stage a takeover of their own once the Soviets withdrew. With this climate as a backdrop, many of the stories from the region told in the West are often focused on soldiers and battles taking place in Afghanistan’s arid desert, with men from the Afghan government, extremist groups, and foreign armies fighting vigilantly for their homeland, whichever land that may be. When the focus shifts, Afghan women take center stage as the West’s fascination with their sheet-like garment–the burka–brings out calls for liberation of the oppressed group; however, on rare occasions, a story of the resilience and resistance of Afghan women pierces through our media landscape and introduces us to a new facet of the human experience.

Inspired by her visit to Pakistani refugee camps and encounters with many Afghan women in 1996, Deborah Ellis wrote a book about an Afghan girl who dons the persona of a boy to provide for her family. An adaption of Deborah Ellis’s The Breadwinner was released in select theaters in November. Based on the book published in 2000, the narrative follows an 11-year-old girl named Parvana who lives with her family in Kabul, Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban. After her father’s imprisonment because of Taliban’s disdain for his western education, her mother and school teacher disguise her as a boy so she can work and become the sole breadwinner in the family, bringing in an income for the household of six. Audiences worldwide are now able to watch Parvana’s journey on the silver screen, but with the revelation that a portion of girls do dress as boys in Afghanistan, many questions arise. What happens if they are caught? How is cross dressing allowed by the families? Do the girls transition to being boys forever? If this is a more common occurrence than previously thought, why doesn’t the international community recognize this subversion being undertaken?

Jenny Nordberg steps in to dive deeper into the subject. Author of the 2014 book The Underground Girls of Kabul: in Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan, she spent months tracking down and interviewing families across the country who had a bacha posh, or a girl “dressed up as a boy” in the Dari language. Through her research, she creates the “only original non-fiction work on the practice of bacha posh”, bringing to light the ways in which women in a hostile environment have innovated and found ways to survive under incredible circumstances. Both the fictional tale in The Breadwinner and the real-life stories of bacha posh in The Underground Girls of Kabul bear striking similarities in themes, but combined they also highlight how the experience of each girl is unique to her own personal circumstances.

War

One constant held across both accounts is the presence of war and the Taliban. For the bacha posh, physical and environmental factors force their adaptation. In both the story and in the in-person interviews, Afghan parents reminisce about the brief period of peace in their youth when they freely roamed the streets in their garment of choice without fear during the Soviet rule. It was only when the Taliban took control that the practice of girls dressing as boys became necessary, as the schooling of girls became illegal and all women who had reached puberty were ordered to wear a burka, be accompanied by a male escort, and stay inside. If a woman is caught outside without an escort and a burka, she risks assault and death. This threat drove the decision of Parvana’s family in The Breadwinner, for without the father figure her family was left without a male, and this lead to her mother and siblings being trapped in the house with no way to earn money or buy food at the market. By making Parvana a boy, even at 11, she was able to escort her family members and secure a job reading and writing letters for illiterate men that passed her by on the street.

 

A line of Taliban soldiers stand beside a table handing in their weapons
Former Taliban fighters return arms. Source: Resolute Support Media, Creative Commons

Society

Yet if girls were unable to navigate the street on their own, doesn’t dressing a girl as a boy increase the risk to her safety if she is found out? Many experts Nordberg consulted when she first began her project dismissed the possibility of the bacha posh’s existence as it seemed to run contrary to the Western view of conservative Islamic societies. In a community in which the roles of males and females are so well defined, it is hard to believe that someone crossing from one role to another would not be in the greatest of violations. Shukria Siddiqui, a bacha posh until she was 20, interviewed 15 years later, clarifies this contradiction by giving an example from when she was challenged by three Mujahideen soldiers at her home when she was 17. The soldiers called out for the rumored girl who dressed like a boy, and when she went to her door to answer one of the men stated “Okay, you look like a boy, and you are completely like a boy, so we will call you a boy.”

The soldier’s statement is the stance that most Afghans, male and female, religious and nonreligious, take when confronted with a bacha posh. In The Breadwinner, Parvana lived in constant fear of being found out by those around her, but Nordberg observes that as long as the status quo of the roles remain, meaning boys complete tasks outside the home and women complete the tasks inside the home, there is nothing provoking about a bacha posh’s actions. In their eyes, the child is still conforming to societal norms, unlike if they were to stay a girl and complete traditionally male tasks. As long as the child switches back at an appropriate age to be married, around their late teens, in order to continue fulfilling their role, all is well. This sentiment is also echoed by the majority of families interviewed who raised a bacha posh. They transform their daughter to become a boy anywhere between birth and 10 years old, but as the bacha posh begins to show signs of puberty, they switch them back to assume their female identity with little problem. Only in two rare types of cases did Nordberg find that the transition back caused lasting difficulties for the girl and her family: when the girl exhibits signs of gender dysphoria, and when the transition back to being a girl occurs later in life.

