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Another day, another atrocity

In a valedictory piece after six years at The Elders, Andrew Whitley laments the loss of innocent civilian life in ongoing atrocities from Nigeria to Turkey, Egypt to Syria, and reflects on the failure of internationally-binding rules-based systems.

"It is clear that the vestiges of the “rules of warfare” agreed during the last century have almost completely gone, and with them a defining guide to what is right and wrong."

Salaheddin, Aleppo in 2012
Salaheddin, Aleppo in 2012

Another day, another atrocity. One day northern Nigeria, another Istanbul, another Cairo, where women and children are murdered at prayer in an ancient Coptic church. All innocents, all targeted simply for being who they are.

Perhaps mercifully, human consciousness (or is it the soul?) can only take so much. Instead, that psychological filter mechanism which helps us cope without losing our minds at such a litany of inhumanity automatically kicks in.

The downside of this coping mechanism – at least for those who do not have to experience such violence first-hand – is that we become inured to daily reports of blood and gore. Like a drug addict needing ever larger fixes to get high, it takes the crossing of yet another moral “red line” to penetrate the protective shield and register horror on the face of the beholder.

What is to be done about this state of affairs, where copy-cat terrorist acts abound, and perpetrators almost always seem to escape punishment (unless they succeed in blowing themselves up and becoming “martyrs” to their perverted cause)?

I have been reflecting on these dismal matters as I approach the end of six years with The Elders, as well as the latter stages of a professional career that has made me a reluctant witness to more involuntary death in distant parts of the world than I care to think about.

One conclusion is that the “terrorism” label can be deeply unhelpful.

When Bashir al-Assad uses it to describe all his enemies regardless of their ideological leanings or military tactics in Syria, and so does Abdel Fatah el-Sisi to describe the Muslim Brotherhood, along with Benjamin Netanyahu when he blasts Hamas and its followers, one can be confident “the T-word” has been sacrificed on the altar of political cynicism.

This is not the same as saying that terrorism only exists in the eyes of the beholder, or that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. That tired old debate has long been buried. It is the intention to terrorise ordinary people that defines the act itself.

Watching helplessly while Aleppo and Mosul, neighbouring cities on either side of the Iraqi/Syrian frontier are simultaneously pummelled from the air and ground – ironically, the first by the Russians and their allies, the other by a US-coordinated coalition – it is clear however that the vestiges of the “rules of warfare” agreed during the last century have almost completely gone, and with them a defining guide to what is right and wrong.

Thanks to modern technology our capacity to observe the painful details of distant wars up close is greater than ever. In turn, this spurs understandable calls for something to be done to stop the carnage. But while the impulse to action may be stronger than ever, our capacity to act decisively has, paradoxically, been weakening lately. Several factors are responsible: among them is the fact that the internationally-binding, rules-based systems that governed world affairs for much of the second half of the twentieth century is starting to fall apart.

The shared sense that we all have a moral duty to intervene when and where we can, to prevent the massacre of innocents, is alive and well. At the same time, “rogue actors” – as the contemporary Vandals are called by those who still try to abide by the rules – have thrown off the constraining shackles, making it harder for others to resist siren calls from their own constituencies to do the same. The resulting malaise will not go away soon.

In this bleak midwinter, hope is scarce and words feel cheap. But paradoxically I believe that the need for an organisation like The Elders has never been greater, for the sake of our shared humanity.

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