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Gun control in the US: its difficulties and a potential way forward

In the wake of another tragedy the issue of gun control has again been brought to the forefront of US politics. English newspapers and columnists, regardless of right or left wing leanings, argue that gun control presents an easy method to curb such attacks (Younge, 2012; Leonard, 2012). However I argue that such calls ignore the historical and legal particularities of the US which act as a barrier to gun control.

Guns and the US Constitution

The piece of legislation central to the argument is the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, the right to bear arms. The concept of armed citizens within a democratic system is not unique to the founding of America. French philosopher Jean Bodin argued that monarchies would be wise to remove the populations’ arms as a way to reduce their ability to challenge the state while in a democracy the people could be, and should be, armed, (Shalope, 1982). Bodin points out that weapons allow citizens to directly affect the ruling power should the participatory structures guaranteed by democracy fall down. James Madison, a figure who was influential in drafting the Constitution, asserted that America was unique in being willing to arm its citizens and compared the fledgling nation to Europe where leaders were afraid to arm their citizens (ibid).

However the Second Amendment can be interpreted in two ways. One interpretation is that the amendment references the right of an individual to own arms, the other is that the amendment references the right of a state to retain a militia independent of federal authority (ibid). The exact wording of the Amendment reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” (New York Times, 2012). Both interpretations outline the same rationale for the Second Amendment: protection against potential repressive and undemocratic actions by the central Federal government.

Since the 1930s the dominant interpretation of the Second Amendment was the concept of a non-politicised state militia (ibid). However the landmark court case of the District of Columbia verses Heller in 2008 allowed the concept of a constitutional right of a state to posses a militia to become dependent on the right of an individual to bear arms. Heller was a DC policeman who tried to register a gun he wished to keep at home but his request was turned down because handguns were banned in Washington DC: Heller then challenged the State’s decision as unconstitutional (Supreme Court of the United States, 2008). The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment reads:

“The Antifederalists feared that the Federal Government would disarm the people in order to disable this citizens’ militia, enabling a politicized standing army or a select militia to rule. The response was to deny Congress power to abridge the ancient right of individuals to keep and bear arms, so that the ideal of a citizens’ militia would be preserved.” (ibid).

Thus the court ruled DC’s handgun ban, and the trigger-lock mechanism that disabled a guns’ functionality, as unconstitutional (ibid).

This means that individual gun ownership is legitimised by the Constitution. That is not to say that US Constitution cannot be changed, it has been amended 27 times: giving the vote to women; lowering the voting age and disallowing the limitation of a citizen’s vote based on racial characteristics (Scholastic, 2013). Many of these amendments happened without major incident, though the latter amendment provided an ideological conflict between the Federal Government and many southern states leading to the American Civil War.

Guns and government legitimacy and personal safety

The legitimacy of gun ownership is intrinsically related to an individual’s trust of the central government: if the government is seen as oppressive or unable to confer unbiased protection to its citizens, an individual has more reason to arm his or herself. In the aftermath of the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s, the disarming of individuals became a major challenge. In a 2004 poll conducted in the South Serbian municipalities, self protection was cited by 61% of Serbian household heads and 70% of Albanian household heads as a reason for owning a weapon (Kopel et al., 2008: 433). A separate survey found that a lack of trust of the police prevented people from handing in their weapons during a 2003 amnesty during a state of emergency (ibid). Actions by ethnically biased, and thus illegitimate, central governments mean that individuals perceive guns as a security asset rather than a threat.

Another example is the Karamajong pastoralists of Uganda. The Karamajong had pooraccess to arms which made them susceptible to cattle rustling from neighbouring groups in Kenya and Sudan (ibid). Ugandan police were ineffective at providing protection, instead focussing on preventing the Karamajong from accessing weapons (ibid). As the Karamajong became better armed, government attempts to disarm the group provoked violence on both sides. Subsequent gun amnesties have proved ineffectual as the Karamajong distrust the government and doubt the police’s ability to provide protection: areas where gun amnesties have been successful have suffered from an increased incidence of cattle rustling (ibid).

 This creates a problem for the Federal Government as its legitimate role is to uphold the Constitution. The Oath of Office taken by all Federal civil servants outlines this role:

“I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.” (US Office of Personal Management, 2013)

This creates an awkward position for the government vis-a-vis gun control: if a state limits an individual’s freedom to gun ownership (without proper reason, such as previous criminal convictions), the Federal government has to step in and reassert the individual’s constitutional rights. This dynamic was shown during the case of DC verses Heller. However any move by the Federal government to make widespread restrictions on gun ownership will violate its role to uphold the constitution and diminish its legitimacy. This in turn would legitimise gun ownership and the Second Amendment as a means to check an illegitimate government. Any attempts to enforce a ban could lead to further mistrust, and an increase in gun ownership, as shown by the example of the Karamajong in Uganda.

Gun ownership and other countries

Switzerland is often touted by gun advocates as an example of how firearms can exist in a stable, law-abiding society (Halbrook, 1999). It is worth noting that although spree-shootings are rare in Switzerland, they do occur, with the most recent occurring on 2/1/2013 in Daillon and deadliest occurring in 2001 with 14 fatalities (Heilprin, 2013). Firearms are involved in nearly 25% of the 1,100 suicides a year in Switzerland (ibid).

However guns have a markedly different symbolic meaning in Switzerland compared to the US. In Switzerland, all males (and female volunteers) retain their rifles after military service, the Swiss frequently cite their heavily armed populace as the reason the Nazis never invaded (Heilprin, 2013; Palmer, 2010). The focus is thus less on defence against one’s own government but rather against invasion and aggressive neighbours. This may explain why there is no constitutional guarantee of a citizen’s right to a weapon (the Swiss government could theoretically remove this right) (Palmer, 2010). This allows the government to enact central authority over civilian gun access and maintain legitimacy. For example in 2007 the government passed legistlation that gave it powers to request that all army ammunition for civilian guns be kept in depots, and to forcibly confiscate guns from citizens who enter psychiatric care or are deemed mentally unstable (Heilprin, 2013). Thus, one of the reasons Switzerland has a lower incidence of gun violence is that unlike in the US, the Swiss government can pass legislation which minimises gun violence.

Previous attempts to limit guns in the US and their effectiveness

Within the USA, some states and cities have implemented initiatives to try to stem the negative effect of guns. Indianapolis, to test the effectiveness of illegal gun seizures, increased seizures in one area while decreasing them in a control area (Sherman, 2001: 17). In the first area violent gun crimes dropped by 50% while in the comparison area they increased by 22% (ibid). Similarly when Boston upped illegal gun seizures in the early 1990s, a reduction in the city’s homicide rate followed (ibid).

In 1988 Maryland banned ‘Saturday Night Special’s guns’, cheap, low quality handguns particularly associated with crime (Vernick et al. 1999: 260). The effectiveness of this initiative was shown by the Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative (YCGII) which began in 1996 (ibid). Under the YCGII, 17 US cities, including Maryland, agreed to submit trace requests for all crime guns, defined as “any firearm that is illegally possessed, used in a crime, or suspected by law enforcement officials of being used in a crime” (ibid). The YGGII found that from 1996 crime in Maryland relating to the banned guns predictably decreased (ibid: 262). It has been argued that selective gun bans, especially on handguns, will merely lead to criminals substituting banned weapons with more powerful and higher calibre guns (Kleck, 1991). However evidence from the YCGII found that, while there was a substitution effect, it did not outweigh the decrease in banned gun use (Vernick et al. 1999: 261). Such examples show that gun control can have a significant effect on reducing gun violence.

