Power, Poverty and Peace

An article I wrote last year on the false positives scandal in Colombia and the implications for peacebuilding has just been published in the State Crime Journal – http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.13169/statecrime.6.1.0132

The false positives scandal concerned the arbitrary execution of, principally, poor, marginalised male civilians by the military, sometimes in collaboration with illegal armed groups, who were then presented as guerrilla fighters having been lawfully killed in combat. These crimes were primarily committed between 2002 and 2008 and involved the execution of over 3,000 civilians. The scandal constitutes one of the most shocking global examples in recent years of crimes of the powerful: crimes committed by state actors against the most dispossessed and marginalized members of society.

The article examines factors which led to the scandal in order to analyse the extent to which socio-economic inequalities and the persecution of the poor impact conflict dynamics and prospects for sustainable peace. My argument is that while criminal accountability for those responsible for these crimes is important, it is not sufficient. More broadly, the focus on securing justice after conflict as a means of addressing grievances and laying the groundwork for reconciliation and sustainable peacebuilding is of vital importance. However, unless those structural factors which enabled such crimes to occur are addressed, the search for justice will be futile.

There is a need to address extreme socio-economic inequalities that prevail in Colombia and socio-cultural attitudes towards the poor which dehumanize and, thereby, deny or justify crimes and other harms against them. Otherwise the poor will remain vulnerable to further victimization and peacebuilding will not be successful or meaningful to those beyond privileged and elite groups.

It has since struck me that the marginalisation and criminalisation of the poor adversely impacts prospects for peace in many conflict-affected environments. With all the talk of inclusive, bottom-up or hybrid peacebuilding, even where the rhetoric is reflected to some extent in reality – it often, of course, is a mere rhetorical device used to claim legitimacy, where local ownership and engagement in peace building practices tends to only extend to elites or tokenistic gestures – those who are socio-economically marginalised, poor people, continue to be overlooked, sidelined and silenced. There might be some effort, at least superficially, to promote inclusion of more women or ethnic minorities or rural residents in peacebuilding processes. There is, however, little effort to promote engagement of a demographic more representative of the community in terms of income and opportunity beyond immutable differences. However, we know how significantly poverty impacts and is impacted by security; socio-economic inequalities can fuel conflict, and those who are poor are more likely to be exposed to security threats. It should follow that there should be particular effort to engage in pecebuilding those who are socio-economically marginalised, not least in order that their security and justice needs are attended to, and to address disaffection and grievance that can sometimes manifest itself in threats to security and stability. We also know that poverty is often the greatest barrier to political participation and the greatest indicator of marginalisation, particularly where the poor are also women, children, ethnic or religious minorities, disabled, displaced or stateless.

Exclusion of the poor isn’t contained only within conflict-affected environments, of course. Nor do the impacts on security and governance as a result of the exclusion of the poor contain themselves to such environments. The marginalisation of the poor manifests itself in social harms so perniciously and so comprehensively that they are rarely regarded as harms; violation of the rights of the poor are considered part of the natural order and where they are not the poor are often to blame. The poor are invariably undeserving; capitalist logic blames the weakness of those who are poor for their poverty, absolving others from the responsibility for these inequalities and exposing he poor to further victimisation and insecurity.

There are occasions where this illusion is exposed for what it is – an effective means of justifying inequality and punishing those who suffer –  when the harms against the poor are so shockingly evident, as was the case recently with the Grenfell Tower fire. Often, when these crimes happen, the machinations of the establishment finds a scapegoat after significant and extensive pressure (so extensive that often the many years that have elapsed compromise any semblance of justice). When these crimes happen abroad, we might more quickly blame a society that allows such crimes to occur. At home, we’re more inclined to look for scapegoats or bad apples rather than the enabling structural and institutional factors. We need to comprehensively address the factors which result in those who have less money being more likely to suffer ill health, be the victim of crime, be exposed to harm at home and at work, be marginalised from political processes – and be less likely to access security and justice, and have less education and employment prospects. That is if we want things to change.

One thought on “Power, Poverty and Peace

  1. throughstones

    I agree with your concluding point – that we need to address the factors which result in the poor being more likely to become marginalised and victimised. Though I do wonder who is going to initiate this process of change – and how. I also wonder whether it is quite so simple as: lack of money results in all these ills. Or are people caught up in a rather nasty self-feeding vicious circle that includes both poverty and victimhood?

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