por | Dic 19, 2021

As far as violence is concerned, it is (morally) rejected by most people, although this is not the case in international legal terms, where its use is permitted and regulated from the watchtower of peacekeeping. In order to understand this reality, we will study how we understand violence and peace nowadays and how the use […]

As far as violence is concerned, it is (morally) rejected by most people, although this is not the case in international legal terms, where its use is permitted and regulated from the watchtower of peacekeeping. In order to understand this reality, we will study how we understand violence and peace nowadays and how the use of force is articulated in the international system. In addition, we will analyse the most current forms of conflict involving the use of violence, with the purpose of finding out whether humans have other ways of managing and resolving their differences.

“We, the people of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind […]».

This is how the idealistic beginning of the end of violence in the world looks like, under the pretext of two events that are labelled by the United Nations (U.N.) as «untold suffering», i.e. the two world wars. By «untold» it refers to 100 million fatal victims (or who knows if more) who were killed during these two terrible events; while by «sorrow» it is meant to emphasise how miserably tremendous they were, unwarranted once they had occurred. Even so, human beings do not seem to learn and perpetuate these same mistakes nowadays. It is true that such a war has not yet taken place, although the escalating tension in some State relations may culminate in such a war with little time to react.

Pistola anudada de Reuterswärd (Saed Abu Hmud; Pixabay)

First of all, we should know what we mean by the terms «violence» and «peace». Referring to the Council of Europe’s (CoE) explanations, named “Peace and violence: concepts and examples”, we can check that it provides us with a wider meaning than the World Health Organisation’s definition, which is: «intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation«. Well, the Council of Europe clarifies that not only is violence revealed through «behavioural violence«, with intentionality and due to power relations, but also through other forms of violence that can be initiated for other reasons. The CoE points out to several ones, such as “structural violence”, related to impoverishment and deprivation of opportunities or rights; or “cultural violence”, related to the aggressive destruction of life models or discriminatory actions on different fields, such as gender inequality. Therefore, it is demonstrated that when we speak of violence, it is not exclusively physical violence which easily comes to our minds, since the action of reducing opportunities is also the key to a measure which is contrary to Human Rights. As we can imagine, the cruelest and most irreversible action would result in the reduction of the opportunity to live, that is, death.


“Tras la violencia, 3R: reconstrucción, reconciliación, resolución. Afrontando los efectos visibles e invisibles de la guerra y la violencia” (Johan Galtung; Gernika Gogoratuz)

Peace is defined, for its part, as an antonym of violence but this is not the case. The CoE recalls that it refers both to the absence of armed conflict and the non-use of force to managee it. Furthermore, it is about the guarantee of universal values, such as justice and equity, so that other indirect forms of violence cannot be exercised either. As it says, «the absence of war by itself does not guarantee that people do not suffer psychological violence, repression, injustice and a lack of access to their rights. Therefore, peace cannot be defined only by negative peace«.

So, once we have understood those terms, we are going to more deeply analyse how the UN, as the worldwide guard of peace per se, works to reach so. Indeed, its raison d’être, as stated in article 1.1 of the UN Charter (1945), is:

To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and inter- national law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace.

Simultaneously, it states in article 2.4, belonging to the same First Chapter of Purposes and Principles:

All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political inde-pendence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

It is important to note that this Charter, signed on 26 June 1945, is binding on all its members, which is practically the entire planet. Therefore, it is completely forbidden by International Law to use “force” (another name for violence) when States interact with each other (in their international relations). In fact, according to article 41, the Security Council shall carry out its decisions by measures «not involving the use of armed force«. So why does its use persist today? If it is an intra-state interaction, is it authorised to do so? Violence is taken by politics with a prismatic and pragmatic view: depending on the point of view from which it is seen, it is either ‘right’ or wrong. Not only legally, but also morally and ethically. According to what is written further down in the Charter, we can read that article 42 tells us that the Security Council does allow the use of armed forces to enforce its decisions if they have been flouted by any member. Thus, if we move on to article 44, we can see more explicitly what the Security Council must do when it «has decided to use force«. These last two articles fall under the heading of «action in case of threats to the peace, breaches of the peace or acts of aggression«. To be more precise, the use of violence is justified in the 21st century at the dawn of the mid-20th century. All for the same purpose: to maintain international peace and security, or better written and according to that article, to maintain or reestablish them.

If we have been attentive, we would realise that the UN justifies, under a purely idealistic article of peace, the use of violence to achieve it. Contradiction? It is not possible under such a crucial text for humanity, but rather an act of ethical, and perhaps moral, relief. Were we to apply Dr. C. E Pickhardt’s study of social violence, named “Why violence?”, the perpetrator of a violent act must feel that they are doing the «right thing» and thus «suspend the social constraints» which limit such reactions. Then, how can we relate this sociological application to our topic? States, as bureaucratic bodies, need a law which enables them to do what they would, even be willing to say ‘no’ to those same actions if performed by their own citizens.

