Cities: a matter of life and death

‘….we have as much right to bomb Rome as the Italians had to bomb London.’ (Anthony Eden, Foreign Secretary, addressing the House of Commons, 1943)

We prize our buildings. We fight to save buildings we love. There are preservation orders on old buildings, but likewise on the best examples of Brutalism. But further afield we lose whole cities. We bomb whole cities. Think of the souks of Aleppo. Or Raqqa: its obliteration a necessary price for ousting IS. And the Russian and Syrian bombardment of Idlib.

Had Obama brought the USA in against Assad, would old Damascus have survived assault?

I’ve been reading about a new American approach to command and control: ‘Joint All-domain Command and Control, or JADC2’, a network that links ‘every sensor and every shooter’ wherever they might be. It’s been tested with fighter jets, ground-based artillery, surface-to-air missiles and ‘hunter-killer’ drones. Is it re-assuring to know that it could ‘inform a commander that a building to be destroyed could first be emptied by an ability to activate its fire-alarm or sprinklers’? (The Economist)

My starting-point for this post was the fabric of cities, and by far the greater evil is the taking out of populations. But people and buildings and centuries of history are all intertwined. Fabric and culture are, in war, every bit as dispensable as populations. 

World War Two took obliteration to whole new levels. Coventry, and the London Blitz. Retaliation when it came was brutal, born it was argued of military necessity. Think of Dresden, and above all Hiroshima. Military necessity – or war crime?

Revenge also played a part. I’ve a been looking at newspaper cuttings, saved by my father, from World War 2. A headline from the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post of January 21st, 1943 struck me.

‘M.P.s CALL FOR THE BOMBING OF ROME. Anthony Eden addressed the House of Commons: ‘….we have as much right to bomb Rome as the Italians had to bomb London. [Mussolini enthused about bombing London, but no Italian bombers got anywhere near London as far as I’m aware], and we should do so to the best of our ability, and as heavily as possible if the course of the war should render such action convenient and helpful.’

The report continues: ‘The House was full at the time and an enthusiastic cheer came from the crowded benches.’

From the Manchester Guardian of April 1st, 1944 – curious it is this date, but it was no April Fool. The press cutting was kept because Orde Wingate, leader of the British Forces in Burma, had been killed. Below and to the left of the Wingate report is the headline: ‘BITTEREST AIR FIGHT OF THE WAR. R.A.F.’s Three-Hour Battle in Great Attack on Nuremberg.’ 94 aircraft were reported as lost. Of about 1000 in total – that was the number of bombers involved in earlier attacks of Leipzig and Berlin.

How much of classical Rome would have survived? Would we have had a firestorm, as wiped out Dresden? As for Nuremberg, this was the old city of Albrecht Durer, and the Meistersingers.

It has always been thus. Carthage was taken off the map by the Romans after the Punic Wars. Was this genocide? Jerusalem was destroyed by first by Babylonian forces and then the Romans. There are too many examples.

In the last few months we’ve had Armenians fleeing cities ahead of Azerbaijani forces. Turkey and Russia, which could have intervened, chose not to.

Looking to the future, awareness is everything. I trust we never again have, in the West or anywhere, I trust anywhere, the imperatives, or the blood lust, which lead to destruction of whole cities and whole peoples. Never again the enthusiasm shown in the House of Commons for bombing Rome. Or indeed Dresden … but that wasn’t put before the Commons as far as I’m aware. Or Hiroshima before Congress. Democratic accountability is a casualty of wartime.

I’m avoiding retrospective judgements. The truth is powerful enough on its own. But could there not now be a new and universal commitment, encompassing Americans, Europeans, Chinese, and the wider Muslim world, to spare all centres of population?

Maybe in the age of JADC2 and drone warfare, which has its own horrors, military strategists might find this easier. Maybe.

Genocide and crimes against humanity 

This may sound a brutal heading, but it is what this post is about.

