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In September, after the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, at the hands of the morality police, demonstrations broke out across Iran. In response, the government has arrested thousands and killed hundreds. The bedrock grievance fueling the protestors’ narrative is a 1981 law mandating that women wear a hijab, and the right not to wear a hijab has served as a powerful weapon for the protestors, garnering international support and mobilizing the largest social movement in Iran since the 1979 revolution.
The concept of using a right as a weapon was explored by Dr. Clifford Bob’s 2019 book Rights as Weapons: Instruments of Conflict, Tools of Power. While the theory may be new, in practice states and movements have used rights as weapons for centuries. Today, weaponizing rights offers US Army special operations forces (ARSOF) an innovative option to gain an advantage in irregular warfare and strategic competition.
Historically, rights have been framed as the honorable ends or objectives of noble conflicts, releasing people from the bonds of servitude, oppression, and inequality. However, rights can also be leveraged and manipulated as the means (resources) or ways (methods) within greater struggles for power. In other words, rights are weaponized any time they serve as the means or ways to achieve another objective.
Read the full piece at irregularwarfare.org.
Major Joseph Bedingfield is an active duty US Army civil affairs officer currently attending the Advanced Military Study Program at SAMS. He has served with the 45th Infantry Brigade, the Army National Guard Warrior Training Center, and the 92nd Civil Affairs Battalion (SO) (A) with various deployments to the Middle East and Europe. Joseph holds a bachelor of arts from the University of Oklahoma, a master of business administration from Fayetteville State University, and a master of military art and science as a member of the Art of War Scholars program from the US Army Command and General Staff College. This article is a synthesis of the author’s research thesis conducted at the Command and General Staff College, which analyzed how and to what effect rights were weaponized through the Russian revolution from 1893 to 1917.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: PersianDutchNetwork
Much as in the Old Cold War of yesterday, likewise with the New/Reverse Cold War of today, the "weaponizing of rights" often takes on two distinct faces, these being:
a. The face of those seeking to gain greater power, influence and control by appealing to "revolutionary change" ideas — such as the Soviets/the communists, appealing to communist "revolutionary change" ideas, did in the Old Cold War of yesterday — and such as the U.S./the West, appealing to market democracy "revolutionary change" ideas (think, for example, of such things as "diversity, equity and inclusion"), is doing in the New/Reverse Cold War of today. And:
b. The face of those seeking to gain greater (and/or simply seeking to retain present) power, influence and control; this, by appealing to "traditional" ideas — such as the U.S./the West (faced with the existential threat posed by "revolutionary change" communism) did in the Old Cold War of yesterday — and such as Russia and China (faced with the existential threat posed by "revolutionary change" market democracy) is doing in the New/Reverse Cold War of today.
Here is a "New/Reverse Cold War of today" example of this such "clash of weaponized rights" phenomenon:
" 'Tradition!'” proclaims Tevye the milkman, in his foot-stomping opening to the musical Fiddler on the Roof. 'Tradition!'
Tevye’s invocation rings true—what is more reassuring than the beliefs and practices of the past?
Which is why the resolution passed by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in September 2012 seems, at first blush, so benign.
Spearheaded by Russia, it calls for 'promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms through a better understanding of traditional values of humankind.'
But a close look at the context from which this resolution arose reveals that traditional values are often deployed as an excuse to undermine human rights. And in declaring that 'all cultures and civilizations in their traditions, customs, religions and beliefs share a common set of values,' the resolution evokes a single, supposedly agreed-upon value system that steamrolls over diversity, ignores the dynamic nature of traditional practice and customary laws, and undermines decades of rights-respecting progress for women and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities, among others.
In countries around the world, Human Rights Watch has documented how discriminatory elements of traditions and customs have impeded, rather than enhanced, people’s social, political, civil, cultural, and economic rights."
(See the Human Rights Watch World Policy Blog article "The Trouble with Tradition" by Graeme Reid.)
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
In the New/Reverse Cold War of today, as the U.S./the West — in the name of such things as market democracy — presses hard now to achieve "revolutionary change" "rights" — such as "diversity, equity and inclusion" — both here at home and there abroad,
As the U.S./the West seeks to do this, such diverse entities as Russia, China, Iran, N. Korea, the Islamists — and even conservatives/traditionalists here at home in the U.S./the West — thus existentially threatened — fight back using "traditional" rights.
This such "frame," I suggest, both (a) limiting and (b) directing which "rights" our special operations forces must use "weaponized" today.
Herein, this such "limiting" and "directing" "frame" requiring that our special operations forces only "weaponize" "for," and in the name of, market democracy "revolutionary changes" rights [examples again: "diversity, equity and inclusion"] and certainly not such things as "traditional" rights?
