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« Urban Destruction and Social Bonds | Main | On the Gaza Tunnels »

Urbicide as 'Crime Against Humanity'

In your response to Mike, you inadvertently answered the question I was planning to ask you next, namely what political or legal consequences you would like to see produced by the development of the notion of urbicide. I quote: “My hope is that crimes against the built environment could be seen as crimes against humanity.”

First of all, I find it surprising that you now seem to be appealing back to crimes against humanity since you have been so keen to depart from anthropocentric understandings. By smuggling the human back in, are you not yourself falling “into anthropocentrism’s trap of rendering all material objects mere things that are of interest only insofar as they are tools for humans”? If buildings are truly to be grasped as “ontologically relevant”, should they not be assigned a right to existence that does not refer back to humans? It seems to me that a more logical extension of your argument would to establish a new legal category of “crimes against buildings” (analogously to Latour’s call for a “Parliament of Things”).

My second concern is a more practical one and regards the potential effects of the implementation of such a new article of international law. It ties in to the thorny issue of intentionality that has already been discussed as well as the problems of definition and delimiting seemingly inherent to the concept of urbicide. I will not comment further on those specific debates but simply make a note of these difficulties in order to draw attention to the political effects which the model (and no less contested) concept of genocide has had.

While the creation of a new analytical and legal category of political violence may have been the only appropriate response to the horrors of the Holocaust, the elevation of genocide and with it crimes against humanity as the gravest charges that can be levelled at either individuals or a state has created a political space of intense contestation over their meaning and the recognition of their empirical instances. This has been fuelled all the more by the apparent elasticity and tendency towards conceptual inflation that both categories suffer from. As the ultimate trump card in domestic and international politics, accusations of genocide or crimes against community have come from virtually all communities seeking recognition for past or present grievances. Aside from fuelling a perverse cult of victimhood, this also risks trivialising the more serious instances of political violence for which these categories were originally created.

In the international sphere, the recognition of genocide now legitimises the suspension of national sovereignty and military intervention by foreign powers. One does not have to be a committed realist to recognise that such intervention will only ever happen in weak states and at the hands of the more powerful states. The potential for abuse is clear and indeed a variety of people have denounced past humanitarian interventions along those lines. My concern is that by further expanding the range of crimes against humanity to violence against buildings, one is strengthening further the legal arsenal which powerful states can call upon to legitimise interventions driven by ulterior motives.

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Reader Comments (2)

Thanks Antoine for highlighting some of the problems of addressing urbicide through the prism of criminality.

I've been surprised to see this symposium so quickly turn towards intent and criminality. I must admit, up front, that I have no interest in prosecuting anyone for "Urbicide". I realize that the legal form appears to offer a reliable mechanism (so far as the crime can be properly specified), but I'm not sure how reliable it really is -- or can be -- in such circumstances. This doesn't mean that I don't find urbicide a troubling phenomenon that ought to be opposed. Of course it ought to be. The question is whether or not the law should really be our focal point.

Of course, the tendency to criminalize is understandable and in many ways laudable, and the reliance on "-cide" can only reinforce the recourse to legal proscription. Still, I'd like to raise a nagging problem I have regarding how well urbicide can actually fit within a legal form.

This builds on Antoine's problematization of the relationship between anthropocentrism and crimes against humanity. It seems me that a disruption of the notion (myth?) of the autonomous individual is central to Coward's use of the concept of urbicide ("At the core of Urbicide is an argument that the material environment is a constitutive element of being" -- Opening Remarks). I am strongly sympathetic to this reading of subjectivity.

I am not, however, entirely confident that criminality can overcome its reliance on notions of autonomous individuality, its agency and responsibility. Certainly, the law has found some ways to adjust: the criminal's "state of mind", for instance, can reduce sentencing. But can this kind of ad-hoc adjustment -- in which pure individuality is corrupted by a momentary or permanent deviancy -- really function when transposed into urbicide? If urbicide itself arises out of a thoroughly destablized notion of individuality, the legal form may not have much of a grasp on it. It seems to me that the kind of "being" Coward is describing is precisely one in which the question of "who" the victim is must be stated and restated within conditions of ambiguity.

When we look at some examples of extensive urban destruction/reconstruction, such as how the geography of the Palestinian territories has been completely refashioned by bombs and bulldozers, this kind of legal proscription comes easily. It was, in many ways and by many actors, a deliberate policy to destroy particular political forms (namely, resistant political forms). But I think this is what Coward's definition of urbicide deliberately resists.

