Between Pinochet and Kropotkin: State Terror, Human Rights and the Geographers

By Hewitt, Kenneth | The Canadian Geographer, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Between Pinochet and Kropotkin: State Terror, Human Rights and the Geographers


Hewitt, Kenneth, The Canadian Geographer


John Wiley Lecture delivered to a meeting of the Canadian Association of Geographers and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, June 2, 2000

Introduction: the State and the Vulnerable

The following words appear in Nunca Mas, the commission report on violence against Argentina's citizens during the `Dirty War' (1976-1983):

   ... the blows were aimed at the defenceless, the vulnerable and the
   innocent, and a new type of torment was conceived (CONADEP 1986, 286,
   emphasis added).

The passage refers to new born and small children taken from their mothers by agents of the military government and `disappeared' meaning, in this case, secret placement with families approved by the regime.

The babies, at least, were `innocent'. Their mothers were `defenceless'; being in jail and subject to torture. After giving birth, many were `disappeared' in the more usual sense -- secretly killed and put in unmarked, mass graves, or thrown from aircraft into the sea. They comprised a few hundred of the 9,000 or so Argentinians murdered in the repression. The `vulnerable' would include their parents, who could not protect their own children and were denied their living grandchildren. This seems extraordinarily evil, but highlights a general tendency of state terror to produce singular excesses. Unhappily, they are not confined to Argentina.

Globally, civilian victims of state violence far exceed those in natural and technological disasters. It is often remarked that the motor car has killed and injured more people than wars since 1945. This may be true for soldiers, more exactly regular, especially Western, soldiers in wars like those in Korea and Vietnam. It is patently wrong for civilian war casualties. Moreover, in the twentieth century more civilians were killed by their own governments and armed forces, than in any other form of armed violence.

Rummel (1994) estimates about 170 million fatalities for twentieth century `democide' -- the deliberate killing of citizens and other civilians by governments in their own or occupied countries (Table 1). Totalitarian regimes of USSR and China proved overwhelmingly `proficient' in this, followed by Nazi Germany. Given the problems of estimating the numbers, actual figures could be a few tens of millions less -- or over one hundred million more (Elliot 1967; Harff and Gurr 1988). They exceed, and are in addition to, between 40 and 60 million civilians killed by `the enemy' in wars as normally understood, and compared to 38.5 million `battle dead', largely male soldiers (Sivard 1996; Hewitt 1997, 118).

Understandably, van den Berghe (1990) concludes that "... Most states have outkilled all freelance murderers by one or two orders of magnitude...." And, as Rita Arditti (1999, 4) points out in the Argentine context, "... when the state commits crimes, the victims find themselves totally defenceless, with no recourse."

Violence and a `Civil Discipline'

The language used to describe civilian victims of state violence echoes that recently applied to other risks (Hewitt 1997, chapter 6). The victims of technological and natural disasters are also, most often, made vulnerable by poor or absent social protections. Yet, if this commonly involves bad or indifferent governance, the disasters are rarely intended. Armed violence is always deliberate and `aimed' -- if sometimes badly. There are extensive preparations and training, weapons and tactics selected for the planned action. Command structures are heirarchical, usually very rigid. Specific people and places are targeted in orders to those carrying out the violence, even in what appear as acts of random terror. Meanwhile, systemic state violence against home populations, let alone modern wars, depend upon unresolved social conflict and, at least among the more powerful segments of society, entrenched attitudes, on-going institutions and priorities. …

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