Report on the 2015 Edinburgh Summer School on Political Violence

Niall Whelehan's picture

This report provides an overview of the new interdisciplinary summer school on political violence, which took place at the University of Edinburgh from 24 to 26 of June 2015. [1]

Day 1

The summer school began with interactive debate on perspectives from law. Each of the presentations examined the myriad forms of political violence and the legal tools and practices designed to proscribe them, effectively combining theory and practice from the presenters’ respective backgrounds.

Professor Manfred Nowak (University of Vienna) presented on The International Struggle Against Torture: Experiences of the Former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, in which he identified torture as one of the most violent human rights violations, primarily committed by states. However, Professor Nowak emphasized that varying concepts and practices of political violence have been adopted across the globe. Torture has been conventionally defined as physically or mentally inflicting pain in a manner that is officially endorsed to achieve an objective, commonly used against as an interrogation method in detention facilities. With the development of legal instruments after World War II, including the Declaration on Torture, CAT, and Rome Statute, torture has been unequivocally prohibited. Nevertheless, Professor Nowak’s experience on more than 20 UN fact-finding missions has taught him that since the right to freedom from torture is only conveyed in a negative sense it requires thorough documentation in order to combat impunity, strengthen preventative measures, and provide victims with the right to remedy and reparation. The War on Terror represents a major challenge to these legal developments as it has evolved the torture paradigm to normalize the practice as a lesser evil.

In contrast to Professor Nowak’s account of investigating torture, Professor Christine Bell (University of Edinburgh) began her paper on The Role of Law in Political Settlements with an autobiographical account of political violence in Northern Ireland. While also acknowledging the complex forms political violence can take, Professor Bell focused on the conflict dynamic involving state and non-state actors/combatant groups. In these contexts, where systemic violence is maintained by the state’s strategic use/manipulation of the law, peace negotiations must create a new language of equality to beget an inclusive reform process. However, the role of law in mediating/resolving conflict is a contested one - should law enforce universal procedures, or should it leave space for negotiation within the political imagination to resolve conflict? Professor Bell supported the latter interpretation of law as a framework for interpreting/adapting “lawfare” to complex local circumstances. Although law cannot define and address all aspects of conflict, Professor Bell concluded it has the potential to provide a neutral political space for the process of conflict resolution and peace negotiations in particular.

Roni Dorot’s (Central European University) research project On Carrots and Sticks: A Relational Framing of Retaliation and Reconciliation in Israel/Palestine, similarly emphasized the importance of carving out a political space for peace negotiations. Dorot argued that conflict resolution only becomes possible by developing a language of reconciliation, as opposed to retaliation, which is currently missing from the Israeli/Palestine dialogue. Laura Fernández De Mosteyrín (Universidad A Distancia de Madrid) picked up on Professor Nowak’s normative concerns regarding the War on Terror and security paradigms with her presentation, Drawing the Red Lines of Violence: the Basque Conflict under the Aegis of the War on Terror. According to Fernández De Mosteyrín, the War on Terror expanded the terrorism paradigm and introduced “militant democracy” lacking in both security and liberty, for which the Basque conflict offers a unique case study. Moreover, Fathima Azmiya Badurdeen’s (Technical University of Mombasa) presentation on Al Shabaab Terrorist Recruitment in Kenya: Contributions from the Social Movement Theory. She explored the other side of the terrorism paradigm, using Social Movement Theory (SMT) to analyse the recruitment strategies and transnational dynamics of terrorist groups. Badurdeen defended the use of SMT as a means of achieving micro-level analysis of terrorist groups’ resources (networks, institutions, etc.), the psychology behind recruitment strategies (grievances and identity transformation), political opportunities/grievances (repressive and discriminatory laws), and the framing of terrorist campaigns (to reach target audience based on common discrimination).

