The Blog

The Price of Human Life After the MH17 Tragedy in Ukraine

I do not want to sound cynical in suggesting that human life has a price. It is priceless as far as I am concerned. But this is a world that is not of my making. It operates according to rules that are sometimes quite absurd, and whether we agree or not, there is a societal consensus that human life, too, has a price.

On the evening of 17 July I met up with an old friend and former colleague. We were enjoying the pleasant weather and anticipation of the weekend, dining on an open terrace in central London, chatting somewhat naively about this and that, including the crisis in Ukraine and how to address it. Oblivious to the breaking news, we had absolutely no idea that the context we were discussing had fundamentally changed.

The unthinkable tragedy of flight MH17, which claimed the lives of 298 people who bore no relation to the conflict at all, not only turned the world upside down for the families and friends of the victims, but also changed everything about the conflict itself - its internal and external dynamics.

In conflict theory, there is the concept of the 'cost of conflict'. When trying to determine that cost, it is necessary to begin with a retrospective analysis that includes many factors - political, economic and others - and proceed to make hypothetical, as well as realistic, forecasts of the future. As a peacebuilding organisation, we typically use this approach to narrow the gap in the parties' understanding of the conflict, to become aware of missed opportunities for the communities and to instil the idea of a win-win scenario of peace, in order to influence the process of conflict transformation.

This approach allows for a good deal of freedom and creativity, and I like it, because one can also include the human factor, the factor of the so-called 'little man' of the 19th century classical realism school of Russian literature, i.e. the 'little man' as bearer of public sentiment, trends, fears, frustrations, with his hopes and perceptions of life's security - all of which is often lost in statistical research and academic analyses of conflicts.

I do not want to sound cynical in suggesting that human life has a price. It is priceless as far as I am concerned. But this is a world that is not of my making. It operates according to rules that are sometimes quite absurd, and whether we agree or not, there is a societal consensus that human life, too, has a price. The public perception varies across different cultures, varying according to different factors, e.g. race, gender, age, place of birth, social status, special talents, appearance, and so on. Economic conditions, the socio-political system, stability - or lack thereof - also play a significant role in putting a price on human life.

Societies locked in military conflicts experience a sharp devaluation in the price of life. It starts with the escalation of the conflict claiming its first victims. The shock of the first deaths prompts a frenzy of social mobilisation on all sides of the conflict divide, motivated to restore justice, as they see it, after which follows a rather speedy adjustment to violent deaths that can even be interpreted as the price for justice to prevail. The realisation that anyone might die is increasingly perceived as routine and at some point becomes the norm. In this case, even the usual hierarchy of characteristics that define the price of life in peacetime, such as wealth/poverty, race, gender and so on, is no longer relevant.

It is an interesting fact that the devaluation in the price of life during violent conflict is increasingly taken for granted not only by the parties to the conflict, but also by the outside world. For the typical human psyche, this means that when snipers are shooting at unarmed demonstrators, when they are killing women and children, burning people alive in buildings, we feel sad, but a defence mechanism is triggered, and somehow we assign these people a lower cost of life and our intervention is also diminished.

The absurd injustice that underlies the escalation of armed conflicts destroys the established rules of peacetime and quickly exchanges them for others, heading for chaos and violent death. The devaluation of life within the zone of conflict begins to work on the rest of us, drawing in people from outside the conflict into its vortex. There are many reasons why this happens. For instance, a person finds it difficult to accept the sharp fall in the value of his or her life, especially when yesterday it was still valuable.

Devaluing the lives of others, therefore, blurs that line of difference between 'me' and 'them', destroying the appreciation of how devalued one's own life has become. The killing of people from outside the conflict creates the effect of breaking out from the closed confines of the conflict, to be heard, noticed and acknowledged. Drawing people into the zone where life is cheap or of no value at all subconsciously becomes a way of extending the jurisdiction of the new rules of life and death - you can be killed just as easily as us, and you will lose your status as a passive observer of 'us', and adopt a new, more active status, and become part of our thinking and our worldview.

Following this logic, the lives of the people who died in the crash in Ukraine had a very high price. Judging by the reaction of all sides it is obvious that no one could have imagined that this conflict would claim such a high price.

Once a conflict enters the stage of open armed confrontation, a Pandora's box is opened. It is just too difficult to control or channel into a particular direction, and you can't expect to stop it like hailing a taxi in the street. We should not flatter Putin by endowing him with divine qualities, demanding that he put pressure on the militants and quickly restore peace to Ukraine.

This tragedy should open our eyes to the multitude of missed opportunities, false political calculations and mistakes made by all - both internally and externally.

None of us has done our utmost to prevent this conflict. In fact, the opposite is true. Let us, therefore, deal with the issue of stopping this bloodshed in a more competent way. Let us think of resolving the conflict, while realising basic things such as that the conflict will not go away on somebody's orders, even if these orders are issued by the mighty and powerful; the conflict cannot be resolved if the interests and needs of all parties to the conflict are not taken into account equally.

Moreover, it is hopeless to work on the conflict unless all those who are involved are actively engaged in its transformation.