I’ve just finished reading Philippe Sands’ East West Street, his remarkable, moving and very personal exploration of the concepts of individual human rights and genocide, and their two great advocates and protagonists, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin.

The theme is human rights, in their broadest context. For too long, down the ages, the state overrode individual rights in the service of its own interests. On the one hand western European states developed social welfare programmes, on the other, when it came to war, they tyrannised populations, their own and others.

At the level of individual human rights – think of Erdogan’s Turkey, and China, where the interests of the party are paramount.

It begins with the very personal story of Lauterpacht and Lemkin, and takes us from the home city they both shared, Lemberg (also known as Lvov and Lviv), to Vienna, Paris, the USA, Cambridge, and ultimately Nuremberg.

Lemberg, at the time both men were born, was in Galicia, part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire – and later in Poland, in Russia, in Germany, and now in Ukraine. Sands’ grandfather, Leon Buchholz, on his mother’s side was also from Lemberg.

Lauterpacht and Lemberg both became international lawyers of repute and the great stage to which Sands story leads is the Nuremberg trials of 1945-6, when twenty-four leading Nazis were put in trial, including the governor-general of Poland, Hans Frank, who oversaw the destruction of the Jewish population of Poland, and of Austrian Jews sent to the deaths at Treblinka and elsewhere.

Lauterpacht and Lemkin both saw their families who had remained behind wiped out. So too Sands’ family.

The Nuremberg trial gave form and substance to the concepts of individual human rights and crimes against humanity. The British attorney-general Hartley Shawcross’s final statement for the prosecution relied extensively on the work on Lauterpacht, by that time a Cambridge academic of many years standing. Sands captured the intensity of the trial with great skill. Shawcross, basing himself of Lauterpacht, emphasised the individual as the ‘ultimate unit of all law’. There are limits to the omnipotence of the state… ‘the individual human being, the ultimate impunity of all law, is not disentitled to the protection of mankind’.

Both Lemkin and Lauterpacht ‘agreed on the value of a single human life, and the importance of being part of a community’. But genocide, the idea behind genocide, the reality of genocide, gaining acceptance for which was Lemkin’s passion and obsession, was never accepted by Lauterpacht.

The two men never met. But Nuremberg was in a very real sense a stage they both shared. And where they in a sense competed.

Lauterpacht argued that a focus on groups would take the focus off the individual victim, and encourage a sense of group identity in the perpetrator as well as the victim.

Sands sees the merit in both arguments. How could one not see the carefully planned and stage-by- stage reduction of the Jewish people to people without rights, without work, to forced labour, to ghettos, to starvation, to extermination, as actions against a race? As genocide. Likewise the Armenian massacres of 1915.

On other side of the argument, Sands quotes the biologist, Edward O. Wilson, writing in our own time, on ‘group-versus-group’ being ‘a principal driving force that made us what we are … people feel compelled to belong to groups and, having joined, consider themselves superior to competing groups’.

We may talk, some of us, of being citizens of the world, but that sense of competing groups, defined in modern terms as identity politics, is still very much with us. Nonetheless the framework of an individual and group-rights based international order is in place, as it never has been in human history. Sands lays out the sequence.

On 9 December 1948 the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, ‘the first human rights treaty of the modern era’. A day later, the assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document inspired by Lauterpacht’s work.

1998 saw the establishment of the International Criminal Court.

In 2015 the UN’s international law commission started to work actively on the subject of crimes against humanity, opening the way to a possible companion to the convention on genocide.

So we come right up against all the trials and evils of the present. Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Darfur. Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen. So much of it targeting groups, tribes, nations within nations. The latest UN report (February 2017) states that over 65 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes. According to the UNHCR a refugee is ‘someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence’. There are just under 16 million refugees.

And at the individual level, we have Turkey, China, Russia, and many another. We have a long lon way to go. Eternal vigilance, and engagement, is the only way forward.