Psychology

Defined by the American Psychiatric Association,

“Gender dysphoria involves a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify. People with gender dysphoria may be very uncomfortable with the gender they were assigned, sometimes described as being uncomfortable with their body (particularly developments during puberty) or being uncomfortable with the expected roles of their assigned gender.”

The common term associated with someone who experiences gender dysphoria and identifies with another gender is transgender, however,

“Gender dysphoria is not the same as gender nonconformity, which refers to behaviors not matching the gender norms or stereotypes of the gender assigned at birth. Examples of gender nonconformity (also referred to as gender expansiveness or gender creativity) include girls behaving and dressing in ways more socially expected of boys or occasional cross-dressing in adult men.”

The majority of girls Nordberg spoke with fell into the category of being gender nonconforming; comfortable with being a girl even if they took on traditionally male roles. Yet Zahra, a 17-year-old bacha posh, felt the opposite. Transformed into a bacha posh at birth, she fully embraced the idea of being a boy, reveling in her male friendships and shunning interactions with girls as it was not considered manly to interact with the other sex. After working for several years, Zahra’s mother suggested that she transition back, but this caused Zahra great psychological distress. Zahra refused to change back, and feeling appalled by her now changing body she confessed to Nordberg that should she get the chance she would undergo an operation to permanently transition herself into a boy. This was outside of the norm even for a bacha posh, but it does fit into what would be diagnosed in the West as gender dysphoria. While Nordberg was unable to draw a conclusion as to whether the original bacha posh transition influenced Zahra or if the two happened in tandem, it was an important case to demonstrate that while the majority of bacha posh are not gender dysphoric, there may be gender dysphoric bacha posh.

The other case when the transition out of being a bacha posh is rendered more difficult is when the girl transitions back later in life. In Shukria’s case, she was transitioned back at 20 just before her wedding, set up by her family. She accepted this arrangement and went through with it, but she quickly found that she lacked many of the skills that women her same age were already competent in; cooking, cleaning, and recognizing non-verbal cues from other women were all difficult to pick up. It was as if her brain had settled into the male pattern of behavior and found it difficult to let go. Her steps were too long, her voice was too loud, and she found it hard to relate to idle gossip and conversations around childrearing. Yet, it is important to emphasis that all the problems she encountered stem from social, not biological, norms. When Nordberg asked Shukria if she could teach her, the Swedish born New York based reporter, how to become a man, Shukria look her over and said she was already a man due to her Western mannerisms. To Shukria, the basis of being male or female in Afghanistan was not in biology, and as Shaheed, another woman interviewed who remains a bacha posh at 30, describes, the difference is in freedom, and that “between gender and freedom, freedom is the bigger and more important idea.” 

Malala sits and speaks with David Cameron at a conference about Syria
David Cameron meets with Malala Yousafzai at the Syria Conference. Source: UK Department for International Development, Creative Commons

Heroines

The women in The Underground Girls of Kabul and The Breadwinner all demonstrate this spirit of defiance and freedom, and historically they are no exception. Much like the stories of Joan of Arc and Mulan, Afghanistan also holds a woman folk hero in high regard. During a fight against British troops in 1880 when the Afghan army was close to defeat, a woman rushed out, rallied the troops, and used her veil as flag to lead them to victory. While killed in battle, the memory of the warrior Malalai lives on to inspire both Afghan girls and boys to be strong in the face of adversity. Both Parvana and the bacha posh Nordberg spoke with bring to mind Malalai to give them strength when their own resolve begins to waiver, and even the Afghan Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai is named after Malalai. In 2009 at the age of 12, Malala began blogging for the BBC about her life under Taliban leadership as she was forced out of school. She continued writing for three years until, after rising to prominence for her activism for girls’ education, she was shot in the head by a member of the Taliban in an attempt to silence her. Malala survived, and after her miraculous recovery and continued activism she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, making her the youngest person to ever become a Nobel Laureate. Even if their life is dominated by religious leaders, threatened by the Taliban, and restrained due to cultural norms, these women cling to the stories of their collective past in the hopes that one day, they too may be recognized as courageous and valuable in the eyes of their society.