The big leap in federally mandated gun control was the 1993 Brady Bill which required gun dealers to perform background checks on customers and to refuse the sale of firearms to convicted felons and other unsuitable candidates (Sherman, 2001: 14). In a study of 2640 California background checks, the sample’s 170 convicted felons were 18% less likely to be later arrested for gun offenses than people who had been previously arrested for felony offences but not convicted, thus background checks for convicted felons seemed to discourage future firearm offenses (ibid: 17).

The Supreme Court ruled that the bill was unconstitutional (see the case of Printz verses the United States), because  the Federal government was dictating the obligations of the state police in enforcing and assisting background checks (Supreme Court of the United States, 1997).  However states were allowed to voluntarily enforce background checks (ibid). By 1998 all states had voluntarily enforced background checks on gun purchasers, with the last state to do so being the traditionally pro-gun state of Arkansas (US Department of the Treasury, 1998).

The effect of the recent shootings

The tragedy of the recent shootings at Sandy Hook has had a dramatic affect on gun policies in the US. Predictably Democratic politicians have been vocal in their support of increased gun control. Jose R Peralta said he would limit ammunition buying to 500 rounds per month while another argued that firearm purchases should be limited to one per month, to stop reselling and gun trafficking (New York Times, 2013). This legislation could prove effective as most homicides are committed with illegally procured handguns (Sherman, 2001: 15). Governor O’Malley of Maryland is arguing for a ban on assault rifles and a restriction on sales to potentially mentally unstable buyers (Edwards, 2013).

What is more interesting is that some politicians from the traditionally pro-gun Republican party seem open to dialogue about gun control. Chris Christie of New Jersey argued that there were other issues at the heart of the atrocity but conceded that he was open to discussing stricter gun laws (ibid). In Arizona John McCain claimed that he would not be averse to bans on specific weapons and ammunition and rejected the idea, vocalised by many Republicans, that it was too early to start looking at legislative remedies (New York Times, 2013). However key House Republicans stated their opposition to creating any new limits on firearms (ibid).

After some deliberation Obama released a selection of laws which he requested Congress to pass. One important law is to make gun background checks universal, another seeks to reinstate the 1994 assault rifle ban and another will toughen penalties on individuals who sell guns to unsuitable individuals (Adams, 2013). In addition to these more direct laws were Obama’s 23 executive policies. These policies were more general calls for the private sector to invest in innovative gun safety technologies, attorney generals to re-evaluate what criteria bans a person from purchasing a firearm, improve the information available for background checks and to maximise enforcement efforts to prevent and prosecute gun crime (CNN, 2013).

What can be done?

Given the significance and purpose of the Second Amendment, Obama’s proposal of executive action seems destined to provoke a backlash. The threat of executive action and a potential ban on assault rifles has caused sales of the weapons to skyrocket (Levs, 2013). The US is constrained by its Constitution and any attempt to centrally impose control on gun ownership will delegitimize the government and in turn reify the logic of the Second Amendment. The example of Uganda and the Balkans has shown that any attempt by a delegitimized government to reclaim already owned weapons, by force or amnesty, is likely to end in failure.  

In spite of the unifying effect of the Sandy Hook tragedy, Obama’s proposed laws have faced criticism from Republican politicians citing it as unconstitutional (Adams, 2013). The accommodating attitude of Christie and McCain may soon give way to partisanship and the chances of the proposed laws being passed in Congress will be diminished.

The role of the Supreme Court in labelling the Brady Bill as unconstitutional and unenforceable by the Federal Government indicates that any legislation agreed upon federally and federally enforced will eventually be struck down.  The case of Printz verses US may be used as a legal pretext to fight the proposed assault rifle bans and federally enforced universal background checks. Another problem is that the case of Heller verses DC could be used to fight individual state-level gun control restrictions, limiting the amount reform states can implement, regardless of how receptive they are to increased gun control.

However the Brady Bill provides an example of how positive changes in gun control may occur in the future. Though the bill was struck down, it was eventually adopted by all states due to the inherent logic of background checks as a means to prevent dangerous individuals from acquiring firearms. The sheer tragedy of the Sandy Hook massacre, and the fact it came just a few months after the Colorado Aurora shootings, has pushed pro gun politicians into admitting the need for debate. Obama’s proposed executive action has yet to be announced. As long as the legislation does not violate the logic of the Second Amendment too heavily and does not allow for what could be perceived as excessive Federal interference (for example upping illegal gun seizures or requiring that all citizens lock their guns in cabinets while at home), it may be adopted on a voluntary basis by many states.



Adams, Richard. 2013. Obama and Biden unveil gun control agenda in White House speech – live. The Guardian website ( Copy available from author.

CNN. 2013. Obama announces 23 executive actions, asks Congress to pass gun laws. CNN website ( Copy available from author.

Edwards, Aaron. 2013. Gun Control: Sandy Hook Has States Looking at Tighter Laws. Lichfield County Times website ( Copy available from author.

Halbrook, Stephen. 1999. Guns, Crime, and the Swiss. The Independent Institute website ( Copy available from author.

Heilprin, John. 2013. Swiss gunman kills three, injures two with old military rifle. National Post website ( Copy available from author.

Kleck, Gary. 1991. Guns and Violence: A Summary in the Field. Prepared for delivery at the 1991 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, The Washington Hilton, August 29 through September 1, 1991. Copyright by the American Political Science Association.

Leonard, Thomas. 2012. Has the Sandy Hook massacre finally made America fall out of love with guns? The Daily Mail Online website ( Copy available from author.

Levs, Josh. 2013. Biden: Obama exploring executive orders to combat gun violence. CNN website ( Copy available from author.

Levs, Josh. 2013. Obama executive order, gun control battle: Countdown to new wave in gun violence battle begins. CNN website ( Copy available from author.

Palmer, Brian. 2010. Do other countries have a constitutional right to bare arms. Slate website ( Copy available from author.

Scholastic. 2013. How the US Constitution has Changed with the Times. Scholastic website ( Copy available from author.

Shalope, Robert E. 1982. The Ideological Origins of the Second Amendment.  The Journal of American History 69. Copy available from author.

Sherman, Lawrence W. 2001. Reducing Gun Violence: What Works, What doesn’t, What’s Promising. Criminology and Criminal Justice 1: 11-25.

Supreme Court of the United States. 2008. The District of Columbia vs Heller – No. 07-290. Legal Information Institute website ( Copy available from author.

Supreme Court of the United States. 1997. Printz v. United States 95-1478. Legal Information Institute website ( Copy available from author.

The New York Times. 2013. Gun Control. New York Times website ( Copy available from author.

US Office of Personal Management. 2013. Oath. US Office of Personal Management website ( Copy available from author.

US Department of the Treasury.  1998. Brady Background Checks to Resume Nationwide. US Department of the Treasury website ( Copy available from author.

