Liberty's travails on the road to Armageddon

The Lesser Evil - The Dark Side of Virtue

December 17, 2004

Both these books address dilemmas of immense topicality related to human rights and humanitarian policy. Both authors are professors at Harvard University: Michael Ignatieff is the director of the Centre for Human Rights at the Kennedy School of Government, and David Kennedy is a professor of law. Unsurprisingly, both are academic books.

Ignatieff's book is based on the six Gifford lectures he gave at Edinburgh University in 2003, but the ideas are developed further. Perhaps because of its genesis before a public audience, and his skills as a broadcaster and journalist, the book is more accessible to the general reader while no less intellectually challenging.

The title synthesises his thesis: the lesser evil is the median point between those who argue that in a terrorist emergency, robust action is needed to protect the majority, whatever the effect on human rights, and the civil libertarians, who see some actions as wrong even if they counter terrorism. Ignatieff propounds the pragmatic intermediate position: in a terrorist emergency, a democracy must be committed to the security of the majority and to the rights of the individual; it must strike a balance.

The book illustrates the complex implications of applying this approach with a wealth of examples, historical and current, from all over the world.

Ignatieff argues cogently in defence of his thesis while highlighting the difficulty of avoiding the blurred line where legitimate action tips over into authoritarianism. His views bear great relevance to the imprisonment of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, though he does not cite this example. The sections on torture, and the dilemma of defining the line between permissible and impermissible interrogation, have topical relevance, though the events at Abu Ghraib jail in Baghdad were revealed after the book's publication.

Having spent many years in Latin America, I was struck by Ignatieff's observations on the impact of terrorism on the constitutional regimes in Argentina, Peru and Colombia. He concludes that although " la politique du pire " (which encapsulates the aim of terrorists to make things so much worse that they cannot become better) can provoke regimes into unconstitutional measures, it has never succeeded in bringing terrorists to power. I would be interested to hear his views on current populist movements in that continent that have driven democratically elected presidents from office with tactics that in some instances have verged on terrorism, marking an equally blurred line between legitimate democratic protest and violence.

In analysing the motives and the means adopted by various groups of terrorists, Ignatieff quotes Che Guevara to show that many liberation movements have rejected terrorism. He also reviews the measures open to constitutional governments to avoid becoming as unconstrained as the terrorists they seek to destroy. As he shows, the conundrum of whose human rights should prevail has been with us for centuries.

Ignatieff's answer lies in the checks and balances provided by the institutions of the liberal democratic state. But his final message is sombre, synthesised in the grim title of his last chapter, "Liberty and Armageddon", in which he considers the implications of terrorists acquiring weapons of mass destruction. He distinguishes three kinds of terrorist: those who act for self-determination; the loner; and those who seek the global spectacular - singling out the last two as the most dangerous. Al-Qaeda falls into the third category, "apocalyptic nihilists" who cannot be engaged politically but must be defeated militarily, though Ignatieff later highlights the difficulty of justifying pre-emptive military action and of obtaining international authorisation. He even concedes that we could lose.

His proposed defence against such a catastrophic outcome lies in strenuous efforts to renew democracy and strengthen open government at home and abroad; to redress the grievances of disaffected groups that can lie at the root of violent action; and to reinvigorate all forms of multinational and multilateral cooperation, since terrorism often depends on the complicity of states. He says the US must, in its own self-interest, take the lead in fostering international cooperation. But given the preference for unilateralism in the current administration of the world's sole superpower, things do not look rosy.

The need for pragmatism is also a theme of Kennedy's book. His broad definition of international humanitarianism, which does not come until page 236, covers "people who aspire to make the world more than just the projects they have launched" and their "professional vocabularies". In addition to human rights and humanitarian policymaking, he deals with the implications for economic development, market democracy, refugee policy and the relationship between humanitarianism and force.

Two voices alternate: that of the erudite lawyer dissecting the finer points of law and that of the impassioned, sometimes anguished, tones of a member of yet another generation lamenting that life and reality have not measured up to the idealistic aspirations of his youth. It is, however, the dry legalistic voice emphasising policy issues and abstract concepts that comes across more strongly. As someone who has been engaged in all the areas he covers, as a policymaker and an activist, I felt his book could have been more rounded and perhaps more positive in its conclusions, with greater attention to the pros and cons of humanitarian action at the sharp end, in the field. But that is not his intent, and the author does not appear to have had sustained practical experience.

I could empathise with his criticism that humanitarian policymakers are often so carried away by their own theories that they do not think through the political consequences of their dictates, as well as with his devastatingly funny - and accurate - pastiche of what goes on at international conferences. It is also true that fashion fads have marred the approach to economic development, but his concentration on the rule of law as a development strategy is too limiting.

Kennedy dwells much on the importance of "vocabulary" but his own prose tests the ordinary reader's perseverance. At times it is turgid, even tortured. The constant use of "foreground" as a verb is irritating, while the injunction that we must "disenchant our tools" appears meaningless, and the repetition of sentences without a main verb, all beginning with "which", make rumours of the demise of the semicolon alarmingly prescient. Sometimes, the tone descends to the banal or the outright facetious as, when giving his reasons for interviewing a political prisoner in Uruguay, he says: "I might even return tanned" and writes: "The avocado will speak," a ponderous wordplay on " abogado ", the Spanish word for lawyer. The two styles reflect the duality and incompatibility of the two voices, while the black-and-white abstract photographs, unidentified by captions but presumably meant to illustrate the text, seem rather to obfuscate and heighten the impression of impenetrability.

Kennedy's recommendations for remedying the parlous state of international humanitarianism are general, abstract and not easily translatable into practical action. His prescription is for more pragmatism (though earlier in the book he says there is too much), greater commitment and clarity of purpose. No one can disagree. I felt sympathy with his passionate commitment to the humanitarian cause, but I was left with a sense of futility, especially when he quoted Harold Nicolson: "The factor of stupidity is inseparable from all human affairs."

Were I a pessimist, that message from 1919 would seem disturbingly apposite to the current state of the world that both these books address.

Dame Margaret Anstee was formerly undersecretary-general, United Nations.

The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror

Author - Michael Ignatieff
Publisher - Edinburgh University Press
Pages - 212
Price - £15.99
ISBN - 0 7486 1872 4

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