Aleppo, Just War and Responsibility to Protect: Why we have failed humanity!

Aleppo A view of Aleppo, Syria from above. It's a real concrete jungle.
Aleppo. A view of Aleppo, Syria from above. It’s a real concrete jungle. Source: Michael Goodine, Creative Commons.

By RUSS HUNTER

I was fortunate to attend a lecture by Dr. John Pace who served in the United Nations for thirty-three years. He distinguished himself as a champion of human rights. He was Secretary to the Commission on Human Rights (1978 to 1994) and Coordinator of the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights (1991 to 1993) with many other posts and special envoys on human rights. I asked Dr. Pace specifically about Aleppo–whether the armed humanitarian intervention (AHI), right to protect (R2P) or the International Criminal Court (ICC) will ever address the glaring human rights abuses by many actors internal and external to Syria. His reply gave me pause. First, he related that AHI as a term is useless. It needs to be debated and defined. AHI is like saying: (paraphrasing) Here is a poisonous sandwich that will nourish you. Second, Syria and in particular Aleppo, will in time be reviewed and the ICC or some other UN commission will tackle the issue. In the meantime, not much will change. I was not surprised by his assessment.

Aleppo, we hear much about the death and destruction, lives forever lost, families forever marred by the violence. Communities wiped out. Horrors that we can barely grasp or fathom as we sit idly by as hundreds of thousands have been displaced. The following will not comfort you, but I do hope it makes you think, make you reflect, make you pause, even if just for a moment about our world politics, and  question the reasons why we have allowed something so heinous occur. We have often heard our politicians say things such as ‘never again’, ‘we must not let the human suffering of this magnitude occur’, and ‘don’t cross the red line or we will act’. The reality is, that is all bluster and posturing from politicians. We have just war theory and responsibility to protect as accepted doctrines that can be used to stop an Aleppo from happening. This blog will challenge your thinking in a way that will force you to engage in finding a way to prevent future Aleppo.

We have seen the politics of the UN and in particular the UN Security Council many times before. The failure of the UN has prompted regional coalitions to band together to tackle issues. The UN Security Council is supposed to be the framework for the use of military forces against all forms of aggression. This is particularly the case when forces are piercing the territorial and political sovereignty of a nation. If regional alliances decide to invade on humanitarian reasons but are not sanctioned by the UN, does this destabilize world order? If the politics of the UN fails to protect human rights do regional alliances have a right to intervene? The politics of the UN leads me to my concern: What are the barriers to human rights? What is more likely to succeed in the protection of human rights in a conflict zone?

I will lay out my argument that just war theory (JWT) is justified for humanitarian intervention. The role of the United Nations (UN) Security Council cannot be overstated in this process. My argument lays out how the UN in its political machinations refuses to address the shortcomings of humanitarian intervention (HI). By refusing to address the shortcomings, the UN is a body politic who is complicit in the loss of life and displacement of refugees. Before we go into Aleppo and why it has not ‘triggered’ HI let us first look at intervention, R2P, AHI and HI, and see if we can discern them and come to an understanding of how we can understand them.

R2P is a doctrine that has evolved and used much like JWT to justify military action. It has most of the same elements as JWT: just cause, right authority and right intention, used as a last resort, proportional means, and a reasonable chance at success. The significant difference from JWT is that R2P is for humanitarian reasons or protection of civilians. In other words, JWT seeks political justification for using military force while R2P is not about the political justification but the humanitarian justification. This justification is a fundamental change in the notion of sovereignty. R2P attempts to move from the Westphalian notion of the state being supreme to the R2P claim that an individual’s sovereignty is supreme.

R2P has three distinct responsibilities: responsibility to prevent, responsibility to react and responsibility to rebuild. AHI, HI, and intervention can all be represented in R2P, in essence, R2P evolved from AHI, HI, and intervention. R2P has become part of the UN framework in dealing with a humanitarian crisis. The inclusion is seen by the UN appointing a Special Adviser to focus on the R2P in 2008 and 2009, the release of a report entitled ‘Implementing the Responsibility to Protect.’ R2P is not internationally accepted nor is the basis of intervention (whichever terminology used AHI, HI, or R2P) without controversy. For this commentary, R2P will be synonymous with intervention, HI, and AHI.  Is R2P legal? If so, why is it not used more often to secure human rights? If not, how do we legally protect human rights in places like Aleppo?

a picture of old Aleppo from the Citadel
Aleppo – from the Citadel. Source: Beshr Abdulhadi, Creative Commons.

