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Ceasefires and ‘painful results’

While I was away, I noticed with some admiration that the US and UK governments had invented a new term of war unspeak: “sustainable ceasefire”. In vetoing international calls for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon during the Rome peace conference on July 26, Condoleeza Rice said:

We have to have a plan that will actually create conditions in which we can have a ceasefire that will be sustainable.

The rhetorical purpose here is plainly to reverse the world’s understanding of what “ceasefire” actually means, in order to allow the war to continue. As Maureen Dowd put it pithily in her NYT column channelling George W Bush’s inner thoughts:

We talked about our plan to keep using fancy phrases like ‘lasting peace’ and ‘sustainable ceasefire,’ so we don’t actually have to cease the fire.

The meaning of “ceasefire”, however, is not obscure . . .

For example, in his essay: “Ceasefire: The Impact of Republican Political Culture on the Ceasefire Process in Northern Ireland”, Peace and Conflict Studies Vol 7 No 1, May 2000 [pdf], Montgomery Sapone notes that the idea of a ceasefire has for decades been distinguished in international legal practice from both of the terms “truce” and “armistice”, which imply longer-lasting and more robust agreements. Sapone cites the following definition:

A cease-fire is an implemented agreement between belligerents (either explicit or implicit), involving all or the greater part of their military forces to, at a minimum, abjure the use of violent force with regard to each other, for a period of time (not necessarily specified) regardless of the intention for doing so, and regardless of the eventual outcome of such agreement. [p43]

On such descriptions as well as ordinary understandings of the word “ceasefire”, a ceasefire is thus by definition not itself automatically “sustainable”. It is a temporary arrangement for the purposes of avoiding deaths while a more lasting agreement can be sorted out. As US Judge Burton R Lifland commented in the UN’s Multinational Judicial Colloquium of March 1995 [pdf]:

It is often during a cease-fire that the parties in confrontation get the opportunity to collectively see what could be done to find answers to the problems presented.

A ceasefire, in other words, is what sets the conditions for negotiation in the first place. If it becomes “sustainable” it is no longer a ceasefire, but a truce or an armistice, or even (whisper the word) peace.

To argue as Rice does that a ceasefire is meaningless unless it is “sustainable” is, therefore, to erase or unspeak the very notion of a ceasefire as a temporary cessation of hostilities, the purpose of which is to alleviate immediate suffering. It is thus to imply that any continued suffering in the absence of a ceasefire is unimportant. The UK’s foreign minister Margaret Beckett made this implication clear when she obediently backed up Rice with the peculiar comment:

Even if you could get a ceasefire half an hour ago, you would probably be back in hostilities in a few days.

How many civilian deaths might a ceasefire even of only “a few days” have saved? Might the children killed in Qana four days later have been among them? Might fewer Israeli civilians, too, have been killed by Hizbollah rockets? Beckett didn’t seem to care. Her pose of defeatism signalled an attitude that a few more tens or hundreds of blown-up humans here and there were not worth bothering about.

Meanwhile Israel continues to give notice of its intent to expand the fire. Yesterday, Ha’aretz reports, the Israeli Air Force dropped leaflets on Beirut ordering civilians to leave their homes in advance of further bombing:

The Israel Defense Forces intend to expand their operations in Beirut […] You must know that the expansion of Hezbollah terrorist operations will lead to a painful and strong response, and its painful results will not be confined to Hassan’s gang and criminals.

“Painful results” is a usefully vague characterization of the threat. Because it could be read as referring to the more long-term kind of suffering caused by further destruction of civilian infrastructure, rather than immediate killing with bombs, it cleverly evades any definite interpretation as a brute threat of violence towards civilians, which would of course constitute an act of terrorism, no less terrorist than Hizbollah’s continued targeting of civilians in Israel. No doubt this is entirely unconnected to the fact, reported in today’s New York Times, that Israel has asked the US to deliver it a consignment of “wide blast” cluster bombs:

The request for M-26 artillery rockets, which are fired in barrages and carry hundreds of grenade-like bomblets that scatter and explode over a broad area, is likely to be approved shortly, along with other arms, a senior official said.

Meanwhile, the NYT notes, the Bush administration is pushing for a draft UN resolution that calls for the cessation of “all attacks” by Hizbollah, and of “offensive military operations” by Israel. (Update: the finalized Security Council Resolution 1701 does indeed use these terms.) Of course, we all know that Israel’s invasion from the start has in all its facets been a “defensive” operation, so the terms of such a resolution would not need to apply to it. Perhaps a “sustainable ceasefire” really means a ceasefire on one side only.

  1. 1  Gavin Rees  August 11, 2006, 2:59 pm 

    Quite right: the Condi-Bush use of “sustainable ceasefire” is a novel form of oxymoron. It is highly unlikely that anybody can guarantee that there will not be a return to violence at a later date, and so it sets conditions that would be very hard to meet. The attitude might be summed up as: “Hey guys, all I am saying is… let’s just give war a chance.”

    But you have to give it to them: it is a fantastic piece of unspeak. A gem in the dark crown. “Sustainable ceasefire” as a slogan sounds better than a mere common or garden variety of ceasefire. It is a new improved form of ceasefire. Like cereal fortified with extra vitamins, and omega fish oils.

  2. 2  Steven Poole  August 11, 2006, 4:25 pm 

    Yes: it also borrows the nimbus of ecological virtue from “sustainable development”.

  3. 3  abb1  August 11, 2006, 10:36 pm 

    Hey, all we are saying is give war a chance.

  4. 4  dsquared  August 14, 2006, 11:11 pm 

    Her pose of defeatism signalled an attitude that a few more tens or hundreds of blown-up humans here and there were not worth bothering about

    Of course, Margaret Beckett atoned for this dreadful piece of Unspeak by immediately rushing to clarify her point and make it absolutely explicit that she in fact did not care about “all this fuss” about the children killed in Qana. If only other politicians would be so forthright.

    An Israeli spokesman on Newsnight has just told Emily Maitlis that “he wouldn’t use the V-word” (victory) but that Israel was “stronger than when it went in”. I had no idea Nietzsche was so popular locally.

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