This summer, the the European Court of Human Rights found that Poland had cooperated in the "preparation and execution of the CIA rendition, secret detention and interrogation operations", of at least two persons. Russian journalists and many other observers were quick to highlight Poland's ( and the USA's) double-standard: are these states for or against human trafficking?
From a political science perspective, this leads to definitional debates. What is human trafficking? What is rendition? Do these concepts overlap? It seems to me that the two terms refer to similar tactics used for very different ends. In one case, the detention -- illegal or not -- is done for economic reasons, while the other -- illegal or not -- is done fore political reasons. For example, the economic implications of the two types of violence are quite different. Thus, to differentiate the two intentions and motivations must be known.
The debate about rights, although important from legal and ethical perspectives, obscures these differences. It also obscures the actor-type: in each case: are the acts conducted by government staff, by private companies for government staff, or by autonomous private actors? Can non-state actors be said to conduct rendition?
The next questions to ask would be: are either practices ever effective? And in light of their methods, ends, and effectiveness, are they ever ethical? Comments welcome.
Since the the CSTPV at St Andrews is organizing a symposium on "Terrorism Research: Past, Present and Future’", I thought I would make public my views on the topic. My main argument is not that provocative: throughout terrorism studies, the theories, models, concepts, and data used should be improved. My second argument, however, is that the best way to accomplish this might be through a research program -- a topic I will develop in a subsequent post.
Instead of binary thinking (rich/poor, religious/ideological, etc.), there should be more interest in variation within a concept and comparison between similar concepts. In other words, concepts such as religion, ideology, poverty, violence, etc., should be used in a more refined and precise manner and placed within a larger classification or typology. Similarly, any modeling of causation needs to include actors such as competing terrorist organizations, insurgent groups, criminal organizations, but also international organizations, states and their various agencies, civil society (NGOs, religious institutions, the private sector, the media, arts and entertainment), tribes, and especially the family and friendships.
These models could then be improved with several levels of analysis (international, regional, state, metropolitan, organizational, group, psychological, neurological) and the related emergent properties and theories thereof. For example, think of the effects on terrorism of factors such as armed conflict or peace; climate; education, health and income; constitutional and criminal law and regime type; social norms and values; collective memory and family history; personal religious and political beliefs, all of which vary across time and space.
Once all of these concepts and models are clearly established, it would be useful to seek to understand what types of social relationships and behaviors are stable and reoccurring and which are changing (either deliberately or not). This would require focusing on specific regions of the world, specific historical periods or specific types of terrorism before combining this knowledge at a higher geographical or conceptual level or in a larger historical period and theorizing interaction effects and path-dependency. For example, once all of this is done, research could try to model the spread of global trends and fashions in terrorism tactics (highjacking, suicide bombing, kidnapping, beheading, etc.) across space and time.
One way of organizing such progress would be through a research program, possibly based on scientific/critical realism and complexity theory, but I think that would not be very popular, for a number of reasons. Without such a program, however, the progress in terrorism studies is likely to remain piecemeal.
Having finished my internship at NATO and having just attended a conference on the (dis)integration of Europe, I have been thinking about (ir)regular fighters. Recent and not-so-recent events in Ukraine and other regions of South Eastern Europe demonstrate that the term 'insurgent' must always be defined in relation to a concrete situation of established authority, the history of that authority, and the degree of legitimacy that authority caries. As much as the term 'terrorist' relates to methods, and 'freedom fighter' relates to goals, 'insurgent' relates primarily to a positional (i.e. asymmetric) relationship vis-a-vis an opponent, i.e. an authority in the from of a government, an empire, etc.
Defining 'insurgent' only becomes problematic (in terms of political neutrality) when it is applied to a concrete set of actors. To avoid bias, one would have to determine empirically the identity of the legitimate authority. In some situations, such identifications will seem facile and remain uncontested, but it others such identifications will be one of the reasons for conflict and thus one of the issues to be resolved politically (or militarily).
Without expanding on what methods could be employed to determine 'authority' from 'insurgent', it will suffice to say here that insurgent is just as polemical a term as terrorist, if not more. If we look to Ukraine, all sorts of terms have been used in public discourse (NAZI, little green men, etc.). The term the most contested, however, is insurgent and the like (e.g. bandit, rebel). In a situation of contested legitimacy, where all actors are trying to win popular support, the term 'insurgent' becomes subjective and of little analytic use.
I continue to believe that one of the fundamental ways to improve the social sciences today is to improve the concepts used. One area where this is especially needed is in the study of political violence.
As I am currently conducting an internship at the US Mission to NATO, I have not had much time to dedicate to my research. But I have managed to go to NATO's library during my lunch breaks. NATO's library holds a great number of books on insurgency and counterinsurgency. Moreover, these books are often grouped into a series of thematic bibliographies. One of my favorites is the one on irregular warfare. The library also develops a series of online guides, on subjects such as counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.
Looking through the thematic bibliography on counterinsurgency forces one to conclude that the study of irregular warfare is quite affected by terminological trends and fads. Year by year, the books often respond to the latest foreign policy debate. Being policy relevant is a laudable endeavor, but this should not come at the expense of analytical rigor. Rather than these two interests having to be balanced, I believe the former should be based on the latter -- policy guidance that is not based on analytical rigor could even be considered unethical.
The first step towards analytical rigor is conceptual clarity, and I ( and others) believe this is currently lacking in counterinsurgency studies and irregular warfare studies writ large. I would argue that those who seek to study current events should always critically examine the concepts they employ, especially when these concepts are borrowed from governments and the press. When scholars do not have the benefit of hindsight, they should always ask whether other concepts (terms and definitions) could better describe and differentiate their objects of study. We could start, for example, by asking: what is counterinsurgency? And then move on to asking: what is the opposite of counterinsurgency? With these answers in hand, we could then develop a universal conceptualization of counterinsurgency ready to be made operational in the study of any historical period, even the current one.