Thinking Terror II: When Peacemaking Kills, Composing, 08/06/2016

“You can be impartial when the most brutal fighting is over and all sides have something of an interest in brokering something resembling peace. Impartiality is still an ethically good stance – you’re the negotiator settling the end of a conflict. A morality of impartiality can’t work for a war in progress, particularly a war where one side (or even worse, both) is dedicated to ethnic cleansing and genocide. Yet going into Bosnia, that was all Vieira de Mello had.”
This post is going to be some live philosophy. Thinking through what a morality of impartiality would be, what it implies about human actors, and its limitations. In the next few hundred words, I’m going to figure out a sketch of the morality of impartiality.

Judging by the examples that I see in the life narrative of Sergio Vieira de Mello, which is how this exploration got started in the first place, impartiality morality is rooted in procedural justice. The core imperative is that everyone submit to the procedure for making peace.

The specific steps of that procedure will vary depending on the situation, but the procedure itself is paramount. Impartiality morality also makes truth and transparency essential to the good, but in a different way than we usually use the term ‘impartial.’

Cambodian soldiers at a ceremony before leaving for a
United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali. That's
today, long after Cambodia desperately needed
peacekeepers itself.
Most of the time, we talk about impartiality as a virtue for seeking truth. We seek to produce and present evidence for a belief – for a criminal trial, for example – that is impartial. The facts alone indicate who is right and who is wrong in a given situation. They don’t enter consideration with any purpose underlying their presentation.

But that's a use of ‘impartial’ where discovering the truth is your ultimate goal. In this political morality, truth is a means to the ultimate end – peace. This focus on peace is why a morality of impartiality looks so perverse in practice.

You might wonder, “What’s so perverse about peace?” But look at the central example I talked about yesterday – the peace process between Hun Sen’s Cambodian government and the Khmer Rouge guerillas. 

Most moralities would, even including Hun Sen’s record as a dictator, murderer, and torturer, demand the most severe punishments for Khmer Rouge leaders like Ieng Sary and Pol Pot. They put Nuon Chea in prison, after all, even when he was a frail old man. 

But Vieira de Mello went to meet with Ieng Sary and other leaders in the Khmer Rouge in the early 1990s. He welcomed them into the peace process as equal partners, and shook all their hands. Vieira de Mello’s purpose was to facilitate Hun Sen’s government and the Khmer Rouge both into the peace process.

The philosophical critiques of morality revolve around the idea that our ethics should not be about judgment and condemnation. Yet a morality is just a set of principles and rules for human social conduct. It’s the universality of judgment that’s the problem, not merely having such principles. 

So to facilitate peace, you lay judgment aside, treat everyone with equal respect, and offer them a friendly hand to the peacemaking table. 

Radovan Karadzic in 1996 with his bodyguards, a man
who was never interested in making peace.
Now, for this to work, you also need another virtue, which is transparency. Everyone involved in that peace process has to be honest about what they want, what they’re willing to give up for the settlement, and what they have. Especially if what they have is stockpiles of weaponry left over from years of fighting. 

Transparency is like truth, but not quite the same as truth. Truth is simply the facts of the matter at hand. But transparency is a combination of truth and how it’s revealed. If someone is outed as secretly stockpiling weapons, you have the truth, but you have no transparency. Transparency is self-revealed truth.

So here’s my sketch of the morality of impartiality. Its ultimate goal is peace, and we live out the morality by facilitating the procedure of making peace among groups and people who hate each other enough to have gone to war. Questions of blame, punishment, and even open acknowledgement of crimes are set aside if asking them will impede the process.

This morality of impartiality transforms the virtue of truthfulness into transparency. It’s an honest openness about your own capacities and desires. This honesty is not in the name of truth itself, but in the name of building trust and overcoming suspicion, paranoia, and hostility. 

Here’s the problem when we start applying this morality of impartiality in international peacemaking institutions like the United Nations. It can’t be universal. It can only be applied when everyone involved wants to make peace. 

It worked* in Cambodia in the early 1990s, when Vieira de Mello’s team brought Hun Sen’s military and the Khmer Rouge together to calm and end the communist insurgency. But once the UN team arrived in 1991, the country was already in ruins. The war had passed, and Cambodia was a wasteland no longer worth fighting for.

Sergio Vieira de Mello
* Sort of, well enough for a while.

The Khmer Rouge may have still had their weapons and still attacked government soldiers from time to time, but they knew they had lost. 

When Vieira de Mello was working with the United Nations peacekeeping force in Bosnia, he and his bosses also ran its diplomacy on a morality of impartiality. And that morality let the Bosnian Serb forces – dedicated to ethnic cleansing and genocide of all Muslims in the country in the name of literally centuries-old grievances – stomp all over the UN and hundreds of thousands of Bosnian Muslim people.

Abstaining from judgment and the impulse to punish wrongdoers gave Radovan Karadzic’s forces the space they needed to carry out countless sieges and massacres throughout Bosnia. 

When one party to the process is still dedicated to violence and total victory, the virtue of transparency is constantly cheated and the virtue of impartiality enables that violence.

A morality of impartiality is suited for keeping and making peace, but not for stopping war. So the open question at the end of this is, What can stop war?
• • •
Academic readers! Contrast my looser approach to thinking through a concept in public to how this would unfold in the university discipline. A longer article that would draw on more articles and publications on the nature of impartiality, but which would unfold into the public much more slowly. 

About a year to go through peer review and editing, and the article itself would be constrained by the need to respond to unrelated ideas that dominate a given field already. I can put this argument out and publicize it a lot faster than a journal article, but I do lack the access to paywalled publications on related areas. 

Is there a way to combine the virtues of the two approaches while overcoming their problems?

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