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Collective responsibility, terrorism and the conduct of war.

datePosted on 00:09, January 20th, 2009 by Pablo

The Israeli offensive in Gaza has rekindled debate about the role of collective responsibility in the initiation and prosecution of war. Israel is specifically accused of collectively punishing all Gazans in retaliation for Hamas missile attacks on the Israeli population, with some claiming that aspects of Israeli military operations amount to war crimes. Such may or may not be true, but the issue is more complex than that.

Hamas argues that it is justified in firing missiles into Israeli population centers because all Jews are complicit in the Zionist enterprise and all Israelis eventually complete some form of military service. From that perspective better to kill a Jew in the crib than on the battlefield. Sunni extremists in Iraq target Shiia worshippers at their holy sites because they hold them accountable for the apostasy of their clerical leaders. Osama bin Laden has openly stated that the US public made itself a target for attack by repeatedly electing pro-Israeli and anti-Muslim administrations. Kurds and Armenians hold all Turks responsible for the sins of the Ottomans, Kemalists and their successors. Chechnyan militants hold all Russians culpable for the depredations of the Russian military in the post-Soviet republic. Germans are still held by some to be collectively guilty for the sins of the Nazis. The Japanese are accused on not feeling guilty enough for the depredations of Hirohito and company. The list of collective finger-pointing, responsibility, guilt, targeting and punishment is long.

The issue is complicated by the fact that, by the criteria of collective responsibility, open and honest elections increase the culpability of the electorate in the sins of their political representatives. That was Osama’s point about the US. Whatever one may think about the US electorate’s complicity in Bush 43’s follies, by that logic the Palestinians are collectively culpable for having voted in favour of a Hamas-majority parliament in 2006. Put another way, citizens of non-elected authoritarian regimes cannot be held accountable for the behaviour of those regimes unless there is some other mechanism to attribute direct support for the authoritarian project. An example would be Argentines during the Falklands/Malvinas war, which was initiated by a brutal military dictatorship feared by its own people. Conversely, the citizens of all democratic regimes are complicit in the behavior of their governments because it was their majority vote that brought those governments into power. The minority of those who voted against these democratically-elected incumbents may take issue with that (and indeed have), but the logic is inscrutable on the point: mass elections make the masses collectively responsible for the conduct of their elected leaders.

We could debate whether Hamas has majority support or whether its militant wing has any electoral support at all. That is not the issue. The issue is that Israel apparently holds the entire Palestinian population, specifically residents of Gaza, responsible for Hamas’s electoral ascent to power at the expense of Fatah, the more accomodationist branch of the Palestinian political spectrum, as well as Hamas’s behaviour once in power (one aspect of which is to apply notions of collective responsibility to all Israelis). It punishes them accordingly.

This is where terrorism comes in. Terrorism is the use of symbolic violence in pursuit of political objectives. It has a subject, object and target, which are not the same. Targeting of civilians in their daily lives is designed to influence the will of subject populations with the objective of bending it towards the perpetrator’s demands. When the perpetrator adopts notions of collective responsibility, the choice of civilian targets becomes easier and, to the minds of the irregular warrior/terrorist, justifiable. That in turns evokes a response in kind from those being attacked unless the counterpoised subject population can offer demonstrable proof of distance from and repudiation of the terrorist attack. If not, and especially if the civilian population shows sympathy to the terrorist goals and/or offers them shelter and support, then the retaliatory response will be based on notions of collective responsibility as well. After all, success in warfare involves obtaining tactical and strategic symmetry (so as to level the battlespace “playing field”), which then allows the elements of will, training, discipline and technology to be brought into play.

That is the “game” being played in Gaza, and so long as collective responsibility remains a justification for the conduct of war, innocents will die.

