Political Science professor introduces the human rights aspect of warfare

Thomas W. Smith, a Professor of Political Science at the University of South Florida speaks on the civilian perspective of human rights and war throughout history on Sept. 27, 2017 in Konover Auditorium. (Eric Wang/The Daily Campus)

Political science professor Thomas W. Smith visited from the University of South Florida to give a lecture in the Konover Auditorium on Wednesday afternoon. Smith’s lecture was based off of his recent book, “Human Rights and War Through Civilian Eyes.”

With a lofty title like this, getting into the nitty gritty is essential to understanding the broader concepts. One of the most striking anecdotes Smith shared from his book was from a case study on the Iraq war. The streets of Baghdad were a dangerous place, where men were constantly being kidnapped or killed. When a family member wouldn’t return home, women would often search the streets, traveling from hospitals to police stations looking for a loved one.

The morgue overflowed with unidentified bodies, which they took pictures of to display. Every day, women traveled to the morgue to see the pictures, desperate to see a familiar face. One woman traveled to the morgue looking for her husband, but could not tell if his image was there. The only picture that could have possibly been his was the image of a body without a head. It looked like her husband’s body, but she couldn’t be sure. For six months she traveled to the morgue every day, but she was never willing to claim the remains of the headless body and learn for certain whether or not they belonged to her missing husband.

Smith introduced his lecture by saying he wanted to “reimagine the ethics of war sort of through the eyes of its collateral victims.” The Iraqi woman would be one of those victims.

He began by giving general information about the rules of warfare and giving an overview of the conventions in which these laws are determined, noting how human rights became a consideration for these conventions in the early twentieth century. However, rather than focus on these larger concepts like courts and laws, Smith believes that by focusing on individuals and the human rights implications, we can better understand warfare and make better rules to govern it.

“Laws of war don’t really capture the human experience,” Smith said.

His solution to this is to explore the human experience in the context of human rights. He especially wants to focus on subtleties: how does war influence the educational opportunities for children, the public health of a community, the birth and fertility rates of women or the psychological damage on a neighborhood?

The two largest case studies that contributed to Smith’s book were from the Iraq and Gaza wars. These case studies yielded stories like those of Iraqi women often vainly searching for their missing spouses and stories of families who question whether it is better to spread throughout the house or huddle together during a bombing, questioning whether it is better to ensure the survival of a few or risk dying all together.

Looking at this incredibly close-up image of such a broad topic was a good way to communicate the impact of large-scale conflicts to his audience.

“War has an intimate effect,” first semester human rights and international relations major Brianna Dyer said. “I’ve never thought of that before.” She said seeing a “view from above of mass atrocities” gave her a new perspective.

Fifth semester political science and human rights major Katharine Lange expressed similar sentiments. She mentioned how normally we see warfare from the point of view of soldiers or governments, but often don’t see the “in-between.”

“[Smith] brought in a lot of intersections of psychological and medical effects, interfamilial effects, overarching effects,” Lange said. “You have to consider what happens to the individual.”

Although there are a number of critics when it comes to the international regulation of warfare who claim it isn’t so much “warfare as “lawfare,” one of Smith’s arguments was that things are improving. He knows his book isn’t the end of the line, but that human rights are becoming a more significant consideration.

“If you can start having a conversation,” Smith said, “one thing leads to another.”


Alex Houdeshell is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.houdeshell@uconn.edu.