Grey Areas

Eyal Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza

Verso, 208pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781844676477

reviewed by Rebecca Close

The two films selected to open the 2012 Human Rights Film Festival, held in Barcelona, New York and Paris in May, seem to suggest there are no moral grey areas in the fight for humanitarian justice. Whistleblower (2010), directed by Larysa Kondracki, narrates the true story of how UN peace-keeping officers in post-war Bosnia were found to be co-ordinating human trafficking across the Ukrainian border; in Ruaridh Arrow’s documentary How to Start a Revolution (2011) some of the 20th and 21st century’s most prominent activists are shown citing theorist Gene Sharp’s instruction manual for non-violent protest entitled From Dictatorship to Democracy (Albert Einstein Institution, 1994) as a main influence on their struggles against tyrannical regimes. In its appraisal of the current phase of humanitarian struggle, the festival proposes that the perpetrators of violence are easy to spot within any given frame: evil is the rapist disguised as peace-keeper or the oppressive dictator in plain sight.

Set out in four chapters, Eyal Weizman’s The Least of All Possible Evils presents a necessary corrective to this rather simplistic view, restructuring the frame within which violence can be seen and its production understood. Weizman’s analysis of the current humanitarian situation rests on the proposition that violence in post-Cold War conflicts is produced - and subsequently legitimised - through mechanisms of restraint and management, which pervade the legal, political and spatial practices involved in the implementation of both humanitarian and military strategies. Anchored by studies of the history, politics and behaviour of particular contested spaces and built environments, Weizman maps where and how humanitarian aid and law practices assist, blend with, mould, regulate and legitimise military strategy in four distinct case studies: the intervention of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the 1984 Ethiopian famine, the creation the Israel-Palestine border wall and conflicts in Gaza, Iraq and Bosnia.

In the introductory chapter, ‘The Humanitarian Present’, Weizman contextualises the ‘logic of proportionality’, formally legislated in the Geneva Protocol I in 1977, as the contemporary manifestation of the western ethical principle of the lesser evil, traditionally understood as the acceptability of pursuing an undesired course of action in order to prevent a greater injustice. ‘Proportionality’ is shown to promote the legitimisation of varying grades of violence and destruction based on demonstrations that the potential threat is proportionately great. In ‘minimising’ harm against civilians based on speculative calculations attesting to the worst possible harm, militaries have assumed a role usually reserved for aid workers - that of caring for civilians - which leads Weizman to situate communication technologies in contemporary warfare as the principal vehicle for communicating the potential threat to both a target population and the popular media. It is this significant insight, not fully engaged with until the final chapter, which links his study of the management of violence with his history of the role of forensic practices in shaping the way crimes are understood and condemned across the public domain.

Weizman warns that the ‘utilitarian use of humanitarian and human rights principles must acknowledge the possibility of its inverse and the speed at which an inversion could occur.’ Former MSF director Rony Brauman is shown reflecting that his organisation was to the Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam in the 1980s what the Jewish Councils were to Adolf Hitler in the 1930s: an efficient organising force for the deportation and ultimate execution of huge numbers of innocent citizens. Weizman suggests that it was the MSF’s politicisation, through the production of emotional testimonials for the consumption of the public media as well as ‘forensic’ testimony in the form of epidemiological reports which were a scientific ally throughout the process of negotiating accountability in courts of law, that produced an aid infrastructure so open to militarisation. The author begins to interrogate testimony itself: the history of its relationship to humanitarian practices, its complicit role in militarising humanitarianism and the significance of its increasingly forensic dimension in a legal context.

The border wall on the occupied West Bank, whose form was shaped through negotiations between human rights lawyers and the Israeli military, is contextualised by Weizman as the material manifestation of proportionality: a product of contemporary forms of security which ‘no longer exist on one side of the equation on the other side of which sits livelihood and humanitarian issues, but rather form an integrated logic that includes issues like livelihood, human rights and humanitarian concerns within the logic of security.’ An architectural model of the wall, which was presented in the courtroom as evidence, is shown to be both an illustration of the language and rules by which the trial was conducted, as well as the proposition for the wall’s possible legitimate forms. Here the author begins to situate forensic evidence, and specifically forensic evidence which has an ‘architectural’ dimension, as occupying a unique position in both structuring contemporary notions of security as well as being the tool for its materialisation on the ground.

The book’s final Chapter, ‘Forensic Architecture: Only the Criminal Can Solve the Crimes’, links the accelerated proliferation of images of urban destruction in the global media to the increased presence of forensic evidence of damage to the urban environment in international courts. Where Jean Baudrillard suggested that the global media coverage had served to dissolve the evidence of the Gulf War taking place, Weizman suggests on the contrary that material evidence of war and war crimes has never formed such an important part of the way war is waged, and consequently the system of evaluating acceptable and unacceptable action inside and outside the international legal system. He relates, by way of illustration, the story of Marc Galasco, a former US Military Intelligence Agency weapons-targeter turned Human Rights Watch analyst.

In Violence (Profile, 2008), Slavoj Žižek called for sober reflection in the face of ‘the fake sense of urgency that pervades the left-liberal humanitarian discourse on violence.’ A coherent analysis of the incoherence of humanitarian politics and action, The Least of All Possible Evils strikes the right note, eliding moral outrage for a subtly inquisitive register. Weizman excels in delivering the logistical details and his discussion of the shift of emphasis from human testimony to material forensics, from trauma and memory to scientific analysis, is a vital contribution to an aesthetic conception of contemporary history and politics.

However, in his mapping of the politics and ethics of humanitarian, military and legal practices he seems unable to clarify the ethical positioning of his own signature field of Forensic Architecture. Whereas Brauman’s theory of a ‘minimal approach to humanitarianism’ (which Weizman labels ‘the lesser-evil-humanitarianism argument’ differentiating it from the traditional understanding of the principle of the lesser evil) is promoted as an antidote to a politicised humanitarianism, the author cannot offer an equally defiant manifesto for Forensic Architecture. Where does Weizman stand if, as the last line of the book states, ‘Today’s forensic investigators of violence move alongside its perpetrators, morphing into them just as the detective becomes one with the criminal’?