War, armed conflict, police actions, intervention, right to protect (R2P), and armed humanitarian intervention (AHI), all have common threads that run through them that connect them to just war theory (JWT). The 1648 Peace of Westphalia gave rise to the current idea of the nation state and the sacredness of its territory. This concept of sanctity has led the world to accept that international order works best when there is respect for non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states. The atrocities of the Nazi regime in World War II has challenged that Westphalian notion of the nation-state but has not resulted in an accepted form of humanitarian intervention. We are left wondering: Is humanitarian intervention (HI) a right to use force based on JWT or human rights? Walzer, in his legalist paradigm, tells us that the international community has established that the rights of territorial integrity and political sovereignty is above all else. He also says that the political reality must give exceptions, one of which is humanitarian intervention. JWT recognizes that there are extreme cases where HI is needed. We leave this thought for a moment as we look at R2P.

Simon Chesterman, in his book Just War or Just Peace? Humanitarian Intervention and International Law, argues that there is no ‘right’ to use humanitarian intervention in the UN Charter nor customary international law. If this is correct why and how do we use R2P or apply it in future cases, or more importantly apply it to Aleppo? He claims that humanitarian intervention has no legal basis, and yet we have many examples where interventions have taken place. In his analysis, he argues that it is dangerous to have a checklist of additional justifications to engage in humanitarian intervention. By having a list, states are more likely to engage in bad faith interventions (US Iraqi invasion 2003). How do we reconcile the notion of a world based on law if R2P is illegal? He suggests we should view an intervention based on humanitarian reasons as illegal but that the international community may well tolerate it. Let us apply this to Aleppo. If as he says R2P is illegal, but the UN has embraced it, WHY is Aleppo happening?  For me, it is political. The UN and specifically the UN Security Council is playing politics. The politics are shaped by the doctrine of R2P and the Westphalian use of JWT. R2P and JWT both agree that HI may be necessary, but there is no agreement on which one may take precedence over the other.

The JWT and R2P conundrum leaves us with what is happening in Aleppo. R2P to date has not been invoked by UN Security Council due to the veto power of Russia and China (and I am unsure if the US, Britain, and France would vote in favor due to strategic interests). The sheer amount of deaths, suffering, and destruction clearly shows HI should have occurred sooner. Why not R2P? Only the UN Security Council can answer that one. From an outsider’s perspective, it is due to political maneuvering and unlike Libya, Syria is not a major oil producer and supplier of oil to the EU like Libya is.

a picture of Syrian children
Children. Source: Giulio Bernardi, Creative Commons.

The argument gets sticky here, and some may cringe at what I am about to say. JWT for HI has been invoked – by Assad. Follow me on this. Back to Walzer, his legalist paradigm says the territory and political sovereignty is above all else with exceptions. Within that framework of exception is that the sovereign nation can ask for help with insurrection or anything that threatens to overthrow or pierce their sovereignty. By Assad ‘asking’ Russia for help, they invoked JWT. In doing this, they cut off R2P from occurring. Why? A sovereign nation (Syria) has asked for help (Russia) to defeat an insurgency. Legal and ‘just’ according to JWT. If another country (countries) declared R2P, they do not have a legal basis to intervene, especially without a UN Security Council resolution. If R2P were invoked, it would be declaring war against Syria and Russia. The moment for R2P has fallen to the wastelands of missed opportunities. Why did this happen? R2P has been used recently in Libya, and the aftermath that has ensued in Libya has made everyone pause. For this writer, Libya may have ended R2P from fully realizing its potential. However, why has it failed?

We need to look at the structure of the UN and in particular the sovereignty of the nation-state. We have established under Walzer that the territorial and political sovereignty is above all else. The UN also guarantees this under UN Charter Article 2 (7). As with Walzer the UN Article 2 (7) gives exceptions. This non-intervention can be revoked if the state fails to protect their citizens from repression and internal armed conflicts. Back to my discussion with Dr. Pace. I asked when has the UN ever kicked out a member or declared them minimally unjust? His response “never.” I checked the UN website and could not find any nation expelled or declared minimally unjust. That is where the UN, JWT, and R2P have an issue. If the sanctioning body (UN) and the body that authorizes intervention (UN Security Council) fail to call out leaders of nations who are not minimally just and are not protecting their citizens, how can human rights be upheld? In my opinion, this is the core issue. The UN and the international society have given the state more rights than the individual. R2P tried to change the sovereignty from the state to the individual but as Chesterman points out the law is not on the individual’s side when the nation-state is involved.

