Posted by: hobbesonafob | September 26, 2009

State-building Conundrums: Whose Rule of Law Should One Follow?

After finishing my second week of grad school, it has become apparent to me that I actually have a lot of work to do. That being said, blogging will become more of a “break” for me. I’ll try and take a break once a week.

We’ll begin with the following article from the Toronto Star (not a newspaper I read, but the article was sent to me by a friend):

The article is about the experiences of some Canadian soldiers who have witnessed the rape of citizens by Afghan soldiers. Specifically, Corporal Travis Schouten witnessed an: “Afghan national army soldier abusing a young boy and then saw the boy afterwards with visible signs of rape trauma, his bowels and lower intestines falling out of his body.”

What Cpl. Schouten witnessed is disturbing for many reasons, but I believe that it raises some important questions that those involved in Afghanistan should ask. These questions are highlighted by a quote from a senior Canadian officer :

“It’s ridiculous,” the officer says. “We have an ethical and moral responsibility to pursue this, not to shut our eyes to it because it would make it more difficult to work with the Afghan government.

“We’re supposed to be in Afghanistan to help people who are being victimized.”

I think this quote reflects some of the perceptions the public and those serving in Afghanistan have. This quote also brings up important questions, some of them involving ethics. The questions that come to my mind after reading this quote are as follows:

  1. Are “we” really in Afghanistan to help people from being victimized?
  2. Does one have to allow these breaches of morality to occur in the meantime (as defined by the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights) so that cultural changes can be better made in the future?
  3. At what points is it moral to change a cultures?

I’m not going to answer these questions, but I have intensely thought about them and I recommend that people who may end up working with or studying this subject to do so.

The other point I wanted to draw from this article is the importance of one’s narrative matching his or her reality. The senior officer’s quote represents the disconnect from reality and the narrative. In other words, the stories that the officer told him or herself about the conflict in Afghanistan did not match with Cpl. Schouten’s account. This disconnect can prove to be emotionally traumatic to the soldiers experiencing it:

The sexual-abuse allegations put Canada in a thorny position with the local Afghan government and rekindle memories of some past deployments that led to Canadian soldiers developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

After serving in Bosnia, some soldiers were diagnosed with PTSD after rules of engagement prevented them from interfering when they witnessed civilians being raped by soldiers. Retired general Roméo Dallaire famously struggled with PTSD after the United Nations thwarted his efforts to stop a genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

Complicated? Most definitely. Hopefully somebody with more expertise and experience than me will address these issues raised.



  1. Hey Todd,

    Blogging and being in graduate school, are not as compatible as they would seem. It is tough, but worth it.

    As for the actual post, that was a very disturbing news piece that depicts some of the actual realities of war. With that being said, IMO it’s too difficult to incorporate moral values into the use of force, and international relations more broadly. Basing actions on morality tends to lead to a whole other set of complications. Now the time before force is used or foreign policy is exercised, then that is the best time to do calculations of how actions undertaken will conflict with a state’s own moral barometer.

    Good example post about the broader theme of morality in IR more general.

    • Hey GL,

      Thanks for the response.

      Yeah, blogging is taxing while trying to do readings, prepare for conferences, and all of that other fun stuff. Hopefully you’re staying on top of it all.

      I think using force has to be contextualized when trying to justify it as a moral action.

      I do like your concept of a state’s “moral barometer” – it’s catchy. Are you referring to a state’s justification for force (e.g. ticking time bomb scenario) or how those governing have constituents to answer to when a state engages in morally reprehensible actions (e.g. ordering soldiers not to interfere in the rape of civilians)?

  2. I would say “moral barometer” means something akin to what you say, “using force has to be contextualized when trying to justify a moral action.”

    To me, a specific example would have been the ramp up before the Iraq war. Planners knew that “shock and awe” would cause tremendous loss of innocent life. Those same planners and decision-makers should have conveyed those realities to the public to better gauge the justification to use force against the supposed Saddam/WMD threat.

    I guess in simplistic terms, “moral barometer” would mean that the use of force could only be justified if the predictable gains exceeded the predicted immortality. That sounds like brutal realism or something, but maybe a better example of this would have been Truman’s use of the a-bomb to force Japan’s surrender instead of prolonging the war.

  3. It would be interesting to get into the how planners and decision-makers could convey the perceived immorality of their actions. It would be even more interesting to see exactly what they would want to convey. There already seems to be a negative relationship between antiwar sentiments/the public mood and the political will of the government. Hence, it’s not in the best interest of those wanting to go to war to divulge all of the immorality (or whatever offends our senses of what is right)… yeah, not the most original insight!

    By the way, I was in my first left-leaning class last year (a fourth year-level human rights course). I was told the Japanese attempted to surrender to the U.S. I have yet looked into it myself, but the dropping of the a-bomb was portrayed as a more of a way to intimidate the Soviets. Have you heard of this historical debate? If so, what is you position on it?

  4. The way I understand it is that the Japanese government was slow to accept the terms of the Potsdam conference, and in fact did not do so until after the bombs were dropped. So, in fact they did not surrender because they didn’t accept the Potsdam conditions.

    But that has been interpreted as to mean the bombs forced their surrender, when in fact their surrender may have been coming anyway. It just might have taken a while.

    I think that they didn’t accept the Potsdam conditions because they may have been wanting to negotiate their own settlement and retain some of the territory that they gained during the war. Also, some say that all the other things that had happened to them (i.e. blockade, general war destruction, failing economy) were going to lead to their surrender even if we didn’t drop the bomb.

    I think all of this should be on page 177 of Sir George Sansom’s article “Japan’s Fatal Blunder”

    • Thanks for info!

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