On February 13th 2019, Professor Jennifer Welsh delivered the lecture “Pockets of Barbarism: Internal and External Challenges to the International Humanitarian Order” on the occasion of the 2018-2019 lecture series “The End of Pacification? The Transformation of Political Violence in the 21st Century”
This lecture challenges the meta-narrative of gradual pacification, by examining the manifestations, drivers, and consequences of the contemporary return of ‘barbarism‘ in armed conflict. While Stephen Pinker and others point to the vast majority of countries in the world that now enjoy relative peace, the ‘remaining 20 percent‘ is experiencing both interstate and civil conflict in which indiscriminate attacks on civilians, the annihilation of religious and ethnic minorities, and the starvation of populations are a regular part of the strategic repertoire of belligerents. The lecture will assess both the reasons for the increasing lethality of armed conflicts for civilians, particularly in urban settings (with a particular focus on Syria and Yemen), as well as the impact on the regime of international humanitarian law that aims to regulate conflict and minimise suffering. It will also argue that contemporary challenges to that regulation are not only external to the regime, but also internal to its principles and rules. IHL has always had within it an inherent tension between humanitarian considerations and the imperative of military necessity, which has in some cases enabled the current return of barbarism. The lecture will also contest the tendency to cast nonstate armed groups as the key perpetrators of barbarism, and demonstrate how nation-states themselves are also contributing to an erosion of the international humanitarian order.