At the end of WWII, world leaders, horrified by the destruction and loss of life rendered through conflict, committed to a new humanitarian order. This commitment was enshrined in the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) — an acknowledgement that if war could not be avoided, it should be made more humane. Under this architecture's rubric, states committed to the most basic of human principles in wartime — that schools and hospitals should not be targets, the humane treatment of prisoners of war, and the protection of civilians.
One glance at the West Asia-North Africa region today and one cannot help but wonder how humanity has strayed so far from that pledge. The facilities of Medecins sans Frontiers have been bombed repeatedly in Syria, Yemen and Libya, schools have been targeted in Syria and Pakistan, Yazidis have been forced to convert to Islam and their girls enslaved, not to mention the acts of arbitrary violence committed against prisoners of war.
The blame lies less in what we have done, but in what we have failed to do. Once again, the nature of the threat has evolved too quickly for the legal framework to contain it.
The defining characteristic of the military theater encompassing Syria, Iraq and Libya is the proliferation of violent armed non-state actors. Religiously-motivated organizations get the most press, most notably the Islamic State, closely followed by Hezbollah, the Shia political party and militant actor. But religion is hardly the only motivator; assaults on Jerusalem synagogues have been claimed by the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary organization Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, while the left-wing nationalist PKK fights for Kurdish self-determination in Turkey.
International powers have been unable to halt the evolution of this new form of warfare, either by applying existing tools effectively, or creating new ones. A key issue is lack of commitment to enforce the ‘rules of the game’. Thus while legal principles exist, their enforcement is political. A Security Council mandated international intervention in Syria has been a political non-starter. Violations of international humanitarian law should be able to be prosecuted at either national or quasi-international courts — but neither seems realistic at this point in the battle. And although certain crimes perpetrated in Iraq and Syria could be tried at the International Criminal Court, the required Security Council referral would inevitably be blocked.
In short, the nature of warfare and balance of global power has shifted so dramatically, that the international legal architecture has been rendered obsolete. The disincentives to abrogate the values of humanity are too weak, and the honeypots on offer are too valuable. This should not be mistaken with déjà vu. The world is in a far more threatening place than it stood in the wake of the Second World War.
Today there is less cohesion and agreement. Power is no longer bipolar; Brazil, India, Pakistan, Turkey and Iran, together with the permanent Security Council members and Germany, are included in today’s power-brokers. African states are now independent. And the rise of other multilateral actors, including the EU, UN, international NGOs, advocacy networks, and multinational corporations has created a plethora of influential and non-conventional stakeholders in global politics.
This means that the most obvious solution — to convince world leaders to commit to something braver than the Fourth Geneva Convention — is simply not feasible. We can’t even agree to implement what we have, let alone exercise the moral strength to impose new restrictions on heavily guarded state sovereignty.
But I argue that we don’t need new or elaborated rules of war. We all need ownership of a law of peace. We need to move beyond containment — extinguishing threats faster than they consume us. We need to make a qualitative step forward and wage peace. As painfully articulated by Sun Tzu, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” This notion has evidential support. Today, rates of post-conflict recurrence are so high, the fact that wars spread, and that they cripple economies for generations, means that the most effective way of preventing war today, is maintaining a post-conflict peace.
So how do we wage peace? There may be more to learn from Sun Tzu.
First, we need to take far more seriously, and humbly, the need to understand one’s enemy: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” The Islamic State cannot be defeated until all countries engaged in the battle appreciate the importance of also crafting out a legitimate political space for deliberation. Likewise, we cannot broker peace both within the region and with other regions, without understanding the determinative role of honor and dignity in the collective Arab psyche.
Second we need to resist military might as our first reaction to fear; “One must know how to conquer without being able to do it.” Waging peace cannot be done with the tools of war and violence. It is a commitment to actions that collectively contribute towards a more peaceful world order. It is promoting equal opportunities, gender equality and inclusive governance.
Third we need to learn from the fragmentation and disintegration around us; we have to remember what Sun Tzu meant when he said that “in the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity”. These wars — as catastrophic as they are — contain the seeds to grow stronger together. We need to look through the rubble to find the ingredients needed to forge a more cohesive ethos, where state and people meet in a vibrant and participatory civic society. If we take these lessons seriously and thoughtfully, we can build back a stronger and more resilient region.
We do not need elaborated rules of war. And while we do need a law of peace, the global political architecture alone cannot sustain such a process at present. So we can wait for complete disaster to forge the needed cohesion, as we did in 1945, or we can be proactive. We might start, in this region, by developing an Islamic law of peace. Islamic jurisprudence is replete with instruction on how to wage peace. The Qur’an articulates that the Islamic relationship between individuals and nations is one of peace, that war is only permitted, and that at all times, restraint, patience and fortitude are required.
This echoes Sun Tzu’s core message, that under all circumstances, the art of war dictates that one should first and foremost avoid war. So while over the long-term it is the international justice system that needs to fix our war architecture, perhaps there is more that can be done by the people, thought leaders and civil society of this region. I’m sure that if we asked the citizens of 1939 Europe, they would urge us to not wait for international actors to come up with viable alternatives.
Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan is chairman and founder of the West Asia-North Africa Institute.
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