political and criminal violence

How political violence bears the seeds of criminal violence in a society

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According to the Gallup Poll Institute, the five most dangerous countries in the world in 2017 are Venezuela, South Africa, El Salvador, South Sudan and Liberia. With the exception of Venezuela, the other four countries have experienced civil war, in which South Sudan remains immersed to this day. In contrast, South Africa, El Salvador and Liberia have long since turned the page on political violence, but as a legacy of political violence, criminal violence has taken over. Awareness is needed to better understand the links between armed conflict and criminal violence. Pierre Hazan, editorial advisor to JusticeInfo.net and professor at the University of Neuchâtel, on the relationship between political and criminal violence in countries that have suffered from civil war or crimes against humanity, provides us with a striking analysis: when a society is exposed for years to the violence of armed conflict, it develops modes of resilience. It adapts to the new reality, absorbs new modes of behaviour and new values, and is profoundly transformed, even when peace returns. 
 
L’South Africa, El Salvador and Liberia have in common that they have established Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in the aftermath of apartheid or armed conflict. These commissions had shed light on the political violence that had bloodied their societies. The South African one is often held up as a model and the other two did an honourable job. The result of peaceful transition and democracy, South Africa today has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. In Liberia, elections were held last December in a peaceful atmosphere, bringing the former football star to power, George WeahThe two men are serving a 50-year prison sentence for crimes against humanity related to their role in Sierra Leone's civil war, which claimed 70,000 lives.
 
El Salvador, Liberia and South Africa have today become pluralistic societies where political and civil liberties have become a reality, but where crime is at record levels. Yet the continuum between political and criminal violence is insufficiently explored, as if a society suddenly became different once peace was signed. Yet a society brutalized and traumatized by years of conflict carries the legacy of violence for a long time to come. This is reflected in the extent of domestic violence.
 

A quarter of the men in South Africa say they raped a woman...

Numbers make you shudder. In El Salvador, a small Central American country of 6.4 million people, an average of 15 people are murdered every day. In terms of population, El Salvador holds the sad world record for homicides. The terrible civil war (1979-1992) between the extreme right and Marxist armed groups killed fewer people than the current crime rate. In South Africa, some 20,000 people were murdered in 2017, or an average of 52 per day. According to a survey of 4,000 women, one in three say they have been victims of sexual violence, a figure that is considered to be underestimated! The police last year recorded 40,000 allegations of rape, or 109 per day on averageA quarter of the men confess to raping at least one woman, and three-quarters of them did so before they reached the age of 20.
 
The point is this. A society, when exposed for years to the violence of armed conflict, develops modes of resilience. It adapts to the new reality, absorbs new patterns of behaviour and new values, and undergoes profound changes, even when peace returns. Narrative identity, the way in which a society and the communities that make it up perceive themselves and write their national narrative, evolves. The former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinsonthus underlines the weight of apartheid in the development of a "culture of violence in society as a whole, the inadequacies of justice and a "postponement of aggression", where rape is understood as an act of power in a society with patriarchal values, but destructured by apartheid and unemployment".
 

Violence has changed its register

In moving from a society in conflict to a society at peace, violence in South Africa has changed. This is not to justify in any way the present situation, but to note with Myriam Houssay-Holzchuchthe sum of all the violence suffered simultaneously by society under apartheid and its legacy: "Economic violence of social inequalities created by the system; dehumanization of the victim by the torturer and dehumanization of the torturer himself; legal violence of executions and institutionalized corporal punishment; symbolic violence of racist laws and physical violence of their application; private violence and public violence; criminal violence and political violence; individual violence and state violence...".
 
The end of the vertical violence inflicted by white power has become horizontal violence, the violence that leads to this explosion of criminality where the poor essentially attack other poor people through the internalization of norms and behaviours in a state that was itself born out of ruthless colonization. State violence has transformed social identities, developing a toxic masculinity that makes sexual violence acceptable in South Africa.
 
Sometimes, group solidarity is formed, identities become closed and rigid. In certain segments of the population, the other (it may be another criminal network) is perceived as a threat to be eliminated. Violence has become an integrated value in behavioural patterns. The development of gangs in El Salvador and South Africa testify to this reality. Sometimes, the example comes from above, as in South Africa, where the head of state, Jacob Zuma, has been accused of rape (he was eventually acquitted) in 2006, but remains accused in numerous corruption cases. In Guatemala, another country that experienced a terrible civil war, violence, crime and corruption have also permeated the social system. In Latin America, since the 1980s, military juntas have given way to democratic transitions. But, as David GaribayIn the words of the author, "these transitions have not really succeeded in delegitimizing the use of violence in more everyday political and social relations", especially in the context of the development of mafia networks and drug cartels.
 

Positive and negative resilience

These mechanisms of resilience - both positive and negative - were studied by Amy Carpenter in Baghdad after the American invasion of 2003. Saddam Hussein's regime was a dictatorship, but the Iraqi capital remained multicultural. When sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunnis began after 2003, neighbourhoods where different communities lived developed defence mechanisms to keep them together. These mechanisms resisted until the social fabric finally broke down in 2006, forcing people to take refuge in what were now homogeneous neighbourhoods. Baghdad's society had gone from positive to negative resilience.
 
On the other hand, in a much less dramatic context, in Kenya, after the 2008 electoral violence that left 1,500 people dead and half a million displaced, society has been able to recover and address the causes of the violence. The media adopted a code of conduct prohibiting hate speech; international mediation was entrusted to former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan; and new political alliances were forged, leading to the National Accord and the Reconciliation Pact. These various initiatives, born of an awareness of civil society and political elites, ensured that the 2013 elections were held peacefully.
 
For too long, the attention of both national and international actors has remained focused on the transition period between war and peace, as if this delicate transition were a guarantee for the future. Examples show that this is not the case. Peaceful transitions can mask the legacy of political violence. It is crucial to understand the internal dynamics of a society when faced with the shocks of armed conflict and to support actors who develop - often at considerable personal risk - mechanisms for cooperation and work on the roots of violence. So that tomorrow will be less worse than yesterday.
 
Pierre Hazan, editorial advisor to JusticeInfo.net and professor at the University of Neuchâtel

 
Headline photo: Soldier patrolling the streets of San Salvador as violence reaches new heights, 19.10.2017. ©Marvin Recinos, AFP
 

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