For my Masters degree in Human Rights I wrote my thesis on the use of force by peoples in self-defence against an oppressor in the quest for self-determination and survival. Think of the struggle of the Palestinians against the zionist regime, think of the apartheid regime in South Africa or the Amazigh people in Morocco and Algeria fighting the French colonizer and the struggle of the African American people. An oppressor, in the context of history, was an organized regime implementing and enforcing an institutionalized policy of racial segregation, inequality and inequity which severely disadvantaged a particular group of people and was often accompanied with human rights violations (such as genocides).
These struggles have proven to be never-ending because the still existing enemy remains the same: white supremacy. History is not repeating itself today – we just have not learnt from history. Now I believe the relevant question to ask and reflect upon is: to what extent is it legitimate for people to pick up arms in self-defence or engage in violent protests, against an obvious system of oppression in today’s society (applicable in specific to African Americans)?
Let’s get down to the root of the problem
Historically, the international landscape was characterized by Europe’s pretension of universalizing its value system with a hidden agenda of simultaneously exploiting ‘uncivilized’ territories and their natives. After many decades, colonizers were forced to distance themselves from their colonies because the people organized and started to fight back. The Third World realized that the revolt and anti-colonial resistance became an increasing risk against the backdrop of fear of the rise of communism (expansion of the Soviet Union and China: nations that selectively supported decolonization). The interplay between anti-colonialism and sovereignty of nations gave birth to international organizations such as the United Nations in 1945. (The UN did not explicitly prohibit colonialism or imperialism, but found colonialism to be a threat to international stability and security.)
Why is the context of colonialism relevant? Sure, colonialism has become obsolete in the traditional sense, but white supremacy has not – which is the root machine force behind colonialism and racism – and that is why non-whites still find themselves in the same predicament of oppression and exploitation today.
“I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists.” Nelson Mandela
The principle of self-determination is a right for the people to exercise who they are, culturally, socially, economically, politically and simply as human beings. It is a collective right, meaning that it can only be exercised in a collective sense. It is the underlying legitimacy of peoples and not governments that underlie the purpose for the instruments that protect human rights. UN resolutions and declarations have explicitly affirmed the legitimacy of people and organized groups to fight for their freedom “by all means available including armed struggle” (GA resolution 30/70 in 1973). Many more resolutions have followed after this that legitimize the use of force by people against their oppressor. So people took it upon themselves to enforce their human rights, and rightfully so.
National Liberation Movements
The manner by which war is waged has changed in the last few decades. Sovereign states are no longer the exclusive actors engaging in war and are joined on the international plane by organized groups of people such as national liberation movements. NLMs are not created in a vacuum. Their existence stems from suffered oppression and they represent people fighting against the establishment of colonial domination or racist regimes in the pursuit of their human rights. The use of force by such national liberation movements have led to independence and freedom from colonial domination such as the war of national liberation in East-Timor.
These conflicts have been deemed to be legitimate because it led to the freedom of a people. Does this mean that legitimacy can translate into legality? The UN continued to legitimize the use of force by national liberation movements, the struggle that oppressed people endure and their right to self-determination back in the 1970s (see e.g. General Assembly resolution 32/147). However, let’s be clear that international law differentiates between legality and legitimacy. The traditional stance is that the use of force by NLMs against a State or government undermines their sovereignty. The international law paradigm is ambiguous with regards to the use of force by peoples under the representation of a NLM against a racist or colonial regime. The law does not grant an explicit right to use force (the UN resolutions legitimizing the quest of NLMs were of a non-binding nature) – but it can be legitimate. The most lawyer-ish answer to the question would therefore be: Ça dépend (on the situation).
The dehumanization of black lives
“We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.
We want freedom by any means necessary. We want justice by any means necessary. We want equality by any means necessary. We don’t feel that in 1964, living in a country that is supposedly based upon freedom, and supposedly the leader of the free world, we don’t think that we should have to sit around and wait for some segregationist congressmen and senators and a President from Texas in Washington, D. C., to make up their minds that our people are due now some degree of civil rights. No, we want it now or we don’t think anybody should have it.” Malcolm X in 1964.
Why was Malcolm X met with so much resentment from the establishment for his infamous statement cited above, yet when the United Nations followed pursuit in the 70s and 80s, they were applauded? The answer to this question might relate to what I previously mentioned of why some colonizers stepped back from their colonies when the people started to step up: they left out of self-interest, fearing a game of domino’s where the colonized taking up arms in one colony could be followed by other colonies as well. Also, colonizing people and killing them wasn’t sexy anymore – let’s institutionalize racism in our own countries and exploit minorities in a systemic way.
We no longer speak of a colonizer, but of a white supremacist system. White supremacy is a disease so deeply entrenched within many societies today but more specifically in the American society. We are witnessing today and for the past few decades the genocide of the African American people (I said what I said). Their struggle against white supremacy doesn’t differ from the historic peoples globally struggling against their colonizers, sometimes recognized by the UN as a legitimate fight. Is it then not legitimate for the African American people to organize and fight for their freedom, human rights and survival, by any means necessary?
I assert that in a society like the US with laws giving citizens the right to extrajudicially kill each other if they ‘feel’ remotely threatened or just ‘perceive’ a threat, basically allowing people to murder each other based on irrational emotions and assumptions, then African Americans (as a threatened group) should be able to organize in self-defence, by any means necessary. This is America and its culture (as Donald Glover once famously put it), so let’s not selectively grant the right to take up arms only to Karen and Travis who have the privilege to kill a black man guilty of existing.
The African American population seems to have the indisputable right to wage in armed struggle in parallel to diplomacy. It is upon them to decide which route to take. As Angela Davis once famously asked: “What does it mean to be a criminal in this society?” Does fighting for freedom make you a criminal, a terrorist or a freedom fighter? Which narrative will you choose to stand for?
Peace and Blessings be unto You,
– Fanon, F. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1963.
– Abi-Saab, Georges M., ‘Wars of National Liberation in the Geneva Conventions and Protocols’ 165 Recueil des Cours (1979-IV)
– C.J.R. Dugard, “The OAU and Colonialism: An Inquiry into the plea of self-defence as a justification for the use of force in the eradication of Colonialism”
– General Assembly Resolution 2649 (XXV) 1982
– Mustafa Şahin, ‘The Use of Force in Relation to Self-Determination in International Law  (1-4) Dış Politika, 26. (For example, the national liberation movement the African National Congress was on the US’ terrorist list.)