Death Squads and International Norms

I've been thinking quite a bit about death squads today -- mostly because of an interesting article by Greg Grandin I read this morning, but also partly because of correspondence with friends from Davao, partly because it's a change from working on papers, and partly because I am clearly a somewhat disturbed person.


In the article I've linked to above, Grandin does a good job of explaining the role that death squads, which he defines as "[c]landestine paramilitary units, nominally independent from established security agencies yet able to draw on the intelligence and logistical capabilities of those agencies," play in state terror campaigns to suppress dissidence.

I think, though, that he misses a key point about death squads: the role that international norms play in creating them. I've only ever come across one book that seriously engages this question, Bruce Campbell and Arthur Brennar's Death Squads in Global Perspective: Murder with Deniability. With apologies for academic-ese, the book's central argument can be summed up as follows:
Bruce Campbell poses one central question regarding the global phenomenon of death squads and vigilantism: following a Weberian conception, statehood is defined by the monopolization of the legitimate use of coercive force within a given territory. Why then, have so many states compromised this monopoly on force, devolving coercive power to private, extra-state forces by offering formal or tacit support to death squads and vigilante groups?

Drawing on literature on state violence, Campbell attempts to situate this devolution of force within the bounds of rational, conventional state behavior, arguing that subcontracting violence may be a state’s best, or only, available means of dealing with an internal threat.

As Ted Robert Gurr suggests, state violence is a response to “the existence of a class, group, or party that the ruling elite sees as a threat to its continued rule.” However, most modern states are constrained by both international and domestic laws and organizations, rendering full-scale, overt state repression a political impossibility. Death squads and vigilante groups, then, fill this gap, allowing states to orchestrate the violent suppression of dissident groups while retaining plausible deniability nationally and globally.

(from a paper I wrote last Spring, which then challenges aspects of this theory, at least as it applies to the Philippines, by introducing the element of personalistic politics, but that's more than I care to get into at the moment)
Essentially, death squads exist where external pressure makes overt state repression politically impracticable. In this sense, they represent one of the greatest failures of the "international community," which has a history of making an enormous fuss about state sponsored violence, while quietly tolerating extra- or quasi- state violence.

A case in point would be the Philippines during the Marcos era. The early period of the Marcos dictatorship was marked by mass arrests of Marcos' political opponents. These arrests were conducted overtly, generated paperwork, and were undeniably tied to the central state's policies. Consequently, foreign governments who cooperated with Marcos were compelled to censure him for his excesses.

In response, Marcos made a tactical shift to quasi-state repression. Instead of having dissidents arrested by the police and put in prison, he had them kidnapped by death squads, and disappeared or salvaged [tortured to death and left for public display]. This was clearly not a move that improved the human rights situation in the country, but it allowed Marcos to deny responsibility for abuses, a contention those who wished to collaborate with him -- including, let's not forget, Jimmy "
the Carter Doctrine" Carter -- were happy to accept.

The Arroyo administration is, of course, another example. At the same time Arroyo is (to say the very least) tolerating hundreds of murders by death squads, she is being celebrated, in some quarters, for official policies she claims seek to curtail such violence.
By pressuring states to distance themselves from abuse while failing to combat the underlying political and social conditions that create it, the "international community" creates the conditions in which death squads thrive.

So fine, condemn death squads. Of course they should be condemned. Just... don't get too comfortable about it.