What I mean is this: I don't think that Coward's notion of the destruction of heterogeneity is analogous to the destruction of political opposition. In other words, heterogeneity as an existential quality of life is not the same thing as the formation of multiple homogenous collectivities. (I know, from previous discussions, that Coward will likely resist this formulation, so read it as my own reading of his work.) But it seems to me that as soon as I recognize that heterogeneity is of a different quality (not merely "many ones", but a destruction of the essence of "one"), I'm suddenly confronted with a thoroughly destabilized notion of the community. It becomes difficult to define -- indeed, it may even function by virtue of its resistance to definition.

This is not, necessarily, something to be afraid of. But it does, for me, call into question the whole scope of law as the form of moral interrogation. How can I define a crime when I can not define a victim? How do we say that a victim was one thing and was violently forced into being another, when we can not even grasp the character of the victim?

It seems to me, that this notion of the corruption of the victim makes it very difficult to avoid the "conservative trap of banning all development" (Coward -- Forensic Footprints of Urbicide). To assert victimhood we must assert an idealized being that was subsequently destroyed and ought to be remade. I would suggest, then, that the question of urbicide ought to be turned towards the character of the imposition rather than the imposition itself. In other words, urbicide is defined by the form which follows the destruction, not by the act of destruction itself or "who" (in a cyborg-sense) it destroys. This does not mean it shouldn't be opposed. It merely means that opposition may not proceed first and foremost through legal proscription.

It is worth noting, however, that I am not all resolved on this. It is merely a problem I feel unable to resolve.

Mar 14, 2009 at 12:32 | Unregistered CommenterNate Wright

Nate, I agree mostly with your comments (and indeed your reading of my take on heterogeneity). That said, I have to argue for the utility of law.

There is a tendency in scholarly analysis to regard dirtying our hands with such things as the imperfect mechanisms of law as diminishing the force of our theoretical arguments. Against this I would want to say, bluntly, that I don’t see the point in identifying forms of political violence if we do not intend to seek to contest them. And for me, contra what Foucauldians sometimes tell me, simply identifying the violence is not sufficient as an act of contestation. We must not only make visible violence, but also contest it.

In this regard, my approach to questions of law is quite pragmatic. It is an avenue through which political gesture may be turned into concrete acts. International law is, to my mind at least, a series of intersubjective norms that are both the result of negotiation and subject to revision. They are basically a contingent codification of political norms. As such they seem to me to represent an avenue to take a political gesture (destruction of buildings is a form of political harm because of the manner in which those buildings are constitutive of plurality) and turn it into a concrete act (namely, if you engage in this violence we will seek to hold you responsible).

In this regard then, I am quite pragmatic about law and do not regard it as some sort of codification of ontologically true statements. It is a tool for contesting violence.

In this context, I find the problem Antoine outlines regarding the legal proscription of genocide somewhat more worrying, specifically that

One does not have to be a committed realist to recognise that such intervention will only ever happen in weak states and at the hands of the more powerful states. The potential for abuse is clear and indeed a variety of people have denounced past humanitarian interventions along those lines.

Indeed, this kind of argument was deployed by the left in relation to Kosovo (i.e., that intervention was imperialist, meddlesome, might making right and so on) as an argument against intervention. Such concerns could – in the wrong hands – be read as an argument for scrapping laws with universal jurisdiction. I have to say that it is necessary to resist such an idea. Of course, the law regarding genocide is imperfect (although it is much clearer than before thanks to the work of the ICTY and ICTR). But we should surely retain the possibility of prosecuting annihilatory violence (even if it is not possible to prosecute every single case of such violence).

With regard to how we would implement a crime against the built environment, I have to say that I often think about how the provision in the Rome Statue for a crime of Apartheid would be prosecuted. This would require demonstration that a number of practices had given rise to systematic discrimination based on classification and segregation. Many of these practices would comprise material structures and spatial arrangements. It seems to me that a similarly constructed law could address cases in which widespread destruction of built structures could be shown to be allied to a de-pluralisation of a given society.

It is, of course, possible that this might become a mechanism for intervention in the way Antoine describes. But I am not sure that such a possibility is sufficient to make me think we should not pursue such legal weapons in the fight against annihilatory violence. I take the latter to be a greater global threat than intervention by the powerful in the affairs of the weak. But I realise I may be out of step with others in this regard ;-)

Mar 14, 2009 at 17:01 | Registered CommenterMartin Coward

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