The term «just war» is very much in line with what we are trying to envision with this example. Violence is not desirable unless something or someone calls for it, being a circumstance previously ‘lodged’ in our minds, i.e. the Treaties. For States, feeling that they are doing the «right thing» and thus «suspending the moral constraints» of peace and concord on which they rely is crucial, in order not to contain conflicting ideas. Ethically, they would be fulfilling their obligations, as the pre-established would have been obeyed. Nevertheless, morality would have largely been damaged. After all, we are talking about an atmosphere where violence tends to be regulated in order to be used, a common definition of ‘normalisation’; not in everyday life, but in its allowed use.

According to a UN article by Russy D. Sumariwalla, named “Towards a planet-wide culture of non-violence, we are facing a “culture of violence”. We could understand culture not only on a planetary level, but also on a local level, in our everyday life. For instance, a sex scene, as one of the ways of representing love, is much more censored than one with explicit violence, even for minors. Thus, returning to Dr. Sumariwalla’s essay, we are faced with a dilemma to which we have a very clear answer but which human beings have had an arduous task to ‘bring to life’. As mentioned earlier, the Doctor reminds us that the UN itself recognises the right of States to use violence under the umbrella of self-defence. Even though he describes as a success that practically each and every State in the world today continues to be part of the International Organisationthey they all agreed to participate in, he recalls that the 1945 Charter states that wars are created in people’s minds and it is there that they must bring to an end. This reference is eloquent only when we understand the distortion in our brain’s experience, which provokes a response more or less prone to violence. 

According to S. Pinker in “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature to which the Doctor alludes, the current scenario could be the best one we could describe as ‘peaceful’, keeping a perspective with previous historical stages. However, in the words of our author, for this to continue along the established path, violence must be considered as a «last resort at all levels of human relations«. Therefore, he does not rule out the use of force for the treatment or management of some conflicts, just as an extremely unpleasant measure. This thought is directly at odds with the idealism of the beginning of the Charter, where it states a categorical ‘no’ to its use. Although it is to be expected that realpolitik will impose itself on real interactions and the realist vision will come in darkness to obfuscate our desires for an end to violence, as the previously mentioned articles of regulated permission do. To this aim, Sumariwalla proposes the creation of a mechanism within the Security Council (on the basis for the authorisation of the legitimate use of force) to help curb through «national and international targets» and «measure progress«, just as done in other matters.

So now, with all this information, we should wonder: are these mid-twentieth century regulations an anachronism for today’s problems? We ought to take a look at the following graphs, developed by Max Poser for Our World in Data in “Peace and War

In the first one, according to the average war deaths in conflicts by the second half of the century, those laws   were absolutely necessary, although since the 2010s, deaths from inter-state conflicts have declined considerably. This does not mean, by any means, that  1945 regulation has become obsolete. Instead, it has had the unintended effect of maximising the reduction in fatalities. So where should the laws be heading today? 

Although we do not have data after 2016, we can analyse the trend since the signing of the UN Charter. While the number of conflicts based on an inter-state confrontation has decreased, as have imperial or colonial ones, those classified as «civil» account for more than half of the cases, followed closely (especially in recent years) by civil conflicts in which another state intervenes externally.

Those are some of the reasons why this volatile atmosphere must be adapted to recent times. On UN’s article named “A new era of conflict and violence, it is highlighted the different types of conflicts where people are confronted with today:

  • Entrenched conflicts. This confirms the data previously shown, since it points to a decrease in intra-state violence to lead to conflicts with non-state actors, among them and also with states in between. Moreover, current globalisation allows conflicts, no matter how small they may seem, to become «regionalised» and increased in tension. These are mainly fuelled, according to the report, by «unresolved regional issues, the breakdown of the rule of law, absent or co-opted state institutions, illicit economic gain and resource scarcity exacerbated by climate change«.
  • Organised crime, urban and domestic violence. Criminal action nowadays kills more people than armed conflict. According to the report’s 2017 data, they outnumbered in 411000 killed people and by those killed by terrorism, in 481,000. As I often say, murders, killings are expressed in natural numbers but what will never be natural is to have no other than number but zero in them. Indeed, the UN itself is pessimistic and realistic at the same time about achieving violence reduction target in the 16th SDG, explicitly stating that, if progress continues this quickly, «it will not be met by 2030«. These are mainly fuelled, according to the report, by «political instability leading to organised crime, including attacks targeting police, women, journalists and migrants«.
  • Violent extremism. These are fuelled in pre-conflict or low-income states primarily, according to the report, by «conflict […], with more than 99 per cent of all terrorism-related deaths occurring in countries involved in violent conflict or with high levels of political terror«. However, in higher-income countries the report finds that it is due more to «social alienation, lack of economic opportunity and state involvement in external conflict«. It highlights the perverse use of information to introduce their followers ‘targets’ which will vary depending on their ideological ‘hue’, such as conservative extremist and exacerbated nationalisms, or those whos action is based in their particular and distorted view of religion, such as jihadists or anti-Islam thought.
  • New technologies. The report draws attention to the perfidious use which can be made of Artificial Intelligence and new developments in biological or chemical sectors. As a looming threat, it names «cyber-attacks», especially those that could affect critical infrastructures in different areas. Not to mention automatons programmed to kill as a parallel army.
  • Nuclear threat. Although it is a fact since the end of World War II, the continued existence of these frightening weapons not only have a deterrent effect, but also make citizens insecure about their possible use.

