Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for May 2009

Since the Second World War it is unarmed civilians who have been the biggest casualties in wars. And wars leave a massive trail of pain and destruction in their wake: broken families and communities, prolonged mental trauma, ecological disaster, rampant criminality and the brutalization of social life.

This is easily and quickly forgotten in the aftermath of military victory. In 1982, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, was asked by the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to lead the nation in a service of thanksgiving and remembrance for British soldiers killed in the Falklands War. Runcie insisted that the service would be a memorial service for all the war dead, including Argentine soldiers. While this enraged Mrs. Thatcher, Runcie was simply standing in a long Christian tradition of bishops and jurists who have refused to allow states to co-opt them into nationalistic or imperialistic projects.

Christendom at its best was an attempt to bear witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ over the civil authority. The Church sought to tame the violence of states: outlawing torture, severely restricting the use of the death penalty, crafting international law in response to God’s moral law, and bringing warfare into the realm of justice. In a famous confrontation with the Roman emperor Theodosius in 390 A.D, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, refused him communion and excluded him from entering the Basilica until he had done public penance for ordering the massacre of the citizens of Thessalonica. By the standards of the age, Theodosius’ actions were not extraordinary. But Ambrose’s judging of secular judges set a precedent for the Church. It began the long and complex process of reforming earthly justice, of making earthly powers accountable and responsive to the rule of Christ.

No war can ever be truly just. What is misleading called ‘Just War Theory’, as it was elaborated and developed in Western Christendom, is not a theory about war. It is rather a way of encouraging moral reasoning: given the horrors of warfare, how should we restrain it? It proposes that any act of war can only be justified if it is an act of judgment, redressing a prior act (or acts) of injustice, and seeking the restoration of peace as its aim. Around this primary proposal are built cautions and safeguards that have to do both with the reasons for going to war and the conduct of the war itself. All violence is evil. And the just war proposals seek to limit the scope of violence as is realistically possible.

Keeping in mind the nature of justifiable war as an act of judgment leads to the twin moral principles of discrimination (between combatants and non-combatants) and proportionality (the methods used must be proportionate to the offense that is being redressed). Wherever modern states and anti-state forces have lacked the moral worldview embedded in these Just War proposals, they have indulged in ‘total war’ and claimed for themselves an absolute ‘sovereignty’. They demonize the enemy, calling them ‘terrorists’ and such like, and so stripping them of their essential humanity.

The distinction between combatants and non-combatants is often a fine one, but nevertheless very important. It is not the same as the distinction between civilians and non-civilians. (‘Terrorists’ and ‘insurgents’ are also civilians, whether or not they wear uniforms). Non-combatants are innocent if they do not participate in the war effort: they neither produce nor possess the means to cause injury to others. It is immaterial whether or not they morally support the cause of the enemy. Thus, munitions factories or laboratories engaged in producing biological or chemical weapons are legitimate targets of attack because they are manufacturing the means to injure others. But companies providing food and clothing for soldiers are not, because they do not have the capacity to cause injury to others. While it is of the essence of ‘terrorism’ to blatantly ignore these distinctions, it is of the essence of any civilized state to scrupulously respect them.

Moreover, when a war is declared over, both sides are required to release immediately all prisoners. Former combatants are not to be hunted down and punished like criminals.

This way of reasoning is based on the conviction that all human beings possess an intrinsic and inviolable dignity; so that any violation of such dignity requires powerful moral justification. It is part of the moral and conceptual revolution that Christianity introduced into the Western world. Over time, these principles have become part of internationally recognized rules of military engagement such as the famous Geneva Conventions. All those, Christian and non-Christian, who passionately espouse universal ‘human rights’ against the claim of ‘non-interference’ in a nation’s ‘internal affairs’ stand, knowingly or (usually) unknowingly, in the moral tradition that springs from Bishop Ambrose’s example.

But such rules are ineffective as long as the dominant worldview of the wider society lacks a high sense of the value of human beings. And herein lies the rub. Can laws, international conventions and external coercion by themselves bring about a politics of responsibility and accountability? And where the Christian shaping of the collective social conscience is steadily being eroded (as in the West) or has never been deeply implanted (as in the East), how long will respect for human rights flourish?

[For more, see my article on 'War' in the Global Dictionary of Theology, eds. Dyrness & Kaikaainen (2008)]

I wrote two weeks ago of how most of us are involved (to varying degrees, of course)  in the sufferings and tragedies of peoples elsewhere. Yet this awareness of our interconnected histories and global politics is lacking, even among students from some of the most prestigious universities in the world.

The late economist E. F. Schumacher famously coined a new ‘law’ about leisure: ‘The amount of labour-saving technologies available in a society is inversely proportional to the amount of leisure its citizens enjoy.’ In the same spirit let me propose a ‘law’ regarding information: ‘The amount of advanced information technology available in a society is inversely proportional to how well-informed the majority of its citizens are.’  (But there are some well-informed nerds and geeks out there…)

Global warming and climate change, as well as the global economic recession, is slowly bringing this awareness home to more and more people in the affluent world. It is the global poor who bear, disproportionately, the costs of the wasteful and unsustainable lifestyles of the rich. It is their air and water sources that are poisoned, their lands and forests degraded, their livelihoods threatened in the name of an ‘economic growth’ that usually benefits others.

Then there is suffering caused by deliberate policies pursued by the rich countries and the international financial institutions that they control.  When Indonesia was hit by economic collapse in 1997, foreign creditors were bailed out with billions of dollars but the government, under pressure from the IMF, refused to pay the far smaller sums required for food and fuel subsidies for the poor or for those workers whose wages plummeted. The latter were not responsible for causing the crisis in the first place. They suffered the consequences of irresponsible choices made by foreign speculators. The latter were bailed out by the IMF, and those who had an overwhelming case for compensation were left to suffer.

