Primitive ways of modern man


  • Letters
  • Tuesday, 08 Apr 2003

NOW, with the war in Iraq continuing and the crisis of confidence being faced by the United Nations, at least among the great majority of its member countries, the world community is heading towards a very gloomy prospect in years to come. 

The international system which hitherto relies so much on the notion of international legality in dealing with international relations has somehow encountered a serious blow to its existence largely because some members of the international community have failed to live up to the expected level of civilised behaviour. 

Acting beyond the charter of the United Nations and without the sanction of the UN Security Council to wage a war against another member of the UN is, in fact, a serious breach of international law. 

The war going on now has been tainted with illegality from the outset. As it is continuing, no one can predict when it will end and in what way. 

No one can put aside the fact that thousands of civilians have been killed or injured as a consequence. 

In this respect, the concerned international community cannot help but remind itself of the obligations established in the International Law of War which seeks to outlaw various objectives, methods and means of fighting, protect the innocent and wounded and punish violators of commonly established rules pertaining to the conduct of war. 

Lawful targets are basically limited to armies or military personnel and military installations or facilities of the opposing sides. 

Other than this, the law considers the following targets as illegitimate and they include civilians, military personnel hors de combat (disabled), middlemen or messengers authorised to negotiate with an enemy, civil defence personnel, hospital and medical units, civilian food supplies and crops, cultural properties, religious places and sites, highly dangerous installations or sites such as nuclear power plants and the likes. 

Unlawful methods of conducting a war include starving a civilian population and using unlawful means to achieve a military objective, including the use of weapons that cause unnecessary suffering or superfluous injury. 

In coming to a conclusion on the use of such weapons, two basic factors are normally considered. 

Firstly, the element of humanity, in the sense of whether unnecessary suffering has been caused to the other party. 

Second is the issue of proportionality of action.  

In this regard, weapons are considered lawful so long as the foreseeable injuries and sufferings they may produce are not disproportionate to the necessary use of them. 

The way in which a weapon is used and the method of conducting warfare against an enemy are relevant in deciding whether unnecessary suffering has been caused. 

Thus, to cause suffering for its own sake or for mere indulgence is considered an act of cruelty and, as such, is illegal according to the established international law of war. 

Similarly, the use of weapons that, by design and function, cannot be directed with any degree of certainty against their targets, or in accord with military objectives, is illegal. 

So far, the use of poisons, biological and chemical weapons, environmental modification weapons and offensive mines and booby traps have been made unlawful by various international treaties. 

Humanitarian aspects of war also warrant serious consideration.  

Basically, the law seeks to provide rules that provide sufficient protection of non-combatants, the disabled or the captured. 

As such, civilians and persons hors de combat need to be treated humanely.  

Similarly, a member of the enemy who surrenders or is hors de combat cannot be killed or injured. Furthermore, the sick and wounded need to be collected and cared for. 

Having followed developments pertaining to the war in Iraq, I must say with great sorrow and frustration that we are far behind that standard of civilised behaviour. 

Atrocities reported daily show we are living as primitive people. The way certain countries behave, it seems, is motivated by revenge fuelled by a deep sense of hatred. 

It is true that certain objectives have been put forward to justify the war, and colourful terms like democracy and liberation have been used, but the real intention behind these “sweet words” is not difficult to tell. 

I must say at this juncture that the situation faced by us now is far worse than that faced by our primitive ancestors.  

Surely, the bombs they drop now kill many more people than an arrow shot by a primitive warrior. 

Compared to modern or civilised system, the essence of the primitive system was the concept of retribution shaped in the form of retaliation, revenge and vengeance. 

In primitive times, groups in which revenge was practised widely were of a kinship or totemic type made of families and clans or sub-clans. 

Personal and collective existence in the groups is regarded as interchangeable in the sense that the group is the vital sphere for the individual and the individual is a quantity in the vitality of life of the group. 

Modes of identification between what they are in themselves (their existence as individuals) and what they stand for in the group, namely their prestige, are tacitly adhered to. 

Revenge, communal vengeance and blood feud in the primitive sense cannot be said to be non-existent in modern life. In modern times, revenge takes new shape in the form of a state or country taking action against another. 

Irrespective of what I have said earlier, I am not at all surprised if someone tells me that international law of our times is, in fact, a form of primitive law in disguise. 

Boycott, economic embargo, propaganda used to damage national reputations, war and threat of war (blood feuds in primitive times), threat of force and the virtual absence of an organised just world society, in addition to the use of veto power in the UN by some members, are points in question. 

With these facts, are we able to deny that some of us are actually primitive stock living in the so-called modern world? 

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