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Siege as Torture: The collectivization of punishment in contemporary geopolitics

Authors: Ron Smith*, Bucknell University
Topics: Middle East, Human Rights, Medical and Health Geography
Keywords: Ethnonationalism, Middle East, Siege, Palestine, Iraq, Sanctions, Gaza
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Torture, while popularized in popular culture as a means of extracting information, is of little use in the collection of accurate information. Torture’s widespread use, according to Rejali, is the control of populations: it’s not the tortured individual who is expected to relent, it is society as a whole, given the collective fear that an arbitrary torture regime produces in restive populations. While torture is ever-present in the age of counter-insurgency doctrine, powerful political actors have turned to what they consider to be a humanitarian means of imposing pressure on populations: the Siege. This paper considers the ways in which siege represents a kind of collective torture: imposed on populations as a whole and usually without explicit conditions for its removal. In Iraq, siege has been called “a war on the people,” only lifted in 2010, long after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Siege is part and parcel of the invasion and war on the people of Yemen, and is used by multiple sides in the Syrian Civil War, while sanctions regimes in general are imposed on populations from Iran to Venezeula. Considering the varied geographies of siege practice, this paper presents a theory of siege by examining its obsessive concern with public health and the ethics of using civilians and targets of war policy. Using ethnographic data as well as theoretical intervention, this paper considers the parallels between siege and torture, and the use of both practices in contemporary war.

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