a moral approach to terminating mass atrocities: whither violence?

Late last week, in the midst of the media-stifling #KONY2012 hubbub, Alex de Waal published an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune, outlining a pragmatic approach to mass atrocities termination. In the piece, de Waal critiques the “idealist” approach towards conflict resolution, demonstrated by the moral foreign policy advocacy of Samantha Power and Gareth Evans, two of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine’s earliest advocates. As Roland Paris observes, de Waal’s “caricature” of foreign policy idealism did not help his case, in which he argued for an “evidence-based” approach to atrocities response policy. Judging from de Waal’s previously nuanced case for empirical atrocities prevention, part of the problem may have been the format: his Fletcher Forum essay on the same subject was much more coherent, structured, and insightful than his IHT piece. Regardless, here’s an excerpt from the latter, which underlines pragmatism’s policy strength:

Responding to mass atrocities, whether ongoing or imminent, is difficult enough, but the idealism of Evans and Power makes it that much more so. They have composed a story, based on ethics rather than evidence, that incorrectly assumes all perpetrators of mass political violence are insatiable killers and that dictates who should respond (Western nations), how (with military intervention) and why (for justice and democracy). It is a morality tale that undermines the best ways to deal with the worst crimes.

In a post last week, Adam Elkus presented a similar argument, noting the context for civilian protection, as well as the policy tools responsible for ensuring its prioritization within a dynamic political order. Without crediting the concept’s popularization, Elkus critiques the depoliticization of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s concept of “credible influence,” a non-coercive form of political statecraft:

[I]f the peacekeeping paradigm was not a challenge to an order but a production of it, effective protection of civilians is eminently possible. Depoliticizing intervention could produce human security with a minimum of “mission creep” and without substantial risk to peacekeepers. This would understandably reduce the opportunities for the use of force abroad. However, it would undoubtedly save many lives, and would be rooted in a sound understanding of the limits of idealism to change the political.

In de Waal’s case, the author uses his concept of pragmatic atrocities termination policy to argue against the intervention/non-intervention dichotomy, outlining the utility of negotiated peace settlements in securing an end to atrocities. Conflict termination literature has yielded mixed conclusions on the functional value of negotiated peace settlements, which appear to rely on a credible, transparent peacekeeping operation for successful implementation. Mass atrocities literature, in its nascent form, has yielded no such conclusions; as with military intervention, the atrocity-specific dataset remains limited, given the difficulty of disaggregating conflict termination, broadly defined, and atrocity-related policy interventions. (I’d imagine de Waal’s World Peace Foundation is developing a dataset, but the Political Instability Task Force’s 2008 atrocities data (ungated) are relatively young.) Indeed, despite de Waal’s defense of negotiated settlements, his more nuanced treatment of the political mediation is a bit more skeptical. Drawing from his wealth of Sudan-related diplomatic encounters, de Waal dismisses our contemporary paradigms for non-coercive diplomacy (read: localized, negotiated peace settlements):

I argue that our mediation paradigms are still framed by the “old” war ideal type, in that mediators seek to achieve compromise between two adversaries with political objectives, each of which has decided it cannot fully defeat the other. In both “joint enterprise” wars and “political marketplace” conflicts, a third party mediation process is liable to become subsumed within that system of governance itself. Noting that rentier political markets are globally integrated, this has the consequence that mediation is conducted less among the contending parties themselves, and more in the form of them individually and competitively, petitioning external patrons and powerbrokers.

At first glance, de Waal’s treatment of both military interventions and diplomatic negotiation appears contradictory: in the IHT piece, he condemns the foreign policy idealists’ normative support for third-party intervention, while simultaneously citing the role of Indian and Vietnamese intervention in atrocities termination in Bangladesh and Cambodia, respectively; on negotiations, de Waal condemns our contemporary framework for peace settlement, while defending the empirical value of political negotiations. Further reflection, however, indicates otherwise. De Waal’s distaste for contemporary peacemaking trends evolves from a deeper, more integral characteristic of contemporary perspectives on conflict: the role of violence. In arguing for a new atrocities termination paradigm, de Waal presents a broader approach to understanding violence, its role in political contestation, and how to prevent its occurrence. De Waal’s model, which he refers to as the “political marketplace,” places violence against civilians, state authorities, and organizational actors within the context of dynamic rent-seeking processes, which define political, economic, and social incentives for violent mobilization. For de Waal, the static approach to conflict mediation–characterized, one imagines, by the stagnant, decontextualized Doha negotiations on Darfur–is insufficient:

Approaches to mediation have not kept pace with these changes. We still adopt a model that treats civil war as akin to a football game or boxing match, with two sides contesting in pursuit of victory. However, in some cases, it can be a collaborative venture in which the two “sides” benefit from continued conflict. Or, in the case of a rentier political marketplace, a political insurgency is embedded within systemic political-societal-criminal violence. Levels of violence fluctuate in such a system, escalating and reducing in response to shifting political conditions. Additionally, this form of governance is hierarchical, so that political actors use a mediation forum to petition patrons, including global actors such as western governments.

I’ll leave the qualitative, case-study-based assessment of the political marketplace’s broader applicability to de Waal and the World Peace Foundation team. I will say, however, that civilian protection advocates’ understanding of violence, generally speaking, does not reflect the dynamic, evolving nature of political violence and its consequences for civilian populations. In our attempts to condemn violence–to dismiss its moral value–we undermine violence’s rational and, often, irrational application to a variety of political, social, and economic circumstances. The Kony controversy is only the most recent demonstration of our lack of cognitive imagination: while recognizing the LRA’s shift towards criminal mobilization, advocates’ policy approaches remain consistent, predicated on the decapitation of the insurgency’s political leadership.

It’s likely too soon to tell, but Kenya may well serve as a case study of a conflict resolution approach which analyzed political violence correctly (as consistent with, rather than divergent from, the state’s divide between elite exploitation and popular, democratic participation), and sought to correct it (through constitutional devolution and, hopefully, greater support for local mediation processes). With that said, our atrocity-oriented case studies on violence remain woefully under-assessed, ensuring the perpetuation of non-generalizable, myopic approaches to stopping it.

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