Within this context of modern security and conflict, the remaining presentations offered further cautionary accounts of the accompanying practices of the international community. Andreas Papamichail (University of St Andrews) discussed Direct and Structural Violence: Humanitarian Intervention, Militarism and Abdication of Responsibility as a paradoxical approach to intervention. Here, military force represents a top-down institutional approach that limits the inclusion of those directly experiencing violence. Consequently, Papamichail regarded the use of military force as objectionable based on moral and practical grounds for overlooking potential underlying causes of violence, as well as preventative measures. Loke Bisbjerg Nielsen (Danish Royal Defense College) presented on a more specialised subject area, focusing on the Use of Special Forces: Perspectives on a Shadow Phenomenon. The core issue at the heart of Nielsen’s research is a question of performativity- are Special Forces something you are or something you do? This issue generates ethical dilemmas with two dimensions, the political (legitimacy) and the operational (proxy responsibility). The ethical dilemmas associated with the use of Special Forces are also reflected in the normative dichotomy between their roles as fighters in combat missions and as saviours in humanitarian missions.

The day concluded with a broad discussion of the troubling themes that emerged over the course of the day, based in both theory and practice- how do we balance peace and justice, as well as security and liberty? Law may not be able to provide a panacea to the violent tendencies of the modern era, but it is clear that there remains a pivotal role for it in helping prevent and mitigate practices of political violence that continue throughout the world.


Day 2

The second day of the Summer School was devoted to perspectives from history. Casting light on the historical contexts of political violence and its historiography, the presentations provided different angles on how contemporaries understood or used violence, and how we today can comprehend the eruption of political violence past and present.

Professor John Horne (Trinity College Dublin) opened the day with a lecture on Empires and Nations in Transition: Military and Political Violence 1917-1923. He argued that the end of the First World War confirmed the triumph of the nation-state and forged the international system of states existing to this date, and that the peace that followed was more important for this triumph than the war. To understand the crucial process by which war was translated into peace, however, different concepts and timeframes than those traditionally employed are needed. Indeed, he suggests that the Great War started and ended before and after the proclaimed dates, shaping Europe and the colonial context, within which some 25 years after the First World War independence and nation-states would be wrung from the remaining Empires. Challenging conventional interpretations, he proposes to focus on the nature of paramilitary violence in the interwar period. He identified three sources of this violence and dynamics marking the period and helping to explain paramilitary developments, namely (1) the Russian Revolution and the ensuing transnational propaganda and fear, (2) the ethnic conflicts and the forging of new nation-states that accompanied the end of the multi-ethnic European Empires, and (3) the impact of defeat leading to the foundation for paramilitary groups which stepped into the political sphere and led to fascism.

Professor Horne’s presentation on how the transition from war to peace shaped states, and was shaped by paramilitary violence, evoked a lively discussion. The applicability of his framework was challenged with the example of Turkey as paradigmatic or exceptional, on the one hand, and the case of Spain, which had not formally experienced the Great War, yet saw large-scale political violence, and paramilitary groups on both sides of the Spanish Civil War, on the other hand. Especially, the latter’s case raises interesting questions about what neutrality in war means, how war elsewhere can be experienced as destabilising etc. Other questions interrogated – inter alia – the discursive practices of both stereotypical imagery and countering narratives.

Donald Bloxham’s (University of Edinburgh) lecture on Genocide in the Era of the World Wars followed. He sought to incorporate three conceptual elements into his perspective on genocide and ethnic cleansing, namely (1) geo-politics given the crisis and decomposition of old multi-national empire-states, (2) ethno-politics given that regional dynamics were superimposed on religious cleavages, and (3) straight forward politics. In turn he discussed the violence Muslims, Christians and Jews experienced, and how the ethnic or ‘national’ question dominated many Eastern and Central European states from the late nineteenth century onwards, leading to a variety of ‘solutions’ to the ‘problem’ of minorities and fears within new and insecure states.

Professor Bloxham argued that ethnic cleansing exists on a continuum between spatial and existential removal. The lines are often blurred and removal from one territory to another is in practice often hard to distinguish from mass murder and genocide, because at the very least mass death is an accepted, if not a willed, consequence of forced removals and in some cases even internationally sanctioned population ‘exchanges’. He argues that the Nazi ‘final solution’ was different not only in sheer numbers or organisation. A key distinguishing factor was the emerging resolve – to not only transfer the target populations within the Third Reich and accept their death along the way by exhaustion and massacres or in inhospitable environments – but to remove the target populations from German territory altogether, and later the determination to kill them and to also deport and kill people from outside its own territory i.e. from countries which were nominally independent from - if collaborating with – the Third Reich.