Vernick, Jon S, Webster, Daniel W and Hepburn, Lisa M. 1999. Effect of Maryland’s law banning Saturday Night Special handguns on crime guns. Injury Prevention 5: 259-263.

Younge, Gary. 2012. Newton shootings: if not now, when is it the time to talk about gun control? The Guardian website ( Copy available from author.



Thesis got published!!!

A short stripped down version of my thesis got published in the academic journal ‘Structures and Dynamics’, a journal that applies computation, logic and mathematics to social issues and the humanities. The link is: I would like to thank Doug White, one of the editors, who helped me extensively in getting it published.

The choice: an anthropological analysis of whether woman can have it all

A bit of a change up in topic for this piece which does not address any foreign policy issue but rather an issue that is present in many different nations.

Ann Marie Slaughter, a former senior director in the US State Department, recently wrote an impressive article called ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’ arguing that today’s society forces women to choose between career and family. Though state provisions such as maternity leave aim to allow women to prosper in both spheres of their life, their effectiveness is limited.

In the UK 30,000 women a year lose their job due to pregnancy (Hopkins and Sunderland, 2009). A poll of 1,148 adults revealed that 70 per cent of mothers were re-entering the job market earlier than originally intended because of financial concerns, with over half saying they were returning to work six to 12 months sooner than they expected (Hogarth et al., 2009: 40-41).

Slaughter herself names numerous high profile women who made an unambiguous choice between family and career: two of the three female Supreme Court justices are single and childless; Michèle Flournoy stepped down after three years as undersecretary of defence for policy to spend time with her family; Mary Maitlin, counsellor to Vice President Dick Cheney, stepped down in order to spend more time with her daughters (Slaughter, 2012).

As I am neither a woman who has to endure the difficult balancing act nor an employer who has to incur the financial obligations of providing maternity support for employees, I will steer clear of morally judging the current state of affairs or suggesting what is the ‘right’ role of women in the workplace or the home. What I seek to show is that an anthropological analysis illustrates that the choice between work which takes place away from the home and child care/fertility is a dilemma that crosses cultures and time, and that the exceptions to this rule provide lessons about how the modern industrialised world could resolve this dilemma.

Anthropological analysis of gender roles

The sexual division of labour has long been a central topic in anthropology and highlights a central theoretical schism that anthropology has to deal with as both an art and a science: the explanation of behaviours as either socially constructed or based on biology. Notable anthropologists such as Margret Mead and Clifford Geertz argued that masculine and feminine roles and traits were entirely social constructs (Wood and Eagly, 2002: 700-701). However Wood and Eagly’s comparative synthesis of 185 ethnographies (first hand anthropological studies of other cultures) found a common pattern in labour activities that were predominantly/exclusively male or female.

Wood and Eagly argued that male activities such as the hunting of large land and aquatic fauna, mining and trapping, are incompatible with infant care and take place far away from the homestead (ibid: 704-709). In contrast activities that were more likely to be female, such as water collecting, cooking and fuel collection, could be done in conjunction with infant care (ibid). They also showed that the strength demanded for a job, a biological difference that has commonly been interpreted as integral in defining sexual roles, had a much smaller effect in determining how activities were sexually assigned (ibid: 721).

An important finding was that this cross-cultural pattern was not entirely rigid and the allocation of tasks was flexible with only a few tasks being almost entirely exclusive to one sex. For example, in societies where women contributed more to the subsistence economy, there were commonly post-partum sex taboos and early supplemental  feeding regimes to increase birth spacing and reduce the time needed for nursing (ibid: 709). Wood and Eagly suggest that the marked increase of women in the paid labour force stems from women’s increased control over reproduction and the decline in birth rates (ibid: 721).


Of course it is commonly accepted that while sex is biological ‘gender’, the expectations and assumptions made about a member of each sex, is cultural. Thus technically gender and sex can be in opposition to each other and, while such instances are rare in the ethnographical record, when women enter male roles and engage in male activities, fertility is normally sacrificed. In essence, a woman to change her gender must forsake what defines her sex. A notable example is the Balkan men-women. In numerous societies in the Balkan highlands, a woman could renounce marriage and swear virginity and so gain male privileges such as smoking, socializing with men in public, inheriting property, bearing weapons and engaging in feuds, in short she became an ‘honorary man’ (Djajic Horvath, 2011).

War as an activity is still, even in the Western world, perceived to be the domain of men. It requires mobility, long periods of time away from the home and placing oneself in physical danger. Yet ethnographic examples of women-warriors and men-women show that a renunciation of reproduction can allow women to enter this arena. Balkan men-women often engaged in blood feuds (ibid).  The all-female Dahomey Royal Guard were expected to be entirely chaste to enable them to carry out their role as warriors (Silverblatt, 1988: 439). A more recent example are the women rebels in the Mau-Mau uprising: Kikuyu women could join the rebels only if they were single and free from domestic duties, as soon as a woman became pregnant she had her rifle confiscated and was returned to her village to become a domestic mother (Kanogo, 1988: 87-88).

Socio-cultural anthropologist Sherry Ortner argues that virginity “downplays the uniquely feminine capacity to be penetrated and give birth to children… a non-virgin is downgraded to mere womanhood” (Silverblatt, 1988: 447). This statement explains why in many past societies women enter the occupational role of men through a renunciation of what biologically defines them as female.

The workplace/home divide

The current problem women face stems from the fact that, like war and hunting, the modern work place is generally far from the home and modern occupations cannot normally be done in conjunction with child care. With the Industrial Revolution came the increased separation of workplace and homestead (Abrams, 2001).  It was also during this period that the idealised image of the purely domestic woman, whose sole role was childcare and household management, was created (ibid). Women today have inherited a work arena which is distinctly separate from the private sphere and have spent decades fighting the image inherited from the days of the Industrial Revolution.

In spite of the strong cross-cultural link between the sexual division of activity and fertility, the exceptions shed light on how a restructuring of society could allow women to, in Slaughter’s words, ‘have it all’. Although the hunting of large fauna is cross-culturally assigned as a man’s job, the Agata women of the Philippines not only consistently hunt but do so during their prime reproductive years (Goodman et al., 1985: 1201-1202). This is probably due to the ecology of the region the Agata inhabit: in contrast to most hunts which can take days if not weeks, 95% of the 430 observed Agata hunting trips occurred within 10 km of the homestead (ibid: 1203).

Goodman et al. noted that: “The feasibility of hunts of less than a day’s duration appears to be an important factor in the prevalence of hunting among Agata women” (ibid: 1204). Most importantly hunting did not necessarily impede child care: because women hunted in teams with dogs, as opposed to men who hunted alone with weapons, infants could be carried on a female hunter’s back and older children could be brought along (ibid: 1207).

The example of the Agata illustrates that when the organisation of the economy is set up in a manner which allows women to combine child care with certain occupational roles, women can and will enter those roles. Slaughter herself admitted to leaving her prestigious job as Director of Policy Planning for the State Department to return to her Princeton professorship, where her flexible working hours and autonomy allowed her to manage her time so she could both see the kids and attend to her career (Slaughter, 2012).