Perhaps, then, the first step in securing a durable peace is for all sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to formally renounce notions of collective responsibility and guilt on principle. This may sound like social constructivist nonsense, but such a declaration would remove the internal justifications for both Hamas’s rocket attacks as well as Israeli bombing of  densely populated areas (there is a whole story to the complexities of the irregular urban battlefield, but that is best left for another post). In turn, that would allow subject populations to better resist coerced cooperation in armed ventures (as hard as this it).  In practice, that would limit armed struggle to clear military targets, or at least force combatants to exercise more discretion in the choice of targets when conducting military operations.

Then again, that would force each side to exercise mutual self-restraint, and that may not be an option the elites on both sides would prefer to pursue. If one side declares its intentions along those lines, an opponent may see military advantage in not doing so. Whatever the the case, if notions of collective responsibility prevail in the conduct of war, then attacks against innocents can be expected to continue, in Israel, Gaza and elsewhere.

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13 Responses to “Collective responsibility, terrorism and the conduct of war.”

  1. Anita on January 20th, 2009 at 20:33

    I have been thinking about this all day, and wondering about the implications for individuals (as opposed to citizens as a collective).

    If NZ was to, for example, join the US led forces in Iraq what should I do? Is it enough to vote against the government (which I did :)? To protest on the street (which I would)? Should I leave my job so I can protest full time? Should I cross the line to illegal protests (withholding taxes for example)? Should I get a gun and start killing politicians? Or soldiers?

    At what point does my individual action provide the balance to my responsibility as a member of the collective? Can my actions buy my way out of collective guilt?

  2. Pablo on January 20th, 2009 at 20:53

    Strangely enough, given some of the discussion on recent threads, that is where civil disobedience comes in (as well as status quo forms of political voice such as lobbying etc.). It is ultimately a collective action problem as isolated individual efforts–short of self-immolation–will not likely have any impact on political decision-makers.

    I was thinking more along the lines of NZ introducing a UN resolution renouncing collective responsibility, guilt and punishment as the justification of, or in the conduct of war. It may seem to be a useless symbolic gesture by some, but it would at least bind NZ to non-participation in conflicts in which whole communities are targeted because of the actions of a few. Then again, given National’s support for the Iraq invasion, perhaps not.

  3. Anita on January 20th, 2009 at 21:07


    I was thinking more along the lines of NZ introducing a UN resolution renouncing collective responsibility, guilt and punishment as the justification of, or in the conduct of war.

    I like that, mostly because I’m a pacifist and it seems like we’d do less killing if we actually achieved that.

    But… what say an entire population (of voting age anyhow) voted explicitly to get their military to do something terrible. Why shouldn’t the population be held as accountable as the military?

  4. Pablo on January 20th, 2009 at 21:50

    Because that would justify the killing of non-combatants. Unless voters engage in crimes against humanity, murder, torture or other warlike acts themselves, they should be treated as non-combatants under the provisions governing jus in bello (conduct of war) of the various Hague Conventions and their addenda (the most important being the 1949 Geneva Convention IV Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, 1977 Geneva Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, and the 1977 Geneva Protocol II Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts). This does not address the jus ad bellum aspects of the issue–the justifications for waging war (also known as just war theory). It is that aspect of the Laws of War that is most pertinent, I think, to the issue of collective responsibility in war.

  5. SPC on January 20th, 2009 at 22:10

    I doubt that the various parties declare support for “collective punishment”, they cite either their right to act to defend themselves, ensure their security, or they claim a legitimacy to resort to force to achieve their aims of sovereignty/freedom.

    The issue of “collective punishment” comes in when their methods are called into question (and very few can prosecute a war without killing civilians – how many Afghan civilians died in late 2001 with the western intervention/bombing). First they will deny that this is so, then they justify any actual collective punishment resulting as being caused by the attempt of the enemy to use civilians as human shields or that civilians are complicit in the national wrongdoing of the “enemy” party.

    Israel for example specifically said they were engaging Hamas, not the Palestinians of Gaza – as for whether the use of force was consistent with that is another matter.

    So how would one define a targeting of civilians?