The ensuing discussion raised the question of whether there was evidence that different types of deportations and ethnic cleansings were connected and served as ‘inspirations’ for each other. The usefulness of the term ‘genocide’ was debated. The discussion also touched upon the question of whether pre-nation-state cultures had a concept of genocide or the killing of a people and their collective identity.

The first afternoon session centred on the treatment of soldiers/fighters, and the causes and justifications of political violence. Jerome Devitt (Trinity College Dublin) spoke about Deterring Political Violence: The 1866 Habeas Corpus Suspension (Ireland) Act, seeking to highlight the disparity between political rhetoric and ensuing action. He challenged the prevalent narrative of the time that the Irish were the ‘dupes’ of Irish-American ‘plotters’, and argued that the Act was meant as a political violence deterrent, which needed to be made more acceptable. Nina Janz (University of Hamburg) focused on Wehrmacht soldiers’ deaths, and what the treatment of the dead and their bodies can tell us about war, how it was conducted, about morality and justifications of war. Iryna Shlikhta (National Transport University Kiev) explored the Roots of Ukrainian Nationalists’ Political Violence in the Interwar Poland by challenging the dominant historiography on Ukrainian nationalism and highlighting the opportunity to integrate Ukrainians into the Polish nation through education which was neglected and became a grievance that accentuated Ukrainian nationalism.

The last two presentations of the day focused on the strategic use and potential intentionality of political violence. Lisa Arellano (Colby College) opened the last session with her Imagining Politics Otherwise: Memoirs of Militant Activism, in which she explored the place of violence in the strategy of US political movements of the 1960s and 1970s, largely forgotten, lacking in archival records and ‘whitewashed’ out of the contemporary Left’s narrative. Craig Kelly (Uppsala University) focused on the 1637 Edinburgh riots, the actors’ intentionality and whether contemporaries understood the significance of the actors’ political violent acts at the time.


Day 3

Offering perspectives from political theory, the presentations on day three were successful in weaving together different strands and ideas, which had been discussed the two previous days. Professor Kimberly Hutchings (Queen Mary University) and Professor Elizabeth Frazer (Oxford University) started the day with an interactive session on Violence in Political Thought and Theory. Through group work the two scholars disentangled the key concepts of violence and politics. Three main discourses were identified through which political violence tends to be defined and justified in political theory: firstly, the instrumental discourse, which justifies violence as a means to an end; secondly, the necessity discourse in which violence is justified as a logical exigency either because of the conceptual definition of politics or through assumptions about human nature; thirdly, the virtue discourse where authorized forms of violence are constructed as part of the good citizen ethos. Affect, aesthetics and rhetoric play a crucial role in these justification of political violence.

The second part of the morning session with Professors Hutchings and Frazer turned to what they called the Politics/Violence Frontier, tracing the line where different political theorists separate acting politically from acting violently. Discussing anarchist thinkers like Kropotkin and Tolstoy, the frontier becomes notable in their responses to assassination attempts. While rejecting instrumental justifications of violence, Kropotkin justifies violence as self-defence in the face of oppressive state structures even though violence as an individualistic act runs contrary to his understanding of socialism as a collective enterprise. Tolstoy, on the other hand, who relies on a more individualistic understanding of society, draws a different frontier, rejecting all forms of political violence as part of state oppression. The work of Kropotkin, Tolstoy, but also Fanon and Gandhi is the writing of activists who are intervening in politics. Constantly questioning the conceptual definitions, they often negotiated the politics/violence frontier and avoided to settle on where the line should be drawn.

Hutchings and Frazer then pointed to a different way to establish the politics/violence frontier in the work of Locke and Sorel. Both writers link the concept of political action to their understanding of state power, though they draw different conclusions from this. For Sorel any change of politics has to come from the extra-political space outside of state structure and violence is justified through non-strategic rationality and a warrior ethos. Locke links his justification of political violence to the pre-state natural rights which allow punishment of ‘lions’ or ‘tigers’ who broke the contract.