Removing the choice

Slaughter identifies the need for an economy that allows women to not have to choose and points out that technological innovations such as video conferencing and the adoption of more flexible hours can make this possible (ibid).

Anthropological evidence supports Slaughter’s conclusion that the best way to avoid women making the choice between children and career is to remove it. Doing so would offer employers a huge pool of talented labour in the form of women who may have chosen to pursue an entirely domestic role. Slaughter cites a study of 527 companies which found that those with family friendly policies had higher perceived performance than industry competitors (ibid).

My analysis does rely on one controversial assumption: that child care is the role of women and cannot, or is unlikely to, be done by men. Slaughter herself addresses this assumption:

“I’ve come to believe that men and women respond quite differently when problems at home force them to recognize that their absence is hurting a child, or at least that their presence would likely help. I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job.” (ibid)

She does acknowledge that such an opinion is treading on dangerous ground and could be dismissed as stereotyping (ibid). Having spent time working in a high powered job and rubbing shoulders with numerous powerful women, her opinion is informed, even if it may be anecdotal. Survey data and figures support her assertion. A survey of 2,443 women and 653 men, all holding degree level qualifications, found that 44% of women who left a high powered job did so for ‘family time’ while only 12% of men stated the same reason (Hewlett and Luce, 2005). In Finland, a country which allows parents to divide the majority of parental leave (a system that will soon by adopted in the UK) and is known for having a one of the highest female employment rates in the EU, 92% of leave days are taken by mothers (EU, 2012). It is worth noting that Finland has the highest female employment rate in the EU (ibid). Cultural change may mean that eventually men and women take equal responsibility for childcare. However cultural change tends to be gradual. Meanwhile women are still facing a choice between professional and domestic success. Women who intend to attempt to succeed in both spheres face discrimination from employers.

That is not to say that the struggle for cultural change should be abandoned. However it is probably more effective to extend flexible working hours to men than to demand inflexible working hours of women and to declare them as noncompetitive and a financial liability when they take maternity leave.

I am well aware of the range of opinions on the issues discussed above and would like to hear any well-constructed criticism, alternative opinions or supportive comments.


Abrams, Lynn. 2001. Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain. BBC History Website ( Copy available from author.

Djajic Horvath, Aleksandra. 2011. Of Female Chastity and Male Arms: The Balkan Man-Woman in the Age of the World Picture. Journal of the History of Sexuality 20(2).

European Alliance For Families. 2012. Finland: Towards a Healthy Balance between Work and Family Life. European Union Website ( Copy available from author.

Goodman, Madeline J, Griffin, P Bion, Estioko-Griffin, Agnes A and Grove, John S. 1985. The Compatibility of Hunting and Mothering among the Agata Hunter-Gathers of the Philippines. Sex Roles 12: 1199-1209.

Hewlett, Sylia Ann and Luce, Carolyn Buck. 2005. Off-Ramps and On-Ramps. Harvard Business Review 83(3): 43-54.

Hogarth, Terence, Owen, David, Gambin, Lynn, Hasluck, Chris, Lyonette, Clare and Casey, Bernard. 2009. The equality impacts of the current recession. Equality and Human Rights Commission, Research Report 47.

Hopkins, Kathy and Sunderland, Ruth. 2009. Pregnant Staff Face New Wave of Bullying. The Guardian Website ( Copy available from author.

Kanogo, Tabitha. 1988. Kikuyu Women and the Politics of Protest: Mau-Mau. Pp78-99 in Images of Women in Peace and War: Cross-Cultural and Historical Perspectives, edited by Sharon MacDonald, Pat Holden and Shirley Ardener. London: The MacMillan Press.

Silverblatt, Irene. 1988. Women In States. Annual Review of Anthropology 17: 427-460.

Slaughter, Ann Marie. 2012. Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. The Atlantic Website ( Copy available from author.

Wood, Wendy and Eagly, Alice H. 2002. A Cross-Cultural Analysis of the Behavior of Women and Men: Implications for the Origins of Sex Differences. Psychological Bulletin 128(5): 699-727.

An analysis of the current Catalonia-Castile standoff


Recently in Barcelona a sea of 1.5 million people marched through the streets. Interestingly enough none of the flags of the marchers carried the familiar Spanish flag but instead one of red and yellow stripes with a blue triangle to the left, imprisoned in which is a lone star. It was the flag of Catalonia and the Catalan protestors in Barcelona were marching to demonstrate, as the President of the Catalan parliament Artur Mas put it, Catalonia’s “right to self-determination” (Barley, 2012). Catalan elections have been pushed forwards to 25 November and the vote is widely perceived as the deciding factor on whether Catalonia will declare independence (ibid).

Catalonia, which is linguistically distinct from Castilian Spain, the administrative centre of the nation, has been incorporated into the Spanish state for three centuries. The amount of autonomy given to the region has varied significantly:  from retaining an independent judicial system in the 1700s-1800s, through the linguistic and symbolic repression of the Franco era to the current day where Cataloniai enjoys the status of ‘autonomous region’ (Payne, 1971: 20-21; Vilalta, 2006: 21; Guibernau, 2003: 125).

This article will seek to analyse the motivation behind the independence movement, whether independence is feasible and the likelihood of independence occurring.

Catalonia’s currant status and the 1978 Constitution

Catalonia’s currant status stems from the 1978 Spanish Constitution that was created after Franco’s death. Spain was divided into 17 autonomous regions. Historical nations such as Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia could immediately start the process to full autonomy, while other regions which were artificially created (Madrid, La Rioja) had to fulfil a 5 year period of ‘restricted autonomy’ (Guibernau, 2003: 125). Each region has a regional legislative assembly, deputies are elected based on proportional representation and usually the leader of the majority party assumes the regions presidency (ibid). Catalan and Basque governments provide education, health, housing, agriculture, transport and cultural enrichment, with the Spanish government holding exclusive control over defence, international relations, general economic planning and justice (ibid).

Freedom and money

The current push for complete independence seems to be motivated primarily by economic issues. Opinion polls show that the number of Catalans in favour of independence has doubled since the start of the recession in 2008 (Burgen, 2012). Catalonia is Spain’s wealthiest province and generates 18.7% of Spain’s GDP, the region also contributes more to the central government than it receives in government funding (Barley, 2012). In 1997 the non-secessionist Catalan president, Jordi Pujol, was able to increase the amount of tax revenue Catalonia retains to 30%, however the imbalance remained (Guibernau, 2003: 126). Post Eurocrisis demands for increased fiscal autonomy have been refused by Madrid and many of the protesters describe the refusals as unfair and the lack of fiscal autonomy as an obstacle to Catalonia’s potential development (Burgen, 2012; Barley, 2012). The Catalan president, Artur Mas, proclaimed during the demonstrations: “if Catalonia were a state we would be among the 50 biggest exporting countries in the world” (Govan, 2012).

Unfortunately the European debt fiasco has precipitated a crisis of fiscal sovereignty on the national level, with nations such as Greece, Spain and Portugal relinquishing control and submitting to austerity to ensure that they can be kept afloat by bailouts. It is unlikely that Madrid will allow Catalonia complete independence when Spain is facing losing control of its own finances. Catalonia has its own debts, yet these may stem from the redistribution framework implemented by Madrid.

