Tag Archives: power

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.

Language, War and Peace

This post by Phil Vernon of International Alert – The anti-lexicon of peacebuilding: listening to Edward Saïd and George Orwell – raises some excellent points about the need for language to be clear in the field of peacebuilding (and elsewhere) to avoid ‘misunderstandings and misdiagnoses’.

It is agreed that in order for conflict resolution and peacebuilding efforts to be successful, regularly used concepts need to be unpacked and each enjoy a shared, specific and clear meaning. Without a shared understanding of such concepts it is hard for action to be co-ordinated, coherent, efficient and effective. It is also hard to monitor and evaluate progress, identify and utilise lessons learned and best practice, and ultimately improve efforts to prevent and respond to conflict and its challenges. Actions and outputs are less likely to be ambiguous, conflicting and ineffective if communication is clear and the language used to describe aims and outputs is shared and unambiguous.

However, aims and outputs of various actors in conflict-affected environments are not always harmonious, and a shared – if ambiguous – language can be used (and often is) to disguise competing agendas and real priorities. The language of peacebuilding can often be used by those engaged in this field to disguise the politics of intervention. It can also be used to reinforce power relations within the field, which tend to marginalise ‘other’ voices – including those directly affected by conflict and those whose future’s most depend upon the success of peacebuilding.

It is also important to recognise the policy implications of certain concepts and understand the reasons why certain concepts are ascribed to certain phenomena, states or processes above others. As the beginning of the SCID Course addresses, describing a state as failed or fragile may be motivated more out of a desire on the part of other states to intervene (and control threats, or extend their own influence and power, or distract domestic populations from other issues/other threats), rather than ‘concern for the inability of some states to provide for their own population’s security, welfare and rights’ (Call, 2008: 1504). Similarly, describing governance as ‘weak’ may be unhelpful insofar as it often overlooks informal systems of governance and insofar as it is often used as shorthand (and thus specific details or supporting evidence need not be provided). However, it is precisely this value – overlooking the specificities of each system of governance – that makes the term ‘weak governance’ so useful, and tends to generate similar policy responses.

It is suggested that it is necessary to recognise the complexity, power and political dimensions of language – and the ways that it can be used to reinforce or challenge power relations; legitimise actions and intervention; and rationalise, exploit or hide competing agendas. Perhaps we need to accept that the language used in peacebuilding – as elsewhere – can be ambiguous with the same concept being used to mean different things by different people, for instance – just as peace and conflict are experience and mean different things to different people. Rather than aiming to be objective and specific in our use of language, perhaps we need to accept that language is a social construct: it is as part of conflict and peace as it is the tool used to understand these phenomena; it is a means through which conflicts are fought, and peace is forged; it reinforces or shifts power relations and as such is at the heart of conflict. It is informed by our specific experiences as well as shared histories and cultures, as much as it reflects our aspirations and intentions (whether at the micro or macro level). It is suggested that there can be no objectivity when it comes to the language we use: what is important is that we become aware of our subjectivity and how it is reflected in the language we use. In that way we can start to accept the legitimacy of ‘other’ perspectives as well as start to question the validity of metanarratives about conflict and peace – and in such a way potentially better contribute to building more peaceful societies (however we might define them).

Eleanor

Reference: Call, C. (2008) ‘The Fallacy of the “Failed State”’, Third World Quarterly, 28(8): 1491-1507.

Phil Vernon's blog

I think Edward Saïd wrote somewhere that the USA can never hope to contribute to sustainable peace in the Middle East until it is willing and able to describe the situation there objectively, comprehensively and accurately. Good advice for President Obama and his new Secretary of State as they embark on four challenging years in the region. And good advice meanwhile for anyone, be they doctor, secretary of state, international NGO staff member or anyone else, who takes on responsibility to help others fix their problems.

George Orwell, in his 1940s essay, Politics and the English Language (downloadable freely through Google), developed six golden rules for writing clearly about politics:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut…

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