“The blood of women, children and old people shall not stain your victory. Do not destroy a palm tree, nor burn houses and cornfields with fire, and do not cut any fruitful tree.”
The First Caliph, Abu Bakr (Dieter Fleck, The Handbook of Humanitarian Law in Armed Conflict, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004, p. 14.)
The Ugly Necessity
The extract above has always leapt straight into my heartbeat. First, because of its poetry of course – the elegant way in which it reminds fighters that even in this most deprived and unfortunate choice one has taken in the course of one’s life, war is not about wanton revenge, dehumanisation of an enemy or debasing into our most animalistic form. Second, because of its origin. In today’s incessant and politicised coverage of terrorism and rhetoric of extremes, there is a relief to hold on to the words of a historical figure from the most hotly discussed religion today, who explicitly demanded that we should continue to seek for our higher self even in the ugly necessity that is war.
In my adolescence, I did not have a full concept of the what, the who and the how, but I was quite baffled by the why of warfare. In this era of civilisation, why are we still here, soaking in the blood of human lives that we partake in ending? For more than a decade, my studies and career have taken me to roads where the necessity of war is an unavoidable theme. And still, I am not sure why is war a necessity. To sidestep this question of which I have no real answers for, I embraced the laws of war to focus on its’ regulation. If we must debase ourselves and engage in these acts of violence and pointless petulance, let’s develop a framework for it shall we?
As a student, it gave me some sliver of hope to read that one of the vital tenets of humanitarian law was to ensure that acts of hostilities do not go beyond what is militarily necessary in defeating the adversary’s army and protecting those who do not fight. It was a rule that can be uncovered throughout the chronology and geography of warfare. There seemed to be a consistent understanding, explicit and implicit, amongst those who fought in wars that took place from Europe to the Far East, between ancient civilisations, religious crusades, and during the Middle Ages, that there were types of conducts which were not necessary to win a war, and a category of persons who were not to be attacked. And in reality, these are in fact the principles which feeds the foundation of international humanitarian and criminal laws but sadly its’ implementation is always so often frustrated with global politicisation.
And yet, when people scoff at the relevance and ineffectiveness of international law and the international organisations which were established to regulate the international community I often think what most people do not embrace is that international law is a reflection of you and I, as a member of the international community. Have we done enough, on our part, to get ourselves and our governments support and be held accountable to the world order in order to prevent our own destruction? If we think it’s not in our hands, then we’ve signed up to being part of the problem and not the solution.
Many leading international humanitarian organisations were created as a direct response to wars that took away the lives of people from multiple continents all across the world, North and South, East and West – it was a historical pheonix-arising achievement from the debris of death and destruction and it came from a place of wanting desperately to strive for our higher selves and cling on to what keeps us together and not what separates us. If we are uncomfortable with its present day direction, failures, manifestation, ideals and objectives then keep the conversation and protest alive – so many of the basic rights which we benefit from today was a direct result of decades of conversation and protest. Scoffing at the sidelines, rejecting it in its totality, turning our backs against it fully and refusing to value the good that it has brought to the world would be cutting our nose to spite our own face, wouldn’t it? I don’t know. I was born into this world order, and I want to be part of an inclusive narrative on how we can keep finding the antidote to improve the human condition that could resonate with all, and not just a few sections of society. Silence and indifferent disdain is what keeps us unformed and on self-destruct.
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