This raises another issue of Catalan independence: how will the withdrawal of Spain’s richest region affect the finances of a nation in the middle of a debt crisis, and how will this affect the poorer regions of the nation? Regions such as Extremadura only produce 1.6% of Spain’s wealth and only manage to stay afloat due to income from wealthier states such as Catalonia (Tremleyt, 2012). Catalans are already viewed by some sectors of Spain as rich, spoilt and forever playing the victim and the demand for independence may seem unreasonable when the region already retains 30% of its tax and has more autonomy than other regions of Spain, excluding the Basque Country (Burgen, 2012; Guibernau, 2003: 125). The Catalan marchers demanding greater benefits at the expense of those regions that rely on Catalan revenues, especially during difficult financial times, may cause the independence movement to be perceived as a bourgeois plot to defend their comparative wealth.

Catalan Romantic Nationalism and its relation to the Spanish State

Catalonia’s history of repression, especially under Franco, has allowed independence-orientated individuals to present Catalonia as a victim under the yoke of Madrid. A few recent events have allowed Catalonia to retain this identity of victimhood. A Statute of Autonomy, supported by 90% of the Catalan parliament, was modified by the Spanish parliament to comply with the Constitution before it was approved (Guibernau, 2012). The Statute was endorsed by the Catalan people in June 2006, but it was challenged by the conservative Popular Party (PP) in Madrid and the Spanish High Court (ibid).  The High Court issued a verdict in June 2010, supressing 14 articles of the Statute and modifying 30 relating to symbolic, financial and judicial aspects (ibid). This provoked protests of up to one million people in Barcelona (ibid). The fact that it was the conservative Popular Party that opposed the Statute of Autonomy is significant. The conservatives in Spain have often opposed the regionalism of the nation, while the Popular Party was founded by a member of Franco’s cabinet.

More recently a high profile case emerged in which a Catalan lawyer was assaulted, physically and verbally, for refusing to talk to a Guardia Civil officer in Castilian (Help Catalonia, 2012). The Guardia Civil has long been a symbol of Franco era repression and has been used as a tool of Castilian hegemony over the regions of Spain, especially Catalonia and the Basque Country.

Actions such as this legitimise the claims of secessionist organisations such as Help Catalonia, which in response to the Guardia Civil assault case argued:

“We at Help Catalonia wish to denounce this occurrence, and the fact that things like this still happen in modern-age Spain, as they have been happening for the last 300 years since Catalonia was invaded by Spain.” (Help Catalonia, 2012)

An analysis of the history of Catalonia reveals this statement to be not entirely true. Roosen’s argues that: “the study of ethnic phenomena reveals how far ethnic ideology and historical reality can diverge from each other; how much people feel things that are not there and conveniently forget realities that have existed…” (Roosens, 1989: 161).

Traditionally the narrative has been that during the War of the Spanish Succession, Catalonia backed the Hapsburg claimant Charles (Laitin et al, 1994: 5-8). When Charles was defeated by the Bourbon claimant, Philip, who was supported by Madrid, Catalonia’s old privileges as an autonomous province were erased and Catalan was banned from the King’s court (ibid).

However evidence shows that the Catalan aristocracy had by this time adopted Castilian as a language to mark high birth as it allowed them to operate within the King’s realm and distinguish themselves from the peasantry (ibid). Laitin et al note that: “if Catalans admitted that their language died due to the strategic decision of Catalan elites to extract resources from the Spanish state, it would be hard to construct a populist movement for separation from Spain” (ibid: 10). Similarly many Catalanists forget that it was Madrid’s protective tariffs which allowed Catalonia to become one of the most industrialised regions in the state (Payne, 1971: 22).

It was, in fact, during the renaixenca (renaissance) of the mid to late 1800s that nationalist historiographers such as Prospero Bofarull and Victory Balaguer interpreted the historic decline of Catalonia as a Castilian conspiracy (ibid: 18). The more recent history of repression under Franco’s regime has helped reify this interpretation of Catalonia’s history. The risk then is that Madrid decides to revisit the strategy of repression due to financial necessity.

Unfortunately such a turn of events is looking possible though not probable. Certain elements of the army have requested to intervene militarily in Catalonia, a prospect the Catalan parliament took seriously enough to ask the European Commission what measures the EU would take should Madrid use force to subdue Catalonia (Catalan News Agency, 2012). The government has wisely remained silent and not pursued this course (ibid). Any action by the military could easily turn an economically motivated protest into a symbolic struggle for liberation and legitimise armed groups.

A new nation creates new foreigners

Another major issue is that 40% of Catalonia is not Catalan but descended from Spanish immigrants who sought refuge in Catalonia during the Civil War (Burgen, 2012). Spain’s current Constitution protects these people from foreigner status by acknowledging the will of the “Spanish nation to protect all Spaniards and the peoples of Spain in the exercise of human rights, their cultures and traditions, languages and institutions” (Guibernau, 2003: 124). The Constitution also acknowledges the plurality of nationalities within the Spanish nation, making the state a nation of nations (ibid). But, should Catalonia become independent, it may become a nation-state, defined by Gellner as a state that makes ethnicity and polity congruent (Gellner, 1983: 42). Under such a state the Spaniard minority would be foreigners, outside the ethnic group and thus outside the polity.

The fear of becoming a minority played a significant role in the Yugoslav Wars as the Presidents of the seceding republics, such as Tudjman, defined their state as a nation and thus defined citizenship along ethnic rather than civic boundaries. This provoked a violent response from the Serbs and legitimised Milosevic’s slogan of ‘all the Serbs in one state’ (Sell, 2002: 110).

The likelihood of independence

In spite of the large numbers that joined the protest, Barley argues that the chances of independence are unlikely (Barley, 2012). In spite of the economic arguments espoused by protester and politician alike, there are some realities barring the economic viability of independence. Catalonia is cut off from capital markets and has requested a five billion euro loan from Madrid to help with its 40billion euro debt (Barley, 2012; Govan, 2012). Should Catalonia remain cut off from potential creditors after independence it would be unviable, and the request for the loan has made this clear, giving Madrid leverage.

Furthermore, while many Catalans argue that Catalonia would be in better economic shape if it was declared independent, this is probably not true. States often see credit evaporate after declaring independence due to a lack of a credit history: Catalonia’s poor finances mean that investors and lenders are unlikely to take the risk (Lacalle, 2012). Yet there is a chance that these obstacles may not halt the drive for independence.  The main danger is that Madrid may be enticed to use force to retain its highest earning province. Given the recent history between Castile and Catalonia and the nationalist reimagining of their older history, such a move would evaporate the economic arguments for and against independence and create a more irrational discourse of emancipation and liberation.




Barley, Richard. 2012. Madrid Struggles With Homage to Catalonia. Wall Street Journal ( Copy available from author.

Burgen, Stephen. 2012. Catalan independence rally brings Barcelona to a standstill. The Guardian website ( Copy available from author.

Catalan News Agency. 2012. Catalan Euro MP’s askthe European Commission to give an opinion on recent military threats by Spanish nationalism. Catalan News Agency website ( Copy available from author.