Where does this leave us? Is it safe to say that humanitarian intervention is in competing doctrines? Which doctrine is correct? JWT based on national territorial boundaries and political sovereignty or R2P which has no basis in law? If we listen to David Rodin (2002) in War and Self-Defense, he proposes that we should resurrect Kant’s two-tier moral strategy. First, by seeking to mitigate and moderate the evils of war. Second, create a program for achieving a just international system based on an official international rule of law. What Rodin wants is the realization of the ‘cosmopolitan view’ as he pushes for a radical reworking of JWT and international relations.

The basic lesson we should take from the present argument is that our traditional  conceptions of international law and international ethics need to be fundamentally rethought. There is a great scope for real and substantial progress to be made in this area. We need a framework of international ethics which gives greater recognition and protection to the rights of individuals as against states, which can address the problems of     civil war and internal oppression, and which is able to more effectively restrain international aggression. (Rodin 2002, 199)

Perhaps Rodin has it right. We need to listen and take a lesson from Aleppo. We do need a framework of international ethics, and we have no international body to provide it. The UN is continuing to fail us. The world is suffering. Our human history has never been strong about individual rights. We have had Kings, Queens, Arch-Dukes, Czars, Khans, and Emperors who have ruled empires. We have had conquests to rule the world with no thought of the individual. Human rights are new in the timeline. The Enlightenment ushered in a new awareness of the unalienable rights of the individual, but that has not triumphed over the rights of the state.

History is full of examples of the state trampling on human rights even after the Enlightenment. Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung, and many others have killed millions, and yet an individual’s right to life is second to the sovereignty of the nation.

a picture of a man in a boat on the Eufates River
2008-XIII-A Eufrates. Source: Mr. Theklan, Creative Commons.

We must face that Aleppo suffers because it is the wrong class, race, and religion of people being harmed.  A current list of emergency alerts, published by Genocide Watch, reveals there are no alerts  from a global North, or any countries part of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) nations; listed are Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Central African Republic, Myanmar (Rakhine and Kachin), Burundi, and Boko Haram – Borno State. We have had some regional responses to some of these areas; however, I wager that if this were happening in the global North, we would have seen intervention a long, long time ago.

What will it take to shape the future of human rights? I wager a global North event, an event that rivals that of which we do not like to compare to, I hate to say it but, on the level of the Holocaust. Why? It is because of the failure of the UN to evolve past political manipulation. The League of Nations and the subsequent United Nations was born from the horrific event of the Holocaust. For the UN to evolve once more, I fear it will take something so drastic as to shake the foundations and cause the international society to evaluate itself and what it is doing for humanity.

How can human rights best be protected in a conflict zone? By the UN enacting strong, swift, and a just response to any nation that violates and commits atrocities against humanity. The UN has to act. The UN has to become apolitical when it comes to crimes against humanity. As long as there is a failure of the state to protect the right to life, we must understand that human rights are being pushed backward and not forward. Until the UN becomes able to deal with internal politics, we will continue to have Aleppo’s in our future. So far, the nation-state’s sovereignty reigns supreme, and that does not bode well for the future of humanity.

 

Russ Hunter Expertise: Civil/Military Operations, Intelligence, WMD Operations
Russ is currently in the Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies program at the University of Otago. He holds a Master Degree in Liberal Arts from the University of Richmond, a Post Grad Certificate from the University of Stirling, Scotland and is a graduate of the U.S Army Sergeants Major Academy. He retired from the U.S. Army as a Sergeant Major in 2009 with over 24 years of distinguished military service in both Operations and Intelligence. He has been a guest lecturer at the University of Richmond. The titles of Russ’ past lectures have been Drone Strikes: A Case for a Moral Response, Evolution of Unmanned Air Systems (Drones in the Sky), and Counterterrorism/Antiterrorism Strategy. He co-taught a Drone law course for law, paralegal and Masters students. Russ has multiple awards and citations both professional and academic.

Works Cited:

Chesterman, S. 2001. Just War or Just Peace? Humanitarian Intervention and International Law. New York: Oxford University Press.

Genocide Watch. 2016. http://www.genocidewatch.com/countries-at-risk

Rodin, D. 2002. War and Self-Defense. New York: Oxford University Press.

Walzer, M. 1977. Just and Unjust Wars. New York: Basic Books.