The right to violent resistance and a false Western moralityNov 21, 2023
If I had lived under a siege all my life in a tiny open air prison camp – if I had no hope for the future – I too might be tempted to violently resist a brutal, unrelenting and illegal occupation, which is my right under international law.
In recent decades citizens of liberal democracies have frequently supported politically-motivated violence undertaken by the state, when it is politely referred to as “war” or “conflict” instead of the more accurate description: “state terrorism”.
Traditionally states are said to have a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, but this a norm of international society, not international law nor a justifiable pretext for aggression.
On other occasions popular support is also given to violence conducted by non-state actors. Often this is contemporaneous, sometimes it grows in historical retrospect.
For example, the war against Iraq in 2003 which killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians was undertaken by self-defined liberal democracies until the pretexts for its initiation collapsed and victory could no longer be defined, let alone achieved. The overwhelming majority of international lawyers argued that it was illegal. Despite significant opposition and protests there was, nevertheless, sufficient popular support in the West for political elites in Washington, London and Canberra to sustain the aggression and subsequent occupation of the country for over eight years.
The same could be said for the Vietnam War (1965-75) which killed many more innocent civilians and only concluded when Wall Street pulled the plug on its financial lifeline. In both wars popular enthusiasm for violence overshadowed the illegality of the interventions until domestic political and economic costs grew too high for political elites to keep prosecuting them.
As for non-state actors, who in the West today would express inhibitions about the use of violence by those who resisted the Nazi occupation of Europe? How many people in 2023 remain squeamish about the extremely violent slave revolts in antebellum America?
In Greece, Cuba, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Venezuela and Syria, to name only a small number of recent examples, Western governments have encouraged and backed non-state actors to violently overthrow governments with enormous sums of money and gargantuan arms supplies courtesy of their taxpayers.
Most anti-colonial struggles are drenched in violence and suffering. And for subjugated peoples who won their freedom from colonial occupation – in countries such as Algeria, Vietnam, Timor Leste, the Congo, South Africa and Kenya – those who led the armed struggles are venerated as national heroes and martyrs. In some cases they became the political leaders of their newly independent states.
The statement that “I am against the use of violence to achieve political objectives” is therefore naïve and largely irrelevant, although pacifism has a long and honourable tradition in many cultures. The germane question here is: when is the use of violence considered legitimate?
The question raises a number of curious and inconsistent answers, at least from the viewpoint of Western liberal democracies.
Ukraine is supported in its battle against territorial incursions by Russia with diplomatic support and billions of dollars of Western military aid. Its sovereignty is considered sacrosanct, whereas Syria is occupied by the United States for its oil and regularly bombed by Israel and the US eliciting virtually no interest in the Western media.
The territorial struggles of the Kurds, the West Papuans and the Western Saharans are either ignored in the West or actively opposed with political and financial support for their occupiers.
Afghanistan’s sovereignty has never been a concern for the West. In the 1980s the CIA supplied the mujahideen rebels with cash and arms, including Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, to help them drive the armed forces of the Soviet Union out of the country. After 9/11 the weapons were turned back on the Americans and their allies by the Taliban to ultimately expel them in 2020 after almost two decades of occupation. Those praised in the 1980s as “freedom fighters” and invited to a White House audience with Ronald Reagan were by 2002 Islamic terrorists who had to be annihilated.
Serbia was bombed by NATO in 1999 as was Libya in 2011, with devastating social consequences. Since 2015 Yemen has been attacked by Saudi Arabia with crucial military support from the United Kingdom and the United States. From 1974 until today, Turkey has illegally occupied northern Cypress without facing any sanctions or pressure from the West to withdraw.
All of these violent crimes have been met in the West with either enthusiastic participation, indifference or by the principle of ‘silence means consent’. There have been few expressions of concern about the use of violence providing they achieve favourable political, strategic or economic objectives for the West.
