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In light of the UN's Oct 2014 report on violations of international law in Iraq, IBC's Lily Hamourtziadou discusses how such appalling crimes are almost invariably justified by the perpetrators.

The language and actions of states and non-states

Unspeakable crimes, indefensible actions, always in a ‘good cause’

by Lily Hamourtziadou
16 October 2014

‘Islamic State insurgents in Iraq have carried out mass executions, abducted women and girls as sex slaves, and used child soldiers in what may amount to systematic war crimes that demand prosecution, the United Nations said on Thursday [Oct 2]... In a report based on 500 interviews with witnesses, [the UN] also said Iraqi government air strikes on the Sunni Muslim militants had caused “significant civilian deaths” by hitting villages, a school and hospitals in violation of international law.’ 1

The latest ‘new’ actor to enter the conflict this year is the so-called ‘Islamic State’, previously known as Al Qaeda in Iraq. The violence it has brought is hardly new in Iraq; in fact, the violence against the civilian population did not cease, even for a day, since Shock and Awe. This year, however, as the Islamic State joins the battleground, closely followed by the return of US and UK air forces, among others, Iraq is making headlines again.

The new force is calling itself a state. It is, at least, aspiring to be a state. It certainly feels as entitled as the Iraqi state, as entitled as the American state, as entitled as the UK and now also France and Jordan and Canada and the Gulf states and others, entitled and justified to be there, to seek power, to pursue its own interests and to kill for them. How entitled are they, any of them, to be there, to seek power, to pursue their own interests and to kill?

International boundaries are a distinctive social relation between human beings organized as sovereign states. And just like the states themselves, the boundaries between them are social constructions: they can be instituted, they can be defended, they can be disregarded, they can be violated, they can be dismantled, they can be moved, and their significance and uses can be changed. The map of Europe of 1400 was different from that of 1700 which was again different from the map of the present time. 2

2R.H. Jackson, Boundaries and International Society, in Robertson, International Society and the Development of International Relations Theory. Pinter, 1998, p.157

If boundaries are violated, moved, defended and created all the time, why wouldn’t the Islamic State believe it had the right to be there, challenging those boundaries and trying to create new ones, by drawing a line around themselves and constituting a sovereign state? Why wouldn’t they believe they had the right to pursue their lives in accordance with their own ideas, free from external intervention, in the territory they demarcate as their own? Much like Western states have done for centuries, in Europe, in the Americas, and much of the colonised world. Always with heavy civilian casualties. The fact that the Islamic State is currently a non-state, a terrorist group, is used to contrast it with those who kill legitimately, the states. In international law state violence can be legal, whereas non-state violence cannot.

In other words, ‘state’ is good, ‘state’ is legal, while ‘non-state’ is bad and illegal. History, however, indicates that the bloodiest wars with the highest death toll, in terms of soldiers and civilians, in the last 100 years, have been fought by states. The second world war, in the space of 6 years, led to the deaths of an estimated 20,000,000 people. A state used nuclear power to not only kill, but also to maim and make future generations suffer the effects of the atom bomb; another state executed millions of civilians in concentration camps; yet another state committed atrocities using chemical and biological weapons, used women as sex slaves, tortured and buried people alive.

Words are not neutral. Language helps make the world, it affects our cognition and our emotions. It makes us perceive a ‘hero’, or a ‘terrorist’; it helps us describe an act as ‘legal’, another as ‘illegal’, to express our approval or disapproval of it, to declare it ‘right’, or ‘wrong’. Language is used to create a sense of outrage, fear, pride, compassion. Worlds and realities are constantly being constructed, where state violence appears reasonable and non-state violence does not, where good battles evil, where ‘war on terror’ appears rational and imperative.

The Islamic State uses similar tactics:

Islamic State and allied groups have attacked and destroyed places of religious and cultural significance in Iraq that do not conform to its "takfiri" doctrine, the U.N. report said, referring to the beliefs of Sunni militants who justify their violence by branding others as apostates.1

They justify their violence using religious language and divine entitlement. Their killings are done according to ‘God’s will’, their public beheadings of Westerners the fault of the West.

The question of legitimacy and illegitimacy, when it comes to the use of force, is not one that has an easy answer. Everyone claims to be justified in using their forces and weapons and all sides kill civilians. States and non-states. Iraq, the US, the UK, the IS, Al Qaeda, the Mahdi Army and many others over the years. The principle of universality is never entertained, as each side believes it and only it is justified in its actions, it and only it has been provoked to act in this way, it and only it has the right to strike, to kill, to defend, or to change the status quo. To apply the same logic to the other side is inconceivable.

In the midst of all the legitimations, the justifications and divine references, the innocents are blown up and gunned down every day. Mortared, shot, beheaded. Young, old, infant, male and female. Over 13,000 since the start of this year. When looking for those barbarians, we may want to remember that we are all capable of barbarism, the legal and the civilised included.

This is one reason why casualty recording organisations such as IBC consider it vital to record every death, without prejudgement as to whether it is a war crime or some other violation of international law, or whether it might be judged legal or justifiable by one or more parties to the conflict. Thus, since March 2003 IBC has been recording the killing of civilians in Iraq by bombers, in air strikes, beheadings, shootings, by any and every perpetrator: insurgent, state, foreign soldier. The final determination of which of those is to be judged legal and which illegal (and by whom) is a matter for states and the international community. What is logically needed before any such judgement can be made soundly – or with any degree of comprehensiveness – is the collection, documentation, and dissemination of all available data on who has been killed, where, when, and how. It such activity that IBC has tirelessly devoted itself to, every day of every year, since the night Iraq was invaded.

And every day the reports from Iraq continue to come in:

13 Bodies found dumped in a farm south of Tikrit

Iraqi journalist executed in Mosul

39 citizens killed, injured in Kadhmiya suicide bombing

17 Civilians killed by missile strikes in the north and east of Tikrit

Baghdad car bombs kill 43 in Shia neighborhoods

A journalist, an activist, a grandmother with her grandchildren, brothers, husbands and wives, police officers, the families of militia, farmers as they work, women as they shop. People like you. People like us. But whose blood is being spilt on someone else’s battlefield, on someone’s else’s path to empire.