  6. Pablo on January 20th, 2009 at 22:21

    SPC: I agree that warring parties seldom if ever openly talk about collective responsibility and punishment, and that the issue only comes to light when non-combatants are targeted (either by chance or choice). The last sentence of your second paragraph gets to the heart of the matter, and it seems to me that formal conventions on prohibitions on collective punishment by choice or chance just might deter some war parties from doing so in the future (I doubt that Israel or Hamas will accept such protocols). Getting NZ to adopt such a stance seems something worth debating.

  7. Anita on January 20th, 2009 at 22:53


    My understanding of the relevant international law and conventions is precisely nil, but… :)

    Don’t politicians who direct the military get tried for the war crimes committed at their direction? Isn’t there a case for trying the people who elected them?

  8. SPC on January 21st, 2009 at 00:00

    Anita does a party stand on a we’ll commit war crimes platform? And even if they did, how does one tell which of the nations citizens was “guilty” of voting for them? Are you proposing collective punishment of the citizens of nations found guilty of the crime of collective punishment?

    Which speaks to the issue, should Israel be told it could not fire back at those firing rockets from Palestinian civilian areas at Israeli civilian areas.

    Thus the burden of being a legitimate representative of a nation state, while one’s enemy is a terrorist gang (not recognised as a representative government)not subject to international law. But then if Hamas was subject to the criminal law of the occupying power (and they claim to be occupied and many critics of Israel claim the same), the law of Israel would apply, not international law (except that applying to occupied territory).

  9. Pascal's bookie on January 22nd, 2009 at 12:20

    Hi pablo, completely off topic but thought you mind find this interesting:

  10. Pablo on January 22nd, 2009 at 12:30

    PB: Looks interesting (I just saw the blogged synopsis and excerpt). Getting the waste and bloat out of the machine requires a change in institutional culture, and that will not be easy. With Obama now installed, maybe some of his DoD appointees will focus on revamping the machine.

  11. jcuknz on February 1st, 2009 at 19:57

    In a democracy it is rare for the ruling party to get 100% or anything like it so the argument fall flat on its face … the current war in Iraq continued with little over 50% of the American people in favour of Bush’s second term, and that didn’t neccessarilly mean in favour of the Iraq war …. etc etc. The basic argument sounds good but falls down when you understand how democracy works. Sorry Pablo .. you almost had me convinced :-)

  12. Anita on February 1st, 2009 at 22:44

    jcuknz write

    In a democracy it is rare for the ruling party to get 100% or anything like it so the argument fall flat on its face […] The basic argument sounds good but falls down when you understand how democracy works. Sorry Pablo .. you almost had me convinced :-)

    You accept a majoritarian political system, you accept how it is constructed, doesn’t that mean you have some responsibility for the outcome?

    If a majority of MPs voted for um… putting to death all lefthanders and sterilising their parents and siblings would you say “oh well, that’s how democracy works”?

    We can rise up against the state (even a majoritarian representational democracy), so it seems to me that we have some culpability when we choose not to.

  13. Pablo on February 1st, 2009 at 23:01

    jcuknz: Thanks for revisiting an old post. However, you appear to have misread the point I was making. My point is not whether the majority did or did not vote for Hamas or Bush 43 (I actually do have a fair clue as to how democracy works–or at least the electoral mechanisms by which governments are selected). In both of those cases a full majority of the eligible voters was not obtained, but the fact is that a significant number of people participated in the machinery and process of leadership selection and hence, under the doctrine of collective responsibility (which I am not a fan of, as outlined above), can be held accountable for the policies and performance of the governments that emerge from free and open elections. Put succinctly: everyone gets the blame for the poor choices of a (relative) few. That is why I do not like the fixing of collective responsibility on anyone, and certainly do not like its use as a justification for the indiscriminate conduct of war (by either side in this specific instance). I would put Anita’s point above slightly more strongly: if you consent (not just accept) to specific forms of majoritarian selection processes, then those so inclined can hold you directly culpable for the policies that follow whether or not you actually voted in any given election. Again, I do not feel that this is justifiable, but the hard fact is that it is a dominant rationale in the Israel/Palestinian conflict.

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