International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Human Rights Violations: Crimes of Desperation?

Why is it that while we may say “never again” regarding human rights violations, we tend to see “over and over again” on the global stage? Despite the establishment of the ad hoc tribunals, truth commissions, and a permanent International Criminal Court, deterrence has yet to take effect to the degree that most would desire.  Naturally, the notion that establishing laws and enacting punishment will deter all potential perpetrators is unrealistic; if deterrence worked that well, we would not see crimes on the domestic level.  But one may expect the rate of these violations to strongly decrease.  Of course, I have not crunched all the numbers, but even a cursory look at the latest international news suggests that perpetrations continue at a frightening rate.  Why?  One argument could be that the ICC is too new to have fully established its credibility.  As we have discussed in class, most cases are still underway and the only conviction thus far is Lubanga.  Under this argument, the passage of time and more successful convictions could lead to an effective deterrent effect.

But will the passage of time be enough? Or, are there other factors that make deterrence more difficult than convincing a rational actor that the costs will outweigh the benefits?  Based on an observation of some current international situations, I would argue that there is an inherent difficulty (though by no means impossibility) in deterring human rights abuses.  This is because some human rights abuses are arguably crimes of desperation.

Before elucidating further, it is important to recognize that seeking to explain behavior and justifying that behavior are different things.  Behavior can be explained without being justified.  Therefore, as I continue, I hope that my attempt at explaining why perpetrators commit human rights abuses will not be misconstrued as an effort to justify such atrocities.  Furthermore, this explanation does not apply to all human rights abuses, but may explain some.

Human rights abuses are often committed in the context of wars; either during, or shortly after violent conflict.  Wars create desperate situations in which actors may believe that their survival (political and/or physical) is at stake.  Furthermore, many of these conflicts are asymmetric; for instance, a government’s army versus a rebel group (or often a group of distinct rebel groups).  In such situations, where survival or other non-negotiable goals are at stake and asymmetry exists, there is often an incentive to participate in unconventional warfare.  Unconventional warfare often involves attacks in civilian centers and other locations where collateral damage is highly likely.  Furthermore, facing such a situation, government forces will often resort to extra-judicial means to combat such vulnerabilities.  Essentially, both sides choose to fight fire with fire.  Conflicts then spiral, as each seeks to counter the new threats posed by the other.  As the conflict deepens, desperation worsens and human rights abuses proliferate.

Two current situations present this clearly.  The first is the conflict in Colombia.  As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, this conflict has raged for decades between the FARC and the Colombian government.  The FARC, in an attempt to maintain sufficient forces, has been recruiting child soldiers.  The government, desperately trying to root out rebels, has engaged in illegal surveillance and extra-judicial killings.  Until peace is arranged, such crimes of desperation are likely to continue and collateral damage will perpetuate.  The latest example being a suitcase bomb that killed the two suspected bombers and injured 37 people, including some children celebrating Halloween:

Another example is Nigeria, where men and teen boys in certain neighborhoods, have been rounded up and shot on sight by government forces.  Why? Because these neighborhoods are believed to be strongholds of the Boko Haram, an anti-government Islamist group.  The Boko Haram for their part have attacked Christians in churches and recently assassinated a former general in his home, entering his residence disguised as guests.

Regardless of which side initiated the violations of human rights, once such violations begin there is a high likelihood that both sides will participate in violations.  This may be because of the desperate nature of these conflicts, where confrontations between conventional forces on a separate battlefield will not occur.  Such an observation is frightening because if these violations are motivated by desperation, the ability to deter them may be highly difficult because those acting in desperation are usually more concerned with the short-term (survival and achievement of vital goals) than the long-term (accountability for crimes).


3 responses to “Human Rights Violations: Crimes of Desperation?

  1. emmaline786 November 6, 2012 at 10:15 am

    I was really intrigued by your post because it got me thinking about the globalization of conflict and human rights abuses. To what extent are human rights abuse perpetrators around the world influenced/inspired by each other’s behavior? Is recruiting child soldiers a natural evolution of a certain type of guerrilla warfare, or is it a learned practice from other conflicts? A lot of these conflicts seem to have similarities (like the disappearances in Latin America in the 1980s), but whether or not these practices are a direct product of each other is interesting to me. If Nigeria is learning its practices from Rwanda, then the ICTR can have a much more profound impact, because then perpetrators connect the dots and realize that they too can be held accountable. But if each conflict is more separate and isolated than that, then I think it’s much harder to make criminal tribunals have a deterring effect.

  2. kquinteroh November 19, 2012 at 1:21 am

    The idea that you bring up about desperation and its possible implications for the development of conflict overall is very interesting. I also agree with the observation that once an actor launches and attack, retaliation makes it spiral out of control. In fact, I think that is one of the reasons why the conflict in Colombia has lasted so long. In the early 1950s, the murder of Jorge Gaitan, a popular liberal leader set off a civil war that led to the formation of several guerrilla groups, some of which are still active. In response to the attacks of the guerrilla, groups of landowners formed paramilitary groups to protect themselves. This led cycle of constant attacks and retaliation.

    I see the idea of desperation as being something more personal and individualized. For example, I see desperation as a driving factor that leads people to kill others, damage property, or join a group that commits these acts. When we speak about the massive human rights violations, we are looking at something that goes beyond the individual to a phenomenon that is planned and orchestrated through some kind of leadership. All groups of oppressed or desperate people won’t always take up arms, there might be other conditions that allow to the kind of massive human rights violations. These types of situations also make it more difficult to delegate blame or to hold a certain party accountable since violence might have been preceded by the imposition of unbearable living conditions that drove people to these thresholds of desperation in the first place.

    • gentryj November 19, 2012 at 11:54 am

      Thank you for your reply. Certainly desperation exists at the individual level and this does lead to the personal choices you have mentioned. Furthermore, you are correct in stating that such individual desperation does not explain massive, organized human rights abuses. However, I would clarify that I believe there is also a degree of organizational desperation that grips both resistance groups and the governments that face them. Again, this does not seek to justify behavior or divert blame. However, we may be able to better understand their behavior by showing why we see these groups begin violating human rights when these acts are so grossly against the norms of human behavior. In both cases, these organizations, and their leaders, may reach the point where they do not believe they can succeed in their goals without “breaking the rules”. Notably, these goals themselves may be morally wrong (for instance, Apartheid sought to maintain white control over a black super-majority). In the case of governments, desperation may come out of fear of a growing population that may resist them or strip them of their power. In addition, it may come from an inability to fight a resistance group on conventional terms (or a fear that one would lose in a conventional conflict). For resistance groups, it is often an inability to face the enemy head-on, which leads them to commit acts of terrorism. For instance, think of the young man in Long Night’s Journey into Day who joined the MK, a group that resisted Apartheid through bombing areas frequented by police (on or off duty). While desperate individuals are drawn to such groups, my point is that the organizations themselves are often desperate and that such desperation actually shapes the plans that they create. Again, this is not a description of things as they should be and criminals should not be acquitted by claiming they were desperate. However, it could give us insight into some of these conflicts.

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