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Combating Psychic Numbing to Prevent Genocide

In the paper “Psychic Numbing and Mass Atrocity” [click where it says One-Click Download], University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic and his four co-authors examine the phenomenon of “psychic numbing” and its implications for genocide prevention policies.

Psychic numbing proceeds from the role of affects—positive and negative reactions to stimuli that influence our decision-making—in the dual-process theories of thinking. The dual process is composed of System 1 and System 2, the former emphasizing emotions, experiences, and intuitions and the latter based on analytical deliberations. Both are important components of our ability to think that arose out of the long process of evolution, but each has distinct effects on our decision-making. Affects are central to the System 1 mode of thinking, which “evolved to protect individuals and their small family and community groups from present, visible, immediate dangers.” However, this also means that “this affective system did not evolve to help us respond to distant, mass murder. As a result, System 1 thinking responds to large-scale atrocities in ways that System 2 deliberation, if activated, finds reprehensible.”

Studies have shown that “constant increases in the physical magnitude of a stimulus typically evoke smaller and smaller changes in response.” Applied to human lives, this means that “the importance of saving one life is great when it is the first, or only, life saved but diminishes marginally as the total number of lives saved increases.” Related to this revelation is the research showing that one specific victim with a name and a face compels a much stronger response from the public than simply a number of victims or a group of victims. As Slovic et al. state: “Our capacity to feel is limited . . . the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N (number of victims) = 1 but begins to decline at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply ‘a statistic.’ ” This means that “faced with genocide and other mass tragedies, we cannot rely on our moral intuitions alone to guide us to act properly”—instead we need to depend on our ability to think analytically to guide our actions.

According to the authors, based on their research, if the international community were to pursue policies and institutional and legal arrangements to prevent and react to genocides, mechanisms to “overcome cognitive failures” would need to be implemented. As institutional arrangements and legal system are decision-making instruments based on analytical deliberations, the authors believe that any effort to mitigate the effects of psychic numbing should focus on: 1) “insulating institutions from the effects of psychic numbing”; 2) “removing or restricting institutional features that foster psychic numbing”; 3) “promoting System 2 deliberation directly”; and 4) employing System 1 to channel actors toward System 2 processes.”

In order to shield institutions from psychic numbing, the authors advocate changes to the current system of enforcement and reaction to mass atrocities, such as employing pre-authorization and pre-commitment for military intervention or economic sanctions. Rather than scrambling to react to a situation, their focus is on having rules in place that would allow countries and institutions to simply follow a procedure in place and bypass the inaction arising from psychic numbing as the casualties mount. They also support greater early warning and preventive diplomacy efforts, as well as giving more authority to regional institutions, which because of their physical proximity are less susceptible to psychic numbing than larger international organizations.

The authors call for changes to human rights reporting to emphasize personal stories and use more images, and to human rights indicators to place less weight on quantitative factors. They also believe that human rights law, such as the definition of crimes against humanity, should emphasize crimes against individuals rather than against groups. Lastly, in order to put greater emphasis on System 2-type thinking, the authors urge international institutions and national governments to deliberate more, and more open-mindedly, about possible courses of action, such as conducting cost-benefit analyses of intervention versus non-interventions in cases of genocide.

Image: Paul Slovic

Democratic Republic of Congo: High stakes for November elections

The United States Institute of Peace, in association with the Great Lakes Policy Forum, hosted a discussion June 2 on how the United States and the international community can help stabilize the dangerous situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo ahead of the November elections. As security has broken down in many areas of the country, the threat of politically motivated violence is real—before, during, and after the election.

The DRC has been in a perpetual state of conflict for decades. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum currently lists it as one of the places most prone for ethnic conflict in the near future. It’s suffered two major wars, with over 5.7 million people dead as a result. Armed groups continue to challenge government control, while the government itself is widely seen as corrupt and ineffective. Despite a successful election in 2006, dangerous conditions persist till today, especially in the east, where rebel groups perpetrate crimes against civilians including sexual violence, murder, looting, and forced displacement. According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, “national and provincial structures remain incapable of ensuring basic security for communities, providing transparent management of resources and wealth, and addressing entrenched problems of corruption, poverty, lack of development and heightened ethnic and regional tensions.”

The first speaker at the June 2 discussion, Joshua Marks, the Central Africa Program Officer for the National Endowment for Democracy, spoke at length on the DRC’s upcoming election. According to him, international monitoring is key to avoiding violence. Successful monitoring has a two-fold effect, he said: It not only gives the government greater legitimacy in the eyes of its own people, it also gives it greater credibility in the eyes of other countries, which may encourage them to give more aid.

