Since the earliest civilizations war has been a constant companion of humanity. Mark Moffett, the author of “Adventures among Ants”, said that ants were the only other species besides humans capable of taking part in organized warfare. The killing of unarmed civilians, women and children was considered a normal part of warfare. Only in the last two centuries did a need for a legal framework for treatment of civilians in war and prisoners of war was felt. The Hague and subsequent Geneva Convention defined what would be considered acceptable standards of conduct during war. Yet almost every single war since then, there has seen varying degrees of human rights violations. What causes some people to commit war crimes? Is everyone capable of committing them?
Soldiers and uniformed personnel are not the only ones to commit war crimes, doctors and armed civilians throughout history have taken part in war crimes. Other than war crimes there are numerous reports of police officers committing human rights violations on the civilian population during peacetime. Bangladesh is no stranger to extrajudicial killing by law enforcement officers. What leads those who wear the uniform to serve and protect their fellow citizens to commit violence against them?
In most cases of war crimes, it has been seen that most of the crimes are initiated by a small number of men in leadership positions in the security establishment or the government, and in most cases, the larger society is unaware and does not actively take part in the crimes. In many cases, the perpetrator of a crime will state that he was only following orders. This was a common defence during the Nuremberg trials and of US soldiers who participated in the My Lai massacre. In the recent trial of the killers of Major Sinha many of the police officers who were involved stated they were simply following orders of their commander Inspector Pradip Kumar Das.
Uniformed personnel are taught to dehumanize their enemies and are expected to show complete obedience to rank. This might lead them to follow orders and carry out actions that they normally would not do. When they return from war some of them will go back to their normal life and others might experience post-traumatic stress disorder. Then there are those who commit human rights violations to enrich themselves. The Stanford prison experiment shows people tend to abuse positions of power. The Stanford experiment has been compared to Abu Garib prison in its treatment of prisoners. How many war criminals commit crime because of their sadistic desires and how many commit the crimes because they were simply “following orders”?
Frésard & Muñoz-Rojas wrote in their 2004 article, “The roots of behaviour in war: Understanding and preventing IHL violations”, in the International Review of the Red Cross that “one of the reasons often cited to justify failure to respect human rights is that those who commit reprehensible acts often perceive themselves not as torturers, but as victims. They feel themselves to be victims, they are told they are victims, and that gives them the right to kill or commit atrocities. This status of being a victim and the real or imagined threat of becoming one again justifies the resort to any means to obtain justice. Another reason often used is that a people, ethnic group or country which is fighting for its survival cannot afford the luxury of humanitarian considerations and rules that may weaken it. For such people, the end justifies the means.” This can be used to explain the unrestrained genocidal violence by the Myanmar government and the Rakhine population against the Rohingya minority. To them, the Rohingya are not a victim but an existential threat to their nation-state. That they are the victims of Islamic extremists and expansionism. They justify their attacks on the Rohingya community on the basis of self-defence. Ignoring the reality that the Rohingya are a small unarmed minority who had been disenfranchised from all civil rights, including the right to education and freedom of movement. The end game for the Myanmar government in Rakhine is the establishment of a racial and religious homogenous state without the presence of the Rohingya people, who are a visible racial and religious minority.
There are some ways we can try to remove those who would commit human rights violations from the armed forces. There can be mandatory psychological tests of all recruits before they are allowed to join military and security forces. Train soldiers to objectively view enemy combatants instead of dehumanizing them. Establish effective mechanisms to investigate human rights violators and hold them accountable. We as a society should work towards eliminating war crimes and human rights violations. It is not something that can be done in a day but we can work towards it through incremental steps. Rome wasn’t built in a day and similarly the end of human rights violations by security forces will not end in a day or with one trial.
The writer is a lecturer at the American International University-Bangladesh