10 July 2014

Legalist collective punishment, then and now

The nine familial exterminations

If three teenagers had been kidnapped and murdered, by two men suspected of being political terrorists, in a nation claiming to uphold human dignity – what would be the response? Arrests, certainly, and trials of the suspects likely resulting in a lengthy prison sentence. But, one hopes, there it would end. The punishment of families and relatives and friends of the accused has been practiced in societies past, including in China (the legalist principle of zuzhu, or familial extermination, being carried to its extreme by the ruthless Chinese tyrant Qin Shihuang, with certain crimes like deception, libel or studying old texts being punishable by exterminating the offender’s entire family within four generations along the paternal line). But even in China, after the Qin was overthrown by the Han, such collective punishment was moderated nearly to the point of non-practice under the humanistic pressure of Confucian ethics.

So it is disheartening to say the least, to see Israel adopting this sort of collective punishment piecemeal: at first under the guise of an investigation into the crime, under the nickname ‘Operation My Brother’s Keeper’; and then with outright military assaults on Palestinian areas, nicknamed ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’ and ‘Operation Protective Edge’. Israeli military forces have bombed over 400 locations, resulting in 48 Palestinian deaths. All the while, of course, the Israelis continue to conflate what is in essence a punitive measure for a specific crime with the general military and security situation of the country in order to paint themselves as victims and claim the moral high ground for these acts of collective punishment.

It is also disheartening, though not particularly unexpected, to see the same sort of behaviour from the new Ukrainian ‘government’, which continues to shell civilian areas in Donetsk and Lugansk in retaliation for the ‘separatist’ movement in both places. According to the UN, there have been 257 confirmed civilian deaths in the fighting in the eastern Ukraine, along with 86 Ukrainian military deaths. Only 13 casualties would therefore have been separatists – the rest, all civilians, are clearly being scapegoated by the Ukrainian junta for the acts of a handful of hardcore fighters, volunteers and their Russian and Chechen supports.

The Western governments and media got their knickers in a twist over this sort of warfare when Assad was reported to have done it, shelling rebel-held areas in a way they deemed ‘indiscriminate’. But when governments friendly to or dependent on the United States do the exact same things, for reasons which may or may not be as well-grounded as Assad has for his tactics in Syria, is there any of the same outrage directed at them? The brutal Qin Shihuangs Netanyahu and Yatsenyuk, who are carrying out zuzhu on entire populations (whether Palestinians or Russian-speaking Ukrainians) for the crimes of a few of their members, need to be held to the same standards, and as long as they aren’t, the US will have not a single moral leg to stand on in the international arena when it comes to issues of jus in bello or upholding the rule of law.

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