A different kind of war

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

ACCORDING to initial British investigations as reported in The Independent, the terrorist attacks in London in July were “home-grown” and were not masterminded by Al Qaeda. It was also said that the two attacks were not connected and the bombers had worked in isolation. The matter for greater concern for the British security forces is that investigators believe that there are a number of “self-sufficient” radicalized cells in hiding in the UK.

These conclusions, correct as they appear to be, have far-reaching implications for the future of international relations. They reinforce the view that the concepts of the national state enjoying de facto and de jure sovereignty as well as the international law of war need to be given a second look. These paradigms were already being eroded in a subtle way over the years, but jurists and political leaders have yet to admit it explicitly. These issues will have to be addressed if mankind is to survive.

The present state system emerged after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 defined a state as an entity having four key features — territory, government, population and sovereignty. This concept has survived for nearly two centuries even though the international system has been transformed over the decades by decolonization, the globalization of economics (which according to Noam Chomsky is in effect the internationalization of the state economies under the giant multinational corporations) and the emergence of new technologies that have changed the nature of warfare and communication.

It is now plain that these factors have undermined the sovereignty of the smaller and weaker states of the Third World because the big powers have manipulated developments to their own advantage. In the age of the cold war, any country with a leadership that had political acumen and strategic skills could manipulate the international situation to protect its sovereignty. Not that this was always in the national interest. Nevertheless, it was the government and the people (if they were fortunate enough to have a democratic state structure) who decided how the country was to be governed and how much foreign interference they would brook.

But today the concept of “domestic jurisdiction” — as a corollary of sovereignty — as was enshrined in the United Nations Charter in 1945 has virtually disappeared. True, the world community joined hands for the common good of mankind and to make individual states waive their rights over matters that fell within their jurisdiction.

That is how the post-war period has seen a plethora of human rights conventions that have been signed and the numerous agencies which have been set up to monitor the implementation of these agreements. By virtue of these treaties the signatories have virtually surrendered their sovereignty in many areas of national life in a manner that would have been unthinkable even a century ago.

This thrust towards democracy and human rights is something positive that has come about in the closing years of the 20th century. But the main cause of concern is the undeniable fact that these newly created “self-constraints” on sovereignty are not equally and evenhandedly implemented. A strong state by virtue of its military and economic power can get away with many violations and aberrations without a finger being lifted. A small state, on the other hand, has to suffer sanctions and punitive action even if its guilt cannot be conclusively proved.

Thus the world is now polarized between the strong, mighty, democratic and wealthy (in many cases) states, and the weak, over-populated, impoverished and autocratic states.

What has been the consequence of this phenomenon? For many people it has amounted to a return of the age of colonization with the colonizer no longer constrained by the weight of the so-called “white man’s burden”. Freed from the need of maintaining a physical presence in the country they are attempting to control, the big powers have found their task made easier.

This has evoked resistance from the people who feel oppressed and has produced far-reaching changes in the form and ground rules of war. The most important development has been the emergence of non-state actors — the terrorists in current parlance — as the belligerents in the war against those they perceive as the oppressors. Initially they were fighting guerrilla wars.

But over a period of time, these conflicts spilled into other states and now no boundaries are recognized between the parties at war. The non-state actors launch attacks from a third state which is unable to check the perpetrators of these acts of violence.

The divide between the two sides at war is quite blurred and their war aims are quite ambiguous. But because of the technology available to them the casualty figures are high and as happens in such wars innocent men, women and children are killed quite indiscriminately. We have seen happen this in Palestine, Afghanistan, New York, Bali, Istanbul, Madrid, Baghdad and London.

The findings of the London bombings confirm what had been widely believed: non-state actors do not constitute an organized army with a chain of command and specific strategic goals. The Twin Towers attacks might have entailed advance planning, directions and funding on the part of Al Qaeda, but thereafter it does not appear to be operating as a monolithic organization with a military arm planning and conducting attacks. Since making bombs has become an easy enterprise, there is nothing to stop radicalized people from launching attacks at will.

Some researchers believe the ongoing terrorist attacks are campaigns in a global war that promises to be even more deadly and long drawn than the world wars mankind experienced in the 20th century. Terrorism has become an endemic feature of the modern world.

The problem is that governments have failed to understand what is happening. One factor that makes peace more difficult to achieve is the fact that there are no clearly defined parties with accredited representatives to negotiate a ceasefire with. In many places the terrorists are also attacking civilians in the Third World country from where they are operating.

Pakistan is a case in point. The weakness and lack of training of the ill-equipped and corrupt intelligence and security forces of the host country make it a convenient sanctuary for terrorists. It has hardly been taken note of by world leaders and in the international media that many of the militant groups accused of carrying out terrorist attacks have killed many more innocent Shias in Pakistan than the 52 innocent people who died in London.

The two world wars of the last century ended when the representatives of the two sides met and negotiated an armistice. Japan and Germany had a state structure with which the victors could deal. In the changed situation of today, the present war will have to be a war to the finish. This makes the prospect ominous because the end is not anywhere close.

Killing or capturing the high command of Al Qaeda is not helping the West win the war because there are so many “self-sufficient units” springing up as time passes. Since the members of these units derive ideological sustenance from dispersed sources, the end will only come when all these states are also destroyed. Is the West willing to unleash an Armageddon and kill billions of people to flush out the terrorists?

A way out of this dilemma has to be found. First of all, the states (through the United Nations perhaps) will have to recognize the changes that have come about in the various paradigms of international relations. Fortunately, there are large segments of the population in countries on both sides of the divide who share a common thinking.

They subscribe to the ideals of democracy, human rights and peace. They are critical of their own governments when they see them going to war, oppressing people and denying them their human rights. Globalization and communication technology has made it easy for them to network and interact.

They have displayed their clout on crucial occasions, though they have not always succeeded in preempting a move they had opposed. The demonstrations in Seattle against the WTO, the meetings of the World Social Forum, and the peace demonstrations all over the world when the US was preparing to attack Iraq in 2003 confirm that there is a large mass of lovers of peace, human rights and democracy that transcend all boundaries. There is need to tap into this human pool.

It is important that governments which stand for peace and democracy should join hands with the peace activists and mobilize them all over the world to resist the trigger-happy armies and terrorists locked in their own battles.