Gellner, Ernest. 1983. The transition to an age of nationalism. In Nations

and Nationalism. Oxford: Blackwell

Govan, Fiona. 2012. Catalonia calls snap elections in independence drive from Madrid. The Telegraph website ( Copy available from author.

Guibernau, Montserrat. 2012. The rise of secessionism in Catalonia has emerged out of the will to decide the region’s political destiny as a nation. The London School of Economics and Political Science Blog ( Copy available from author.

Guibernau, Montserrat. 2003.Between Autonomy and Secession: the accommodation of minority nationalism in Catalonia. Pp 115-134 in The Conditions of Diversity in Multinational Democracies, edited by Alain G Gagnon, Monserrat Guibernau and Francois Rocher. Quebec: The Institute for Research on Public Policy.

Help Catalonia. 2012. Guardia Civil Assaults Man for Speaking Catalan. Help Catalonia website ( Copy available from author.

Lacalle, Daniel. 2012. Catalonia: bailout and junk bond. El Confidencial website ( Copy available from author.

Laitin, David D, Sole, Carlota and Kalyvas, Stathis N Kalyvas. 1994. Language and the Construction of States: The Case of Catalonia in Spain. Politics Society 22: 5-29.

Payne, Stanley. 1971. Catalan and Basque Nationalism. Journal of Contemporary History 6(1): 15-51.

Roosens, Eugene E. 1989. Creating Ethnicity: The Process of Ethnogenesis. California: Sage.

Sell, Louis. 2002. Slobodan Milosevic and the Destruction of Yugoslavia. North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Tremlett, Giles. 2012. Catalonia leader threatens to draw EU into independence row with Spain. The Guardian website ( Copy available from author.

Tremlett, Giles. 2012. Spain’s poorest region suffers 32% unemployment. The Guardian website ( Copy available from author.

Vilalta, Arnau Gonzalez i. 2006. The Catalan Countries Project (1931-1939). Institut de Ciències Polítiques i Socials. 





Water Dragon: China’s dams and its effect on the South China Sea dispute

The majority of international furore over China’s extensive damming of its major rivers has primarily concerned itself with the potential environmental effects and the displacement of the people who inhabit the area. However the far reaching environmental consequences of China’s dams fundamentally affect the political landscape and regional power balance in East and South East Asia.

Water, more than any other resource, is a powerful tool in foreign policy as it is completely essential for a nation to function. This means that nations that rely on others for a reliable supply of water are generally doomed to diplomatic subservience to their water patron. Ariel Sharon described the 1967 Six Day War as an effort to avoid this dynamic with Arab world as Syria was working on diverting river flows away from Israel.

China, though it may be a regional power, has had a tumultuous and sometimes antagonistic relationship with its neighbours. China’s dams have the potential to enhance its position against its immediate neighbours regarding one of the regions most contested issues: ownership of the South China Sea, a region estimated to potentially contain 213 billion barrels of oil and 2 quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas.
China, since 1947, has laid claim to numerous islands in the South China Sea, specifically the Paracels Islands, Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal. Vietnam also claims ownership of the Spratly Islands and argues that they have been part of the Vietnamese state since the 17th century. The Philippines, meanwhile, also lays claim the Scarborough Shoal, which is close to its borders. Brunei and Malaysia argue that much of the South China Sea is within their Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) as outlined by the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982. While Brunei does not claim any islands, Malaysia argues that they have ownership over a portion of the Spratly Islands.

These competing claims used to be sorted behind closed doors with earlier pragmatic rulers such as Deng Xiaoping taking a soft approach and putting the issue aside while focussing on joint developments. Nevertheless China clashed militarily with Vietnam over the Paracels in 1974 and the Spratlys in 1988. This year China faced off with the Philippines on the Scarborough Shoal after a Philippine frigate was deployed to deter Chinese fishing vessels. As well as sending large surveillance ships, China quarantined all tropical fruit imports from the Philippines as a form of economic coercion.

However these forms of coercion may soon not be necessary for China – water may become a far more formidable weapon of policy than economic sanctions or military might. China has built three dams along the upper Mekong River. China’s fourth Mekong dam at Xiowan is due for completion this year which, at 292m, is the world’s tallest dam. It has a reservoir that holds 15 billion cubic meters of water, five times the combined storage of the previous three Mekong dams. By 2014 China aims to have another larger Mekong dam at Nouzhadu which will hold 23 billion cubic meters. The Mekong is the river that feeds South East Asia, including Vietnam’s rice paddies and Cambodia’s great lakes which act as a nursery for the regions fisheries. In short China’s grip over the Mekong ensures its grip over a population of 70million in South East Asia.

While China is most definitely not the only country in the region to dam the Mekong, it is the only country to do so without consulting with, or obeying the rules of, the Mekong River Commission (MRC), whose membership is made up of the nations which are most dependent on the Mekong: Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. Laos, which aspires to carve a niche for itself as an energy exporter to its neighbours, started constructing the ambitious Xayaburi Dam, but has bowed to MRC pressure and has currently paused construction. In contrast China has refused to join the MRC and builds with impunity.
It does seem like China’s gambit has paid off. In 2010 during the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional forum, Beijing pre-warned all attending nations not to raise the issue of the South China Sea. The issue was raised but China was not diplomatically alone. Laos, in spite of a ‘special relationship’ with Vietnam, put its support firmly behind Beijing, as did Cambodia, despite its historical debts to Vietnam. The fact is that China now has the ability to destroy the agriculture of both Laos and Cambodia. Furthermore China by restricting the Mekong’s flow can also scupper Laos’ ambitions to be South East Asia’s battery. Diplomatically China can rely on their support allowing it to escape overwhelming regional pressure from its rival claimants on the South China Sea. Eventually Vietnam may recognise its weakened position vis-à-vis China and accept the subservience that water dependency dictates.

The US has spent recent years attempting to act as arbiter and aims to resolve the dispute in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Hillary Clinton in 2009 announced ‘the US is back in South East Asia’, but China’s control over the regions veins makes this statement seem hollow. As one official said to journalist Donald Emmerson during the ASEAN forum, ‘for us in Asia, the US is geopolitical, but China is geographical’.

China’s interactions with its South Eastern neighbours offer a glimpse of the power China can draw on due to its geography. As long as China occupies the Tibetan plateau, it will also control the source of the Indus River and the Brahmaputra River, which it has recently started damming to divert water to its scorched Northern plains, causing great concern to Bangladesh which depends on the river. It also borders the source of the Ganges. With the majority of South East Asia, Pakistan and Bangladesh dependent on water sourced from Chinese territory, the frustration that the US and the West has found in sorting out the South China Sea dispute may soon become the norm when dealing diplomatically with large swaths of Asia as nations begin to realise their dependency on the favour of their new river god.

