VIEWPOINT: Cruelty As Policy, Humanitarian Alternatives

VIEWPOINT: Cruelty As Policy, Humanitarian Alternatives

Stuart Rees

Cruelty refers to wanton and unnecessary infliction of suffering without regard to what is right, just or humane.  Around the world, in democracies and dictatorships, appalling cruelties have been exerted on people stigmatized as unworthy, of no consequence, as easily ignored.

By August 2020, in response to fear of the Covid-19 pandemic, 300,000 mariners were marooned at sea, forbidden to land even though these are sailors from poor countries who transport food and fuel to keep people alive and to sustain economies. The cruelty as policy evidence derives from my forthcoming book, Cruelty or Humanity (Rees 2020) from which a few examples are taken, though many more, such as the consequences of free market economic policies or China’s lying about the treatment of Uighurs, could be added.

In presenting the examples, poets shine a light. There’s a reason for that. Shelley wrote that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world, a claim confirmed by showing how poets describe cruelties and the humanitarian alternatives.

Cruelties persist against a background of international covenants and laws which forbid such practices. Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibits ‘inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment.’ Article 3 in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, says ‘in all actions concerning children…the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.’

These principles and laws have been ignored, not least regarding the notion, a child’s best interests.

In Australia between 1905 and 1969, approximately 10,000 Indigenous children, known as The Stolen Generation, usually identified as mixed race, were removed from their parents to be assimilated in white society. In Letter to My Mother, Aboriginal poet Eva Johnson recalled the cruelty and sadness of being taken away.

I not see you longtime now, I not see you long time now.
White fella bin take me from you, I don’t know why
Give me to Missionary to be God’s child.
Give me new language, give me new name
All time I cry, they say ‘that shame’…
I not see you long time now, I not see you long time now.

Each year, Israel arrests, detains and prosecutes 500-700 Palestinian children suspected of offences committed in the West Bank.  Prosecuted in military courts, Human Rights Watch reports that Israeli forces have choked, beaten, threatened and interrogated children in custody without parents or lawyers present. Israel justifies its actions by saying that ‘the interests of security and public order’ provide a legal basis for arresting and charging the children.

In October 2017 the war in Yemen had killed over 10,000 people, led to a famine and widespread cholera outbreak.  In March 2017, UNICEF reported ‘at least one child dies every ten minutes because of malnutrition, diarrhoea and respiratory tract infections.’ At the end of 2018 the UN named Yemen as one of the worst places on earth to be a child.

From April to June 2018 at the Mexican border, US authorities separated 2000 children from their parents and placed them in an old warehouse in southern Texas where they waited in cages made of metal fencing. The cries of caged children were jokingly described by an immigration official as ‘an orchestra.’

Under policies to foster nationalism and close borders, asylum seekers and refugees have been the victims of systematic cruelties.  Twenty six million people are registered refugees, half of them under 18, yet their hopes for freedom are barred by walls, fences and by armed forces deployed to send them back to where they came from.

On my recent visit to the Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, home to 37,000 people, Hosni Abo Taha a leader in the camp, pleaded, ‘We love life. We want to live our lives in freedom, just as we did before 1948. We deserve the chance to prove we are human beings.’

In a policy to protect the country’s borders from anyone who attempted to enter Australia by boat,  Australian governments detained asylum seekers on remote Pacific islands of Manus and Nauru. By the beginning of 2017, 1,500 men women and children were in effect imprisoned on those islands. By August 2020, four hundred and six remained but $7 billion Australian had been spent to keep even those classified as refugees in this offshore detention.

In the UK, between 2012 and 2017, citizens who had arrived as children on the MV Windrush in 1948, but who could not produce the paperwork issued on their arrival, were being sent to homeless shelters, detention centres or were deported. A government policy to create a hostile environment for supposed illegal migrants had been the brainchild of the former Prime Minister Theresa May when she was Home Secretary.  Commentators said she had created conditions in which cruelty towards these UK citizens was not a glitch in the system, it was the system.

