25 November 2004

Human Nature

Via Belmont Club, the sad story of large scale sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers and aid workers.

It is well known that rape is a near universal feature of war. What this shows, I think is that it is not the experience of war that produces this effect in men, rather it is the opportunities offered by war.

The modern development of sociobiology has triggered many arguments: sociobiologists will suggest that some human behaviour has been selected by evolution. Opponents will pop up screaming that the sociobiologists are fascists and supporters of genocide. The sociobiologist will, while drying the jugfull of water off his head, attempt to explain that he's not making statements of morality, and that what is natural is not the same as what is good.

The essential point that is often glossed over is that what is natural for one human to want to do, is often also natural for another human to want to prevent. As a simple example, it is natural for a man with an established sexual partner to want to mate with other females, but it is natural for his partner to want to stop him, and it is natural for the other females' partners to want to stop them.

It is not controversial that one biological feature of humans is to live in large societies: larger at least than those of chimpanzees. The nature of these societies varies somewhat, but, as Stephen Pinker points out, there are more universals than might be expected.

If you take a man out of his society, give him a gun or a bodyguard, and put him in the middle of a lot of people not of his society, who are starving and helpless, what might happen could be described as biology taking over, but would be better described as one aspect of biology finding itself unbalanced by other aspects of biology which normally balance it.

The result of this reasoning is that the UNHCR/Save the Children report is not shocking. Personally, I am not shocked. The people implicated in this investigation are not monsters. That does not mean they should be let off: deterrence is a better reason for punishment than moral outrage, not a worse one.

Conversely, if you are putting people in positions of power over foreigners, either as invaders, peacekeepers, aid workers, missionaries, or local business managers, and you do not hear that they are abusing their power in this way, you should not believe that this is to be expected from the good people you are using. You should either congratulate yourself on the unusually effective systems you have put in place to prevent it, or you should assume it is going on and you just haven't found out.

The UN, of course, is one of the least likely organisations to exert effective control and supervision of its agents.

There are two possible approaches to preventing the abuse. Either the agents should be genuinely part of the society they are helping, so that they are subject to the restraints of that society, or they must be maintained in the society that they came from, and be under the restraints of that society. The latter approach seems easier. Rotating staff in and out fairly quickly might help. The key point is that, just as with invading armies, it needs substantial active measures to prevent peacekeepers or aid workers taking advantage of their position.

Update: Another story that I think is related to my general point:
New Scientist — Everyone is a potential torturer

Update: Via a new news report, I gather that UN peacekeeping troops who commit crimes can only be tried back in their home country, which of course makes them that much less controlled.

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