BBC. 2012. Q & A: South China Sea Dispute. BBC News Website ( Copy available from author.
Brown, David. 2011. Mekong dams test a ‘special relationship’. Asia Times Online ( Copy available from author.
Darwish, Adel. 2003. Analysis: Middle East Water Wars. BBC News Website ( Copy available from author.
EIA. 2008. South China Sea. US Energy Information Administration website ( Copy available from author.
Emmerson, Donald K. 2010. Greater China. Asia Times Online ( Copy available from author.
Glaser, Bonnie. 2012. Trouble in the South China Sea. Foreign Policy Website (,0). Copy available from author.
Hubpages. 2012. Hydro Projects in Tibet: Thirsty Dragon, Restless Neighbours. Hubpages (Hydro Projects in Tibet: Thirsty Dragon, Restless Neighbours). Copy available from author.
Lee, John. 2010. China’s Water Grab. Foreign Policy Website ( Copy available from author.
Richardson, Michael. 2009. River of discord. The Third Pole website ( Copy available from author.
Wyroll, Paul. 2011. The Xayaburi dam: challenges of transboundary water governance on the Mekong River. Global Water Forum ( Copy available from author.

The danger the Syrian Civil War poses to the stability of Lebanon

The Civil War in Syria presents a direct threat to the stability of Lebanon and could sow the seeds of an ethnic conflict in the nation. Since May 2012 there have been sporadic clashes between pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian factions in Lebanon, these factions have often also been split along sectarian lines (Hokaryem, 2012). There are numerous potential events that could push Lebanon into a sectarian conflict reminiscent of the 1975-1990 Civil War.

The problem the Syrian Civil War presents to Lebanon is that the main political fault line in Lebanon’s parliament, support and opposition to the Syrian Assad regime (and its influence in Lebanese politics), is being fought out militarily just beyond the nation’s border.

To fully appreciate how the conflict in Syria could tear apart Lebanon, it is necessary to understand Syria’s influence in Lebanon over the past three decades. Syria has been directly involved in Lebanese politics since invading the country in 1976 during the Lebanese Civil War. By the mid-2000s many in Lebanon saw the Syrian influence in Lebanon as oppressive. When the UNSC 1559 Resolution – which argued for the removal of all foreign armies, free elections and the disarmament of all militias – was adopted in Lebanon, Syria extended the pro-Syrian president’s term by three years in an attempt to retain hegemony (Knio, 2006: 229). The full extent of Lebanese anger at Syrian interference was revealed during the Cedar Revolution in the aftermath of the assassination of Sunni anti-Syrian politician Rafiq Hariri in 2005 (ibid: 225).The revolution succeeded in removing Syrian troops from Lebanon but split the Lebanese government into pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian blocs, named the March 8 Alliance and March 14 Alliance respectively.

Before the Syrian Civil War numerous anti-Syrian politicians and journalists, most notably Rafiq Hariri, were assassinated, possibly by the Syrian authorities (Sturcke, 2007). As a result the war has presented the anti-Syrian population of Lebanon with the opportunity to rid Lebanon of their oppressor and even the chance to settle scores with pro-Syrian rivals at home (Hokayem, 2012). For pro-Syrian candidates and Syrian supported groups such as Hezbollah, the possible collapse of the Assad regime would deprive them of their patron and sponsor.

This summers’ violence is not the first time since the Lebanese Civil War, or indeed in the past five years, that Lebanon has had to deal with armed conflict within its borders. There have been many such instances but, so far, Lebanon has managed to avoid descending into civil war.

In 2006 Hezbollah fought a war with Israel after kidnapping two Israeli soldiers. In 2007 the government fought a war with the predominantly foreign Islamist group, Fateh al-Islam, in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp (Ramadan, 2009). In both of those cases the conflict was between the state and a partly or entirely foreign entity, thus reducing the chances of a civil conflict developing.

In 2008, however, a situation with marked similarities to the current conflict emerged. On 6 May 2008 the government, dominated by the anti-Syrian March 14 Alliance, attempted to shut down Hezbollah’s telecommunications network as a violation of Lebanese sovereignty, a move that Hezbollah interpreted as an act of war (Fregonese, 2012). Hezbollah occupied neighborhoods while their Alawite supporters, in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, clashed with local Sunni’s who were largely supportive of the March 14 Alliance (ibid).

Numerous factors helped prevent the development of a Hezbollah-led anti-Government insurgency and a Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict in Tripoli. Firstly, leading politicians in the March 14 Alliance, such as Hariri and Jumblatt, forbade their supporters from engaging Hezbollah militarily (Shehadi, 2008). Hezbollah, since the Taif Agreement, has been the only political party with a militia (CNN, 2011). In prohibiting March 14 parties from militarizing, political leaders prevented political disagreement from being directly translated onto the battlefield. This was a dynamic that characterized the Lebanese Civil War. Furthermore, Hariri made a concerted effort to make cross-sectarian appeals in Tripoli, assuring the Alawite community, which traditionally votes against his bloc, “We are both Lebanese” (Ya Liban, 2008).

An even more significant factor in deescalating the 2008 conflict was the intervention of the army (Fregonese, 2012; Shehadi, 2008). By 2008, the army had acquired the reputation as Lebanon’s least sectarian and least politicized security force (Hokayem, 2012). The army was able to halt the Government’s attempt to break Hezbollah’s telecommunications network and, as a result, Hezbollah handed over to the army neighborhoods it had gained by force (Fregonese, 2012). Because the army was perceived as neutral and independent of Government, such an action was not interpreted as a defeat by Hezbollah or a victory by the March 14 Alliance. The army’s non-sectarian image allowed it to act as an impartial protector of both the Sunnis and the Alawites in Tripoli (Ya Liban, 2008).

Unfortunately the reputation of the army is very different today. The army’s non-sectarian image has been heavily shaken by the shooting of prominent Sunni cleric and Assad critic Abdul-Wahed at an army checkpoint (Dakroub, 2012). Hariri, now in opposition, argued “We do not blame the Lebanese Army as a whole for the killing … but it is clear that there are some infiltrators involved in this killing who want to use the [military] establishment and its symbol to import the Syrian regime’s crisis … to Lebanon in a desperate attempt to save it from its inevitable doom” (ibid).

The incident led to the army being recalled from Tripoli where it was acting as a peacekeeping force between warring Sunni and Alawite residents. Prime Minister Mikati has tried to relegitimize the army by launching an internal investigation into the shooting which led to arrests (ibid).  This attempt was undermined however when Rifaat Eid, an Alawite and staunch supporter of Assad, called for the army to be redeployed to Tripoli (Dakroub, 2012). This has given further credence to the perception that the army may no longer be an impartial protector but a vehicle for promoting the pro-Syrian agenda.

Other parts of the Lebanese security apparatus are also perceived as politicized. The Lebanese General Security Directorate (GSD), which arrested Sunni anti-Assad activist Mawlawi, has been accused of being an arm of Hezbollah (Hokayem, 2012). Other arms of the Lebanese security services have assisted in the rendition of dissidents to Syria, enraging the country’s anti-Assad community (ibid).

There is therefore a danger of the situation developing where there is no body that can play the army’s traditional role of legitimate peacekeeper,  no neutral body through which opposing political and sectarian factions can mediate. A lack of army and state security legitimacy in turn legitimizes the formation of extra-state militias and rebellion to offer protection. This process has been witnessed in other conflicts. In Croatia, President Tudjman’s purging of Serbs in the police and his party’s implication in orchestrating rocket attacks on Serb-dominated Borovo Selo, helped legitimize the formation of local Serb militias (Sibler and Little, 1995: 148-155). In Northern Ireland, the Royal Ulster Constabulary was accused of taking part in attacks on Catholic civil rights marches and accepting the assistance of Protestant mobs during the Battle of Bogside (White, 1989: 1283-1294). As a result many Catholic communities saw the RUC as incapable of providing impartial protection and sought security in Republican militias.

