A responsibility to protect?

The extent to which Russia agrees to play by international rules will depend on the willingness of t

There is a curious irony in the west’s interpretation of the five-day war between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway province of South Ossetia. In much recent analysis, Russia is depicted as a neo-imperialist state, eager to wreak havoc on the west’s carefully constructed system of international rules. The British foreign secretary David Miliband has accused Russia of engaging in “19th century forms of diplomacy”. Sending troops into a sovereign state “is simply not the way that international relations can be run in the 21st century,” he says. Earlier this week, President Bush expressed the same sentiment, warning that Russia could be frozen out of international bodies “by taking actions in Georgia that are inconsistent with the principles of those institutions”.

Without doubt, Russia’s decision to delay agreement on a ceasefire is partly to blame for the conflict’s escalation. Horrific images emerging from South Ossetia and the Georgian town of Gori likewise show that atrocities have been committed by both sides. However, by focusing excessively on Russian objections to western political initiatives, including Nato’s eastward enlargement, commentators have exaggerated the subversiveness of Russia’s intentions. In fact, Russian foreign policy does not threaten to sabotage the international system. And the rules and principles that make up this international system are neither clear-cut nor agreed upon even by western powers. Acknowledging this would greatly facilitate the resolution of the crisis in South Ossetia and improve the west’s troubled relations with Russia.

There is no issue where Russia’s perceived desire to disrupt the “way that international relations is run” is more evident than in the west’s policy of liberal interventionism. Russian objections to the imposition of sanctions on Sudanese and Zimbabwean leaders earlier this year are widely regarded as evidence of the destabilising effects of Russia’s re-emergence as an international player. However, this reading of the diplomatic stalemates associated with humanitarian intervention over-simplifies a more complex reality. Russia does not pursue the wholesale replacement of this norm, but rather demands that Russian needs and interests be taken more fully into account in its application.

Vladimir Putin was among the world leaders who, at the UN World Summit of 2005, endorsed the related doctrine of a “responsibility to protect” – the idea that sovereign states have a responsibility to protect their own citizens, but that when they are unwilling or unable to do so, that responsibility must be borne by the international community. Underlying the principle was a novel appreciation that attacks on civilians can constitute a threat to international peace and security. If this doctrine has become a stumbling block in relations between the powers, it is not because certain states have refused to endorse it but because the definition of what constitutes international peace and security remains contested.

The boundaries of the “responsibility to protect” principle have been tested in both Kosovo and, more recently, South Ossetia, where minority populations have sought independence for their territories on grounds of “ethnic cleansing”. Rejected by Russia, Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008 was regarded by many in the west as a test-case of the doctrine. As in the case of Sudan and Zimbabwe, Russian objections did not strike at the heart of the principle of conditional sovereignty; they were cast in terms of the need for greater scrutiny in the application of the doctrine. In a vain effort to stop the formal recognition of Kosovo’s independence by the west, Russian diplomats warned of the dangerous precedent Kosovo would set for efforts to resolve inter-ethnic conflicts in other parts of the world. This week, as Russia pursued its attack on Georgia, it turned those warnings into bombs.

However, by focusing attention on Russia’s “grossly disproportionate” use of force in response to Georgia’s own military assault on South Ossetia, western commentators have overlooked an important diplomatic development. Notwithstanding their disenfranchisement in the case of Kosovo, Russian policy-makers have used the language of “responsibility to protect” to justify their invasion of Georgia. Vladimir Putin could not have been clearer when he declared that Georgia had “lost the right to rule” South Ossetia on account of the “humanitarian catastrophe” that has take place there. We might choose to ignore these comments as mere propaganda. But as long as Russia couches its interventions in this language, we can ensure at least a measure of accountability for Russia’s actions.

Ultimately, if the “responsibility to protect” principle is to facilitate, rather than disrupt, international cooperation in the resolution of ethnic conflicts, it will be essential for the major global players to negotiate a common understanding of its content. So far these negotiations have taken place behind closed doors within an exclusive group of western states. As I argue in a forthcoming paper for Policy Network, the extent to which Russia and other emerging powers agree to play by international rules will depend on the willingness of the west to integrate them into a shared international order. President Bush’s threat this week to “freeze Russia out of international institutions” in retaliation for Russia’s actions in Georgia would therefore represent a dangerous set-back.

Elena Jurado is head of research at the international thinktank Policy Network. She is working on a new flagship project called “Foresight” which examines the impact of Russia and other emerging powers on the changing international system (www.foresightproject.net). Elena writes here in her personal capacity

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.