This is the same IMF, still unreformed and unrepentant, that was promised $750 billion by the G-20 last month. It needs no great effort of the imagination to know who will get the lion’s share of this wealth. While their own nations try to spend their way out of the recession, IMF economists are still pushing their ‘one size fits all’ remedy of cutting subsidies and slashing public spending on poor governments facing massive social turmoil.

Hedge funds have become a popular topic of conversation ever since the global financial ‘bubble’ burst last year. But how many people in the UK know of British investors who seek to buy up Third World debt at cut-rate prices and then sue these countries through UK courts if they fail to pay up the full amount? The Jubilee Debt Campaign has highlighted the activities of these ‘vulture’ funds, and legislation designed to curb such activities is being brought before the British parliament. In recent years at least 54 vulture funds are known to have taken legal action against 12 of the world’s poorest countries. Most notably the vulture fund Donegal International, based in the British Virgin Islands, won $15.5 million through the courts in repayment for Zambian debt it bought for $3.3 million.

Enthusiasm for power-at-a-distance has always been popular. None of us, Asian or European, is immune. It is so easy to forget that what is ‘freedom’ for me may be experienced differently by others elsewhere.

The moral theologian Oliver O’Donovan gives an everyday example: ‘When I have entered my credit card number and double-clicked on the “confirm” box, some packer somewhere has to act on my order, some driver struggle through the traffic on the motorway, some postman find my front door. For me, as for the slave-owners of the early modern colonies, it is all too easy to overlook those on whom the gratifying of my desires depends, and to succumb to the illusion that the tips of my fingers on keyboard and mouse have freed them from the constraints of place, too!’ [1]


[1] Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids, Mi and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2005) p.260

‘It’s just so unreal when you  hear it here, in a peaceful and free country’.

So wrote a Swiss student, on hearing of the intimidation, extortions, arbitrary arrests and assassinations that have become Sri Lanka’s political culture in recent years. It is hard for European youth like her to recall that Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal, not to mention the horrors of the Soviet Union, are not exactly ancient history. And it is the only encouragement that we in countries like Sri Lanka derive- looking at how other nations have recovered from their own seemingly unending nightmares.

It is hard for the law-abiding, peace-loving Swiss citizens who walk the streets of Zurich and Berne to admit that beneath their feet lies the wealth of many poor nations. Swiss banking anonymity and offshore tax havens (several of which are British protectorates) encourage tax evasion, corruption and money laundering on a massive scale. It is impossible to tackle political gangsterism in poor countries when the global banking system aids the embezzlement of public funds and theft of public assets. It is only after the loss of tax revenue in EU countries and the recent subprime disaster that pressure has been exerted by Western governments on Lichtenstein, Swiss banks and other institutions to relax their secrecy rules. It is only when the rich suffer that change is likely to happen.

Furthermore, several of the most protracted conflicts in recent years have their roots in British imperial policy- for example, Palestine, Iraq, Kashmir, Nagaland, Myanmar, Zimbabwe. History continues to dominate the present. The genocide in Rwanda in 1994 was not a repetition of ancient tribal rivalries, but a direct consequence of German ‘race science’ and Belgian colonial practices. Most of Africa’s fifty-three nation-states trace their borders to an 1884 conference in Berlin where European powers carved up virtually the entire continent among themselves.

Who can understand Middle Eastern politics today without knowing the manipulative policies of the British and the French during and after the collapse of the Ottoman empire? British administrators sculpted the modern state of Iraq, drawing its boundaries in such a manner that all its huge oil reserves would belong to them and not the Turks, and denying the local puppet regime that they installed in Baghdad access to the sea by creating a buffer state called Kuwait. Every attempt since the early 1960s by the Iraqis and Iranians to nationalize their oil supplies and become democracies was met with force by the British and Americans in defence of their oil companies.

The manufacture and trade in small arms is another way European nations are complicit in civil conflicts and organized crime in other parts of the world. Companies in Belgium and Sweden, two ‘peaceful and free countries’, are among the biggest global dealers in small arms.

An independent panel of experts reported to the UN Security Council in October 2002 of how 85 transnational companies based in Europe, the United States and South Africa (including household names such as Barclays bank, De Beers and Anglo-American) had transgressed ethical guidelines in dealing with criminal networks that have pillaged natural resources from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A scramble for gold, diamonds, cobalt and copper by army officers, government officials and entrepreneurs from the Congo and neighbouring countries generated billions of dollars that found their way to mining companies and financial institutions. So lucrative was the plunder that there were attempts to prolong the fighting by stirring conflict between rival militias and rebels.

Consider Papua, the lush, mineral-rich province of eastern Indonesia, known formerly as Dutch New Guinea. The US government in 1962 compelled the Netherlands to transfer administrative control of the region to the Indonesian government, despite widespread opposition from native peoples. The latter are mostly animist or Christian, not Muslim. The US cemented its alliance with the despotic Suharto regime against the ‘communist threat’ in South-East Asia and won lucrative mining concessions for its companies. Today US and Australian mining companies work hand-in-glove with the central Indonesian government in plundering this province, the largest in Indonesia, of its riches and robbing the local population of their natural heritage. It remains one of the least economically developed regions of the country. A low-level insurgency has been brutally suppressed with many violations of human rights. But who in either Australia or the US cares what their companies do overseas, or the plight of the local Papuan Christians?


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