The Lebanese Army has had its legitimacy shaken before.  In 1969 the army used Maronite militias to break the power of Palestinian guerrillas in the camps surrounding Beirut (Hudson, 1978: 265) leading to the army being perceived as a tool of the Maronite political agenda. As a result the army was unable to keep the peace during the demonstrations in Sidon against the, mostly Maronite, corporate domination of the local fishing industry (El Khazen, 2000: 275). The army was suspected by the Sidon protesters to be responsible for the shooting of the local leftist Sunni politician, Maroof Saad, and became the target of Sunni resentment and bullets (ibid). This challenge to the legitimacy of the army prevented it from becoming an effective peacekeeping force during the Lebanese Civil War. Could the same thing happen again today?

Mikati has taken the right step by investigating the shooting of Abdul-Wahed, but there are a limited number of times such mistakes can occur before the Sunni community in Tripoli begins to see the army as a security risk rather than a security provider. The army re-entered Tripoli after a new wave of Sunni-Alawite violence in late August. Unfortunately another Sunni cleric has been shot and, should the army once again emerge as the culprit, it may be unable to regain the trust of Tripoli’s Sunni community and act as a peacekeeper in the city (BBC, 2012). Local Sunni gangs have vocalised their distrust of the government as a Syrian Quisling state and have said that violence will continue while remains a slave to Syrian interests (Prothero, 2012).

Another factor that increases the chance of full scale ethnic conflict is that groups such as Lebanese Alawites and Sunni Syrian refugees act as an ethnically defined totem of a particular political identity, pro-Assad and anti-Assad respectively. During the Civil War the Palestinians were “living proof of the organic link between Lebanon and the Arab world” (Odeh, 1985: 108). This ethnically embodied political identity may explain why pro-West, right-wing Christian militias repeatedly targeted Palestinian civilians. Similarly the majority of skirmishes in Tripoli seem to be between local Sunnis and Alawites. These attacks could quickly escalate into a purely sectarian conflict where the primary motivation is not political disagreement but the desire to exact communal revenge upon an entire sect.

Perhaps the most dangerous threat to the stability of Lebanon is a large scale and violent incursion by mainly Sunni the Free Syrian Army (FSA) into Lebanese territory. This would cause four problems. Firstly, an attack by a group that is openly anti-Assad and possesses the resources to carry out a large scale atrocity against his Lebanese supporters, would help instill further fear into the Lebanese Alawite minority and may provoke them into attacking Syrian refugees, especially Sunnis, on suspicion of FSA membership.

Secondly, an FSA presence would challenge Hezbollah as the only large scale militia active in Lebanon, a challenge Hezbollah is unlikely to accept. The sectarian schism between much of the FSA and Hezbollah, the former is mainly Sunni and the latter is Shiite, means that an ideological conflict between the two organizations could easily be sectarianized.

Thirdly, the presence of the FSA in Lebanon could provoke the Syrian army to attack Lebanese soil. This could force the Lebanese army to remove FSA guerillas from Lebanon and further politicize the army as an enforcer for the pro-Syrian agenda. Anti-Assad Lebanese civilians who suffer from Syrian army attacks may be further radicalized against the current Lebanese government, which is perceived as pro-Syrian. Syrian troops could even use FSA activity in Lebanon as a pretext for reinvading and occupying part of the country. This would increase anger among the anti-Syrian population, deepen political cleavages in government and may embolden pro-Assad sects in Tripoli to up their attacks and settle scores.

Similar dynamics happened just before the Lebanese Civil War when Palestinian attacks on Israel from their camps in South Lebanon invited Israeli retaliation onto Lebanese soil. Attempts by the government and army to limit the power of the Palestinians were met with hostility from the pro-Palestinian elements of Lebanese society and sparked riots (Hudson, 1987: 263). On the other hand anti-Palestinian militias used the Israeli retaliations as a pretext for attacking Palestinian camps and their Lebanese supporters (Odeh, 1985: 119).

Lastly, Syria may decide to use local proxies, such as the Lebanese Alawites and Hezbollah, to attack the FSA and Syrian Sunni refugees suspected of opposition membership. Hezbollah is already providing fighters for the Assad regime and is militarily engaging the FSA in Syria (Wright and Hider, 2012). If Hezbollah decides on military action in Lebanon, anti-Assad parties may decide that it is insecure to have Hezbollah as the sole armed party in Lebanon and start to militarize.

So far there have been two minor FSA incursions into Lebanese territory where they apparently attacked an army post and clashed with the Lebanese Army, luckily there have been no casualties (The Daily Star, 2012). However an unspecified number of FSA commandos were captured and were detained (ibid). Local notables sympathetic to the FSA pressured the government for the commando’s release (ibid). President Sleiman praised the army and parties from both blocs have argued that the border should be patrolled to stop the smuggling of arms and gunmen (ibid). However the presence of Hezbollah snipers in Syria combined with the army’s detention of FSA gunmen means that the Government’s attempt to secure the border appears one-sided and partisan.  The army, in an effort to maintain its neutral status, claimed that it would prevent any violation of Lebanese sovereignty, regardless of the offending party (ibid). This raises questions of whether the army would fight attempts by the Syrian Army to encroach on Lebanese territory. If such an eventuality occurred the big question is whether Hezbollah would assist the Lebanese Army in expelling Assad’s troops or help the Syrian Army in occupying parts of Lebanon. If Hezbollah assisted the latter Lebanon could be plunged into a civil conflict between Hezbollah and the Lebanese armed forces.

For the moment, the conflict in the Lebanon is still low level and not yet fully sectarianized. There are many current factors acting against the escalation and complete sectarianizedation of the conflict. There have been intra-sectarian political conflicts in several parts of the country revolving around support for the Assad regime but these clashes have not garnered the same media attention as the Sunni-Alawite skirmishes in Tripoli (Fisk, 2012). This indicates that the conflict in some areas of Lebanon is still primarily a political matter and has not yet been fully sectarianized. Additionally, the fact that the majority of the parties in the two political blocs have not got militias has prevented the militarisation of political discourse that was witnessed during the Lebanese Civil War.

The government has sought to retain integrity and impartiality through public actions such as investigating the death of Abdul-Wahed and arresting former information minister Michel Samaha, a close ally of Assad, for conspiring to carry out a series of bombings (Anderson, 2012; Dakroub, 2012). Lastly, the army is still attempting to act as a peacekeeping force rather than disintegrating along sectarian and political lines as seen during the Civil War (Odeh, 1985: 153-161).

Nevertheless, there are a few potential developments that could throw Lebanon into a full scale sectarian conflict: a wide scale perception that the army is no longer the neutral, which has saved Lebanon in the past; an escalation in sectarian attacks, especially upon Alawites or Syrian refugees; an influx of FSA and Syrian resistance personnel onto Lebanese soil. Unfortunately all these development are now not only looking possible but probable: the Army has been criticised as partisan, attacks in Tripoli continue and the FSA has started to breach the Syrian-Lebanese border.


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