In stark contrast, the incursion into Israel by Hamas on 7 October has been met with universal condemnation by Western governments. Outrage has centred on the unspeakable, apparently inexplicable and indefensible violence of the attacks and kidnappings. Immediately they were used to justify the indiscriminate and disproportionate destruction of Gaza, which is now a charnel house where 0.5% of the population has already perished.
Omitted from the official narrative is the pre-history, and therefore the crucial context from which the attacks erupted.
Could a brutal twenty year siege regularly punctuated by murderous military assaults on a defenceless civilian population (eg. Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Defence, Operation Protective Edge, etc,) be an explanatory factor? Or do the lives of the hundreds of children killed during these bombings matter so little that they should not even be remembered, let alone avenged? How many Zionists who uncritically support Israel’s genocidal attack on Gaza today are even aware of these events? Or is the history, to quote George Orwell, just “carefully unmentioned”?
There is no moral equivalence between an occupier and the occupied. Nor is there any comparison between what has been done to Gaza by Israel over two decades and what Hamas did on 7 October. However, to justify Israel’s attacks, events which might explain if not justify Hamas’ breakout on 7 October, have been largely disappeared down the memory hole, especially in the mainstream media.
If I had lived under a siege all my life in a tiny open air prison camp (David Cameron) which I cannot leave, periodically bombed by people who say they are just “mowing the lawn”, had no prospects for employment, had barely enough food to eat and safe water to drink, and only rubble for a home – in other words if I had no hope for the future – I too might be tempted to violently resist a brutal and illegal occupation, which is my right under international law.
UN General Assembly resolution 37/43 was adopted in 1982. It:
“Reaffirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle … . (emphasis added)”
For the Palestinians of Gaza, it’s a choice between dying now in pursuit of liberation from a suffocating occupation, or later when the cameras have been turned off and the media’s attention has shifted elsewhere: what’s to lose?
To do that, however, would require me to imagine what life must be like for those in such desperate circumstances, an ethical facility which so many who bravely strike defiant poses from the safety of their middle class lives in the West are seemingly incapable of. Even then, I may be horrified by what Hamas did on 7 October, but am I in a position to judge them?
The civilian population of Gaza is not suffering “as a result of the conflict”. They are being deliberately targeted and punished as part of the ethnic cleansing of the strip. They may be driven from their homeland again as they were in 1948, possibly into the Sinai Desert. Or just murdered. War crimes and atrocities of this kind can never be justified and attempts to do so, including silence in response to heinous attacks on hospitals, health workers and infants is, in my view, evidence of moral depravity.
Regrettably we must accept that organised violence is the least pleasant feature of the human condition. As the distinguished historian of Europe Charles Tilly famously wrote:
“The central tragic fact is simple: coercion works; those who apply substantial force to their fellows get compliance, and from that compliance draw the multiple advantages of money, goods, deference, access to pleasures denied to less powerful people.”
Returning to the key question which confronts us: when is the use of violence for political objectives considered legitimate, at least in the Western world?
Forget consistency, principle, the norms of international society, international law or morality. Ultimately support for, or opposition to politically-motivated violence has little to do with repugnance in the face of cruelty and bloodshed. After all, across the world much of the worst violence is initiated and sponsored by the West.
Instead, the crucial factor is whether the political cause is supported. If so, it will be dressed up in high moral principles: violence is regrettable but necessary in order to slay a greater evil. The pursuit of freedom and democracy over the forces of darkness is a difficult but honourable mission, even if some innocents will occasionally suffer in the quest.
If the cause is opposed, it will be condemned in the most hypocritical, sanctimonious and dishonest tones that can be summoned and amplified by politicians and their media amanuenses. We are always the innocent victims of terrorism, never its perpetrator. We are inherently peaceful and good, they are irredeemably violent and bad. It’s always about us and them.
Ultimately, in international politics the morality of violence yields to politics.
For more on this topic, P&I recommends:
Scott Burchill, ‘Israel-Palestine: Do states have a “right to exist”?’, November 15, 2023