Human Rights and War through Civilian Eyes

Human Rights and War through Civilian Eyes

Human Rights and War through Civilian Eyes

Human Rights and War through Civilian Eyes

Synopsis

International lawyers and ethicists have long judged wars from the perspective of the state and its actions, developing international humanitarian law by asking such questions as "Are the belligerents justified in entering the conflict?" and "How should they conduct themselves during the war's execution?" and "When civilian noncombatants are harmed, who is responsible for their suffering?" Human Rights and War Through Civilian Eyes reimagines the ethics of war from the standpoint of its collateral victims, focusing on the effects of war on individuals--on those who are terrorized, or killed, or whose lives are violently disrupted. Upholding a human rights analysis of war, Thomas W. Smith conveys vividly the depth of human loss and the narrowing of everyday life brought about by armed conflict.

Through riveting case studies of the Iraq War and the recent Gaza conflicts, Smith shows how even combatants who profess to follow the laws of war often engage in appalling violence and brutality, cutting short civilian lives, ruining economies, rending social fabrics, and collapsing public infrastructure. A focus on the human dimension of warfare makes clear the limits of international humanitarian law, and underscores how human rights perspectives increase its efficacy. At a moment when liberal states are rethinking the ethics of war as they seek to extricate themselves from unjust or unwise conflicts and taking on the responsibility to intervene to protect vulnerable people from slaughter, Human Rights and War helps us see with bracing clarity the devastating impact of war on innocent people.

Excerpt

The prohibition against directly targeting civilians in war may be the strongest norm in all international relations. Nevertheless, civilian devastation remains a hallmark of today’s armed conflicts. Terrorists and zealots and “unlawful enemy combatants” routinely kill and maim innocent people. But so do state militaries that profess to follow the laws of war, also known as international humanitarian law, or IHL. The image of modern humanitarian law is the judge advocate in the war room surveying the battlespace and advising the generals on the legality of particular tactics and targets. It’s not the war room of Dr. Strangelove with its jingoistic antics and blinking “big board.” Far from it. Humanitarian law genuinely strives to limit the destructiveness of war, particularly as regards the treatment of noncombatants. The legal notion that civilians should be spared the hard hand of war is not absolute, however. It is designed to mitigate civilian harm while upholding, within limits, the prerogative of states to pursue military necessity and strategic advantage. It weighs the lawfulness of war from the standpoint of the state’s actions and intentions, not from the standpoint of war’s collateral victims.

I propose that in thinking about war we expand our moral field of vision and focus much more on the effects of war on civilians. This book adopts the conceptual framework and moral resolve of human rights to try to do justice to the civilian experience. The argument is philosophical in the sense that it recognizes the intrinsic value of human life and human dignity. But it is also vividly empirical. One of the book’s central themes is that the depth and detail of rights helps to constitute civilians and civilian protections around extramilitary human rights norms. The specificity of rights conveys the terror and anguish of people whose lives are shattered by war. We see the overt violence of artillery fire or bomb strikes, of breaking down doors in the middle of the night, of arbitrary roundups and detention, of torture and abuse, and of the destruction of civilian property; as well as the insidious and long-term effects . . .

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