On our way to understanding the reasons for the use of violence, UNESCO studies in an article by M. Patou-Mathis, named “The origins of violence, that the increase in violence «actually arose with the sedentarisation of human communities and the transition from a predatory economy of nature to an economy of production, […] towards the end of the Palaeolithic period, that is, some 13,000 years before our era«. We could consider this as a perversion of property in the face of the human need to survive, which feeds the fear of not being able to support either the individual or the community. This could happen due to a shortage of means or the interference of external (or internal) agents. UNESCO states that, according to the evidence of archaeological and palaeontological discoveries to date, the violence used by primitive human species prior to the Neolithic was partly a response to biological needs. Endocannibalism ( the eating of a corpse from one’s own community) was part of rituals, being less numerous the findings of victims of violence, both external and internal, applied with malice aforethought. Although it is also explained that it is difficult to draw more accurate conclusions with such distant samples, it is proved that «none of them testifies to the existence of collective violence«, giving rise to «only a few individuals [that] suffered them, which may denote the existence of personal conflicts, rarely fatal, or sacrificial rites«.

UNESCO determines that there are several factors which prevented the outbreak of war as we know it today, such as «a weak demography, a sufficiently rich and diversified subsistence territory, the non-existence of accumulated goods and the presence of egalitarian and low hierarchical social structures«. We would have to move on to 14340 or 13140 BC to find human remains with traces of collective violence due to possible clashes, such as those found in the necropolis of Jebel Sahaba. Perhaps the most visual evidence is to be found in the Iberian Peninsula, where in the Neolithic period, we can find painted scenes of «combats between groups of archers«. As the text analyses, those were influenced by the social change generated by the new productive system. Hierarchisation, the protection of food surpluses or their scarcity due to inequalities led the first civilisations to fight against others and with themselves. Inequalities which led to clashes over power and ownership of resources and means. UNESCO makes it clear: violence is not innate to human beings but external factors drive (but do not force) them to act violently.

“A la izquierda, hueso con la marca de una lesión. A la derecha, se puede apreciar la esquirla de piedra de un proyectil aún incrustada en el hueso (ISABELLE CREVECOEUR/MARIE-HÉLÈNE DIAS-MEIRINHO; ELPAÍS)

Returning to the question of the legitimate (but not moral) use of force, the CoE makes a statement, in a very explicit way, the relationship of the real and actual world with violence. The exact sentence is  that «violent acts are sometimes necessary in order to protect the human rights of other people«. In other words, the enforcement of Human Rights requires the use of force against those who violate or attempt to violate them. If we weigh it, this is the basic principle of today’s States, where the monopoly of violence is held by them in order to protect their citizens from the violence they sometimes can exert. The reason behind this postulate is just behind the Human Right to life, which is positioned in a scale of priorities in the first place, above the use of violence.

In all these investigations, the formal aspect stands out. When an act of violence is carried out, whether by a State agent or not, reparation is usually a consequence of the Justice Courts’ sentences when the perpetrator is tried. But what can never be repaired is life, damaged or completely snatched. Then, the emotional motive fills our guts to pay for the damage, i.e. to ‘make people pay’ for the attack against other’s life. It is in modern human beings’ hands to deeply ponder the use of force to figure out whether, by carrying out acts similar to those that have happened before, a greater goal of peace is eventually achieved. Does the realist view of conflict management and conflict resolution justify the use of force? Would this internationally accepted legitimate use by all States really solve the problems of conflict, crime or terrorism in the world? Is this independent of whether violence will persist in the future? These and other questions we will try to answer and discuss in our next episode of the GEOPOL21 Podcast on Monday with Billy Batware and Foteini Zarogianni, both from iSCAN.Just to end, as M. Gandhi once pointed out, the Satyagraha or force of truth must drive our action against the violent, since beyond the established scale of values, we will have to search for the supreme value of non-violent resistance.

NOTA: Los planteamientos e ideas contenidas en los artículos de análisis y opinión son responsabilidad exclusiva, en cada caso, del analista, sin que necesariamente representen las ideas de GEOPOL 21

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