Professor Frazer and Hutchings finally turned to the work of Hannah Arendt, whose conceptualization of the politics/violence frontier is different to the above thinkers. Arendt draws a clear line between politics, which is the public realm of collective deliberation, and violence or coercion. She critiques Fanon, and modern society more generally, in the tendency of conflating the understanding of power and violence. Arendt argues that Fanon is treating violence as something inherently liberating instead of seeing it as a very limited instrument which will always end up creating more violence. In Arendt’s opinion Fanon is thus reaffirming the blurring of lines and the disappearance of politics.

After tracing these different ways political theorists draw the politics/violence frontier, Professor Frazer and Hutchings invited more critical comments from students, closing their presentation with another interactive session on the relationship between violence and politics, thus nicely wrapping up the morning session.

The themes elaborated by Hutchings and Frazer often reappeared during the individual presentations in the afternoon, most notably in Amanda Cawston’s presentation on Alienated Violence and Non-violent Resistance. Building on a Marxist notion of alienation, Cawston critically engaged with current trends of alienating state violence from citizens. She analysed this trend in the growing division of security labour with the shift away from drafted army forces which are funded by taxes to professional army structures with credit-based funding. While Cawston highlighted how this shift opens up space for a more moral engagement with state violence, she also emphasized that alienated violence proves more difficult for non-violent resistance because non-cooperation is less visible and responses are more difficult to provoke. Her presentation led nicely into Lukas Slothuus’ presentation on a Political Theory of Resistance. Slothuus presented his interesting PhD project which focuses on the development of a conceptualization of resistance and how it relates to the concept of political violence in political theory. This was followed by the presentation of Liesbeth Schoonheim, who developed a theoretical account On Being a Slave. Liesbeth compared the work of Williams, who sees violence as a necessary evil that can only be mitigated through liberal institutions and Arendt, who understands violence and ‘slavishness’ as outside the public sphere.

The following session was opened by Lisa Hecht from Stockholm University, who focused her presentation on Self-Defence and Other-Defence, emphasizing the role of agency in acts of self-defence which is psychologically important for the victims’ self-understanding beyond simply repelling a primary threat. In Benjamin Chwistek’s presentation on Violence and the Political in Carl Schmitt’s Writing the politics/violence frontier appeared again. Chwistek engaged critically with the tendency of using Schmitt within contemporary theoretical frameworks because there is a problematic feedback loop in Schmitt’s grasp of the political as friend/enemy distinction, which conceptually necessitates violence. The last presentation of the summer school was entitled Feminist Perspective on Agents of Political Violence. Rebecca Wilson emphasized the analytical value which care ethics contributes to discussions of political violence, by moving away from analytical focus on rational individuals towards more ethical and relational understandings of violence. The summer school ended with a warm applause from all participants and fed into more intense discussions over dinner in the evening.

To conclude, the participants’ feedback on the three days was distinctly positive and for this reason the organisers have decided to institutionalise the interdisciplinary summer school, which will run again in 2016. The challenges involved in conceptualising violence in postgraduate research can clearly be better addressed through the kinds of interdisciplinary debates generated on each of the three days. These multiple perspectives are not only beneficial for research, their importance for teaching also became manifest throughout the summer school. One outcome of this event has been the design of a new undergraduate course on global terrorism at the University of Edinburgh. The organisers hope that this push for more collaboration across disciplines will be strengthened by this on-going summer school initiative.


Dr Niall Whelehan

Dr Mathias Thaler


With the help of Lisa Schweiger, Megan King and Sissela Matzner

PhD students in Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh.


[1] The event was jointly organized by Dr Mathias Thaler (Politics and International Relations) and Dr Niall Whelehan (History). Financial and administrative support was provided by the University’s Global Justice Academy, the Research Office, the School of Social and Political Science and the School of History, Classics and Archaeology. Two research projects, supported by Marie Curie Actions, formed the background of the initiative.