While Marks said he was confident that UN and EU teams would ensure a fair election, he urged listeners to be cautious in their expectations. As he pointed out, even successful elections can give way to chaos, and the international community must make sure to strengthen other aspects of society as well—for example, supporting a greater separation of powers and protecting freedom of speech.

Also integral to stemming an outbreak of violence, Marks said, is monitoring the media, since media can be used as a tool either for democratic expression or hateful propaganda. Donor countries need to take a greater role in ensuring that they guide the Congo’s media towards the former. He looks at successful U.S. policy in this case as a good example. U.S. funding has helped create local radio broadcasts that are fair, strengthening civil society and open and democratic debate—two factors that can help avoid election-time violence.

While admitting the country is still is a dismal state despite billions of dollars in aid, Marks said he believes coordination of efforts by governments and like-minded organizations can lead to fund being used more efficiently and effectively.

The discussion’s second speaker, Tia Palermo, assistant professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University, spoke extensively on the problem of sexual violence in the DRC. Recent reports have shown that sexual violence against women there is one of the highest in the region. However, Palermo claims the high levels of rape are not due to the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, but simply by men acting on their own, which points to a fundamental problem in Congolese society. To rectify this, Palermo recommended that donor nations help build education programs and instruments to aid in the prosecution of accused rapists.

Photo:© UNHCR/P.Taggart

Bosnia: Mladic appears before ICTY again

Ratko Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb army, yesterday appeared for the second time before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The hearing was marked by heated exchanges between Mladic and the presiding judge, Alphons Orie of the Netherlands. His indictment on 11 charges—including genocide, persecution, and deportation—stems from his leadership of the Bosnian Serb army during the 1992-95 war, including the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre. In court yesterday, Mladic said he would not enter a plea without the presence of his Serbian and Russian lawyers, while the court said the Serbian attorney was not qualified to represent Mladic since he does not speak English. On Sunday, Agence France-Presse had reported that Mladic planned to boycott the hearing as a protest against issues with his representation. After Mladic’s expulsion, the judge entered pleas of not guilty on all 11 charges, but did not set a date for his next court appearance.

Laws of War: Crisis Group president Louise Arbour delivers speech

Louise Arbour, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and current president of the International Crisis Group, delivered the annual Kirby Lecture at the Australian National University on June 23. Titled “The Laws of War: Under Siege or Gaining Ground?” the speech examined the current state of international humanitarian law and the laws governing warfare.

Arbour noted that international law regarding the conduct of war has come under attack from both sides, one arguing that traditional laws of war constrain governments’ ability to fight asymmetric wars against terrorists or insurgents, the other arguing that international law gives too much leeway to states that inflict civilian casualties. While Arbour acknowledged important gaps in international humanitarian law, she said some criticisms were a result of the law’s greater effectiveness in recent years in holding perpetrators of atrocities accountable and the desire of some states to avoid being held accountable for their actions.

Arbour noted that armed conflict has changed dramatically since international treaties like the Geneva Conventions were formulated. It is not always clear whether military, counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism operations against non-state actors can be considered acts of war, which means they need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine how they should be governed under international and domestic laws. However, even if non-state actors violate laws governing warfare, Arbour argued that states should abide by them, especially when it comes to protecting civilians. Non-state violators can be held accountable through the criminal process, whereas states are still bound by their obligations under those treaties.

Even if asymmetric warfare has made it more difficult to distinguish between civilians and combatants, Arbour said today’s criteria remained useful, relevant, and necessary: “The current formulation does allow for the targeting of ‘civilian combatants’ when they are engaged in hostilities. To expand humanitarian law to allow the targeting of those civilians not directly involved in hostilities would be a dangerous step, and would entirely undermine the rationale of civilian protection.”

Arbour noted the continuing debate over what constitutes excessive civilian casualties, with one side arguing that any restriction on civilian casualties is too restrictive and the other that current laws of war allow too many civilian casualties. She said that current laws struck a proper balance between “military and humanitarian imperatives,” and that clearer standards would develop over time.

Finally Arbour discussed the concept of “lawfare”—the “use or the abuse of laws of war as a military tool.” While she cautioned against the manipulation of law for political aims, she also highlighted international humanitarian law’s potential to play a major role in protecting civilians and prevent conflict if implemented and enforced properly, and warned against attempts to cast aside or radically revise the current system of international humanitarian law.

Photo: The Guardian

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