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Evil in International Politics


“Evil” is an idea that once again has become common currency in international politics. Following the Rwandan genocide and other cases of mass atrocities in the 1990s, then the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2011, “evil” has increasingly been employed to describe and comprehend such horrendous acts. The term is perhaps most closely associated with George W. Bush and the ‘War on Terror’, but its use is more widespread than a sole focus on Bush and the United States might suggest.

Notably, despite its polarising nature, the term “evil” has made its way into UN discourse, being used in reference to genocide, nuclear weapons, racism, rape, drugs and a range of international crimes. The upsurge in the use of this term has potentially serious ramifications, however, given its tendency to promote a dichotomous, absolute worldview. Labelling something or someone as “evil” goes well beyond the usual language of diplomacy. It is the strongest form of condemnation and one that mediates against debate or compromise, and in some cases, may foster the likelihood of violence.

In this context, the project seeks to explore the role of evil contemporary international politics: how it is understood and used, and the consequences that flow from the way it is employed. Does the increasing use of the term reflect a greater amount of evil in the contemporary world? Or that this idea is being used with more frequency to describe actions, label actors, and legitimate behaviour? If it is the latter, what are the consequences of “evil” becoming more commonplace in the language of international politics?

In considering these issues, the project aims to move beyond philosophical accounts on the nature of evil, and also consider how it operates in contemporary international politics: how actors, actions and institutions can be labelled as “evil” and what the significance of doing so can be.

News & Events

11-12 May, 2012

Project Workshop: Evil in International Politics

UNU-ISP in conjunction with the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt will be holding a research workshop on this topic in Frankfurt on 11-12 May 2012.