The recent revelations about the savage treatment of Yazidi women at the hands of Islamic State, or ISIS, fighters is the latest in a shocking set of disclosures regarding the group’s behavior. It sadly echoes the the abject treatment and sexual abuse reportedly suffered by Kayla Mueller, the American hostage who died in February while being held by ISIS.
For Americans, the disclosure is all the more uncomfortable because the reported trade in these women recalls many of the attributes of slavery as practiced in the US until the American Civil War – a controversial comparison made by President Obama himself earlier in the year.
The horror of the systematically brutal treatment of these women cannot be rationalized by any religious philosophy. And it conforms to a general perception of radical Jihadism as a medieval one that defies conventional conceptions of what we like to call “modernity.”
But the behavior of ISIS raises a broader question: what does it mean to be “human” in the modern world?
The answer may seem obvious to most of us. Being human is defined physically. It is being a member of a species.
Those with a more metaphysical approach might define it philosophically. As René Descartes said, “I think; therefore I am.”
Others might focus on the legal aspects, as enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights that was first proclaimed in 1948. It states that all humans have inalienable, fundamental human rights that must be protected.
But the sorry fact is that the definition of who is a human – and thus worthy of our concern – has always been contested and it still is today.
And the most important point is that this definition has had an enormous effect on when and where countries act to save lives; where and when they provide aid; and who is enslaved and abused.
The answer to these questions essentially distinguishes between who is human – and thus vulnerable and worthy of our protection and resources – and who is not.
Humanitarian intervention and gunboat diplomacy
Let’s take the example of humanitarian intervention and civilian protection.
Over a decade ago, George Washington University political scientist Martha Finnemore wrote a short but highly informative book on the history of military intervention.. In it she pointed out that the reasons that countries – or the international community as a whole – intervene has altered dramatically over time.
For example, the Europeans did so initially to collect sovereign debt in the early and mid-1800s – mostly from Latin America. They would sail in and seize any taxes that had been collected and stored in customs houses. That was a perfectly acceptable practice at the time. But imagine the gunboats sailing to Argentina today, a country that is officially bankrupt, to seize their money from bank vaults!
Indeed, the very idea of humanitarian intervention only developed later, and very selectively – initially to protect people “like us.”
So, for example, a coalition force led by the Russian Empire invaded the Muslim Ottoman Empire in 1877 to protect orthodox Christian Slavs. Protecting your religious and ethnic brothers and sisters was acceptable. They were human. Others were not.
In fact, the universalizing of the definition of the human to justify intervening where there is no ethnic or religious tie is a relatively recent idea.
It is one that has only really gained traction since the end of the Cold War.
As the United Nation’s “Responsibility to Protect” initiative makes crystal clear, when it come to humanitarian intervention to protect vulnerable populations, humanity isn’t defined by religion, skin color, gender, race or caste. But that initiative has taken off only in the last 15 years and the principle has been applied only on a very limited basis. The multilateral intervention against Muammar Qaddafi’s government in 2011 remains the most prominent example.
The principle and practice of sexual violence
Of course, addressing these issues in practice is always more complicated than in principle. And the issue of who is a human is still very much contested today – far more so than many of us might imagine.
Take the example of the inhumane treatment of the Yazidi women, held against their will, sold like chattel and sexually abused. It has all the hallmarks of slavery. Yet while an extreme example, it is by no means unique – either historically or in today’s world.
Historically, we know that women have been enslaved and abused on a mass scale. The treatment of Korean “Comfort Women” during the Second World War is an issue that still divides South Korea and Japan, as the self-immolation of a South Korean man on August 12 demonstrated. The same kind of sexual violence has been documented in numerous, more recent wars.
So it’s not that sexual violence in war is a new problem. But it has become more documented and prominently discussed in policy circles in recent years.
The UN acknowledged, for example, that rape is a weapon of war and classified it as a war crime only in 2008.
This recognition is in large part explained by the fact that we have expanded our definition of the human – and thus become more aware of the issue.
21 million slaves…at least
Yet according to the Global Slavery Index, classifying certain people as not human is still a characteristic feature of many societies, particularly in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Modern slavery can take many forms: from using children as soldiers to men on fishing boats and women as industrial workers or as prostitutes. In each case it reduces a person to a commodity, denying them their essential humanity.
The United Nations estimates that there are upward of 21 million slaves in the world today, while the Global Slavery Index offers the larger figure of 35.8 million – the number changing depending on how they define a slave.
Sadly, these figures suggest that it is the reporting of the problem, rather than its scale, that has changed.
What is disturbingly clear from one major New York Times story is that a Yazidi can be given her freedom by her owner (albeit with ISIS’ definition of the still limited rights of a Muslim woman) and thus “become human.”
That’s an idea so at odds with contemporary Western thinking it once again begs the question: if you are so opposed to it, what are you willing to do about it?