As to my thoughts immediately above, consider these New/Reverse Cold War of today examples of Russia and China "weaponizing" "traditional values" — and the "traditional rights" that come with same — this, so as to stand hard against a U.S./West (who is threatening them by "weaponizing" "revolutionary change" market democracy values — and the "revolutionary change" rights" that come with same):
“In his annual appeal to the Federal Assembly in December 2013, Putin formulated this ‘independent path’ ideology by contrasting Russia’s ‘traditional values’ with the liberal values of the West. He said: ‘We know that there are more and more people in the world who support our position on defending traditional values that have made up the spiritual and moral foundation of civilization in every nation for thousands of years: the values of traditional families, real human life, including religious life, not just material existence but also spirituality, the values of humanism and global diversity.’ He proclaimed that Russia would defend and advance these traditional values in order to ‘prevent movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.’ As Putin passes his 20th year as Russia’s president, his domestic and foreign policy appears intended to contrast his country’s ‘independent path’ with the liberal and decadent regimes in the West. The invented battle of Western values versus Russia’s ‘traditional values’ is part of a Kremlin effort to justify its broader actions in the eyes of Russian citizens, placing them in the context of a global struggle in which Russia is the target of aggression. Ignoring and violating the provisions of international organizations to which it is a party thus becomes a demonstration of defending its conservative values from European liberalism."
(See the Wilson Center publication “Kennan Cable No. 53” and, therein, the article “Russia’s Traditional Values and Domestic Violence,” by Olimpiada Usanova, dated 1 June 2020.).
“This may, in fact, be the missing explanatory element. Ideologies regularly define themselves against a perceived ‘other,’ and in this case there was quite plausibly a common and powerful ‘other’ (to wit: Western liberalism) that both (Chinese) cultural conservatism and (Chinese) political leftism defined themselves against. This also explains why (Chinese) leftists have, since the 1990s, become considerably more tolerant, even accepting, of cultural conservatism than they were for virtually the entire 20th century. The need to accumulate additional ideological resources to combat a perceived Western liberal ‘other’ is a powerful one, and it seems perfectly possible that this could have overridden whatever historical antagonism, or even substantive disagreement, existed between the two positions.”
(See the April 24, 2015 Foreign Policy article “What it Means to Be ‘Liberal’ or ‘Conservative’ in China: Putting the Country’s Most Significant Political Divide in Context” by Taisu Zhang.)
The items in parenthesis — in my China quoted item immediately above — are mine.
The central underlying problem — which would seem to prevent our special operations forces from "weaponizing" the traditional rights of numerous other countries — this would seem to be that these such countries traditional rights have often been understood to be a/the primary factor standing directly in the way of the never-ending "revolutionary changes" needed to (a) better provide for such things as capitalism, markets and trade and, thus, needed to (b) better provide for such things as national security.
In earlier times (think before World War I, World War II and the Old Cold War), this such problem — of traditional social values, beliefs and institutions (and the traditional "rights" associated with same) standing directly in the way of such things as the never-ending "revolutionary changes" needed to better provide for capitalism, globalization and the global economy — this such problem, in other countries in earlier times, was handled by such things as colonialism (and the military forces needed to support same):
"Where the cultural backwardness of a region makes normal economic intercourse dependent on colonization, it does not matter, assuming free trade, which of the ‘civilized’ nations undertakes the task of colonization."
(See the first paragraph of the 1919 paper "State Imperialism and Capitalism" by Joseph Schumpeter.)
Thus, the only time one might expect to find a western nation sending out its special operations and/or other forces to "weaponize" another state and/or societies' "traditional" rights, this would seem to be in cases such as the Old Cold War; wherein:
a. The "traditional" rights of other states and societies; these,
b. Could be "weaponized" to stand directly in the way of anti-capitalism, markets and trade "revolutionary change" entities; such as, those of the Soviets/the communists?
To help understand my thoughts above, consider that:
a. Before World War I, World War II and the Old Cold War, the primary threat to traditional social values, beliefs and institutions — and thus the primary threat to traditional rights — this was posed by the "modern" capitalist countries of the U.S./the West. (In this regard, see my Schumpeter quote in my comment immediately above.) Thus, in this period of history, it would seem rather difficult for the "modern" U.S./the West to "weaponize" the rights of members of more traditional states and societies?
b. During the Old Cold War of yesterday, however, the primary threat to traditional social values, beliefs and institutions — and thus the primary threat to traditional rights — this was posed by the "modern" communist countries. Thus, during this period of history, it might have been somewhat easier for the U.S./the West to try to "weaponize" the rights of members of more traditional societies?
c. In the New/Reverse Cold War of today, however, with (a) the "modern" capitalist U.S./Western countries, once again, posing the primary threat to traditional social values, beliefs and institutions (and, thus, the primary threat to traditional rights) and (b) such nations as Russia and China adopting the mantle of "defender and champion of traditional social values, beliefs and institutions" (much as the U.S./the West might have attempted to do in the Old Cold War?) — once again it would seem difficult for the "modern" U.S./the West to try to "weaponize" the rights of members of more traditional societies. Yes?