Cruelty as policy has been aided by state efforts to deny that such practices occur. Lying and denial were well underway before President Trump attacked journalism as fake news. In an insightful comment on governments’ propensity to dissemble and deny, the late Clive James wrote in Statement from the Secretary of Defence,

This one we didn’t know we didn’t know
At least I didn’t. You, you might have known
You didn’t know Let’s say that might be so
You knew, with wisdom granted you alone…

In his Memoir (2017), veteran US investigative reporter Seymour Hersh concluded that the powerful lie constantly about their predations and the natural instinct of the media is to let the powerful get away with it.  Numerous examples of denial confirm Hersh’s conclusions. Most citizens of China are unaware of the 1989 massacres in Tiananmen Square. In his poem Tiananmen, James Fenton who witnessed events, crafted the details of denial.

Tiananmen is broad and clean
And you can’t tell where the dead have been
And you can’t tell what happened then
And you can’t speak of Tiananmen.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq depended on US, UK and Australian governments’ deceit. Referring to risks to London, Prime Minister Tony Blair falsely claimed that Iraq could dispatch weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes.

In 2015, when US forces bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kanduz province Afghanistan, which killed 42 people, the US military denied its actions and Afghan officials claimed that the Taliban had been fighting from inside the hospital. President Obama later apologized for the attack.

In mid-2017 the UN charged the Saudi Arabia coalition, Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government for violations against children. The Saudi spokesperson insisted that figures of child deaths were ‘inaccurate and misleading’ and after the slaughter claimed ‘we exercise the maximum degree of care and precaution to avoid civilian harm.’

By October 2017, over half a million Rohingya had been driven from their homes by the Myanmar military. Amnesty International released videos and satellite pictures showing at least eighty Rohingya village sites being torched but the Myanmar ambassador to the UN said, ‘We will do everything possible to prevent ethnic cleansing and genocide.’

In April 2017, an ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission) Four Corners documentary revealed Syrian government use of torture. The investigators’ evidence came from Syrian police, from soldiers’ and bureaucrats’ documents and photographs of their brutality. A young Syrian spoke of having his ribs broken, being hung from a ceiling by his wrists, a clamp attached to his penis and a broom handle thrust into his anus. President Assad was filmed denying that anything like that could have happened, even though the torture centre was only 1.5 kilometers from the Syrian dictator’s palace.

Attaining humanitarian alternatives to cruelty requires different ways of thinking about the exercise of power. Men’s age old, top down practices in which the vulnerable are only expected to obey, need to be replaced by life enhancing perspectives committed to non-violence and associated respect for human rights.

Rejection of this top down exercise of power was expressed in Poem by the American pacifist  William Stafford:

Sometimes commanders take us over
And they try to impose their whole universe
how to succeed by daily calculation.
I can’t eat that bread.

A world-wide pandemic, dangers from the possible use of nuclear weapons and the threats to the survival of the planet from global warming should foster understanding of global interdependence, as in poets’ visions of a common humanity.

In the early 1970s, the Australian Aboriginal poet Oodgeroo Nunucaal wrote in All One Race,

I’m for human kind not colour gibes,
I’m international never mind tribes,
I’m international never mind place,
I’m for humanity all one race.

In a prophetic statement about countries’ fascination with violence to defend national interests, the legendary US historian Howard Zinn (2003) hoped that cruelties would end ‘if the world’s national boundaries were wiped out, at least in our minds, if we thought of all children everywhere as our own. Then we could never drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or napalm on Vietnam, or wage war anywhere, because wars, especially in our time, are always against children, indeed our children.’

If post Covid societies and economies are to outlaw cruelties, there is an urgent need to admit that past atrocities have been central to policy making not an aberration, not an exception to the rule. The denials have to be exposed. As with the Black Lives Matter movement’s expose of centuries of  racism, history will have to be re-written, humanitarian policies crafted and implemented.

Rees, Stuart (2020) Cruelty or Humanity, Challenges, Opportunities, Responsibilities. Bristol: Policy Press.
Hersh, Seymour (2017) A Memoir. New York: Knopf.
Zinn, Howard (2003) A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper and Row.


Stuart Rees is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney, Founder Director of the Sydney Peace Prize and recipient of the Jerusalem (Al Quds) Peace Prize.