Hostis Humani Generis – enemy of all mankind?


In this podcast Dr Sonja Schillings explores how the use of the Latin term Hostis Humani Generis (the enemy of all mankind), which was originally applied to pirates, now creates an extralegal space which is being used to legitimise the assassination of international terrorists all over the world.

This is just part of her forthcoming book, Hostis Humani Generis and the Narrative Construction of Legitimate Violence.

Podcast presented and produced by Tatiana Prorokova.

Tatiana Prorokova: Hello and welcome to Pod Academy. My name is Tatiana Prorokova and I am glad to have here Dr. Sonja Schillings to discuss her forthcoming book based on her dissertation titled Hostis Humani Generis and the Narrative Construction of Legitimate Violence.

Before we proceed, however, I’d like to say a couple of words about Dr. Schillings’ academic career. She wrote her dissertation at the graduate school of North-American Studies at Freie-Universität Berlin in Germany, where she also held a position of a substitute junior professor for North-American Literature in summer semester 2014. And since October 2014, she is a post-doctoral researcher at the International Graduate Center for the Study of Culture at Giessen University in Germany.

So, Sonja, in your dissertation, your main concern is the relationship between two criminal groups – pirates and terrorists. You argue that both have one thing in common and that is they can be characterized as Hostis Humani Generis.

Could you elaborate on that and maybe explain your choice of these particular groups?

Sonja Schillings My basic concern is about Hostis Humani Generis.  It is a legal term of arts,  a Latin term, which means “enemy of all human kind”,. It is, quite generally, a legal fiction that is assigned to perpetrators who are considered not just enemies but enemies of the law, of the normative order.  They are enemies so hostile and so extreme that you can  commit legitimate violence against them, just because you commit it against them. And it’s a term that was traditionally,  in legal history, equivalent or synonymous with the crime of piracy. And “the enemy of all” means that everybody, without distinction, is being attacked by them. This is why violence against them is said to be representative of the entire human race.  Or rather it’s claimed to be. The claims I look at are only ever in text. So much for that.

So, pirates and terrorists. As I’ve been saying, Hostis Humani Generis was originally designated to describe pirates only, until the early nineteenth century when Hostis Humani Generis and the crime of piracy separated and Hostis Humani Generis was also used to describe slave traders – international slave traders. And then later, in the twentieth century, it was also used about perpetrators of crimes against humanity – the torturer is the most established example here.

And now, what we see since the 1980s, is the political initiative to describe international terrorists as pirates. It is this link that originally spurred my interest in the topic of Hostis Humani Generis because other than the fiction itself, other than , the legal description of Hostis Humani Generis, and other than the characterization of what they do to society (i.e. the orders they attack), pirates and terrorists have very little in common.  Even so, they were constantly combined or associated with each other, despite the grave reservations of the entire maritime securities community. This is what the “pirate-terrorist nexus” refers to.

T.P: So, you provide a brief historical overview of this “pirates-terrorists nexus”. But can you actually spot any difference between pirates and terrorists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? Was there any shift after 2000/2001?

S.S.: Well, yes and no. There was certainly a shift of it being more do-able – first of all that. And, second of all, you suddenly had Somali pirates, which is why maritime security became seen as piracy –  maritime, classic, violent piracy( rather than copyright piracy or any other more metaphorical usage) became part of political conversations and of security considerations again.

In that sense, there is a difference, but I’ll come back to that.

First, perhaps, let me explain the term I used before – “pirate-terrorist nexus” – because that comes precisely from this more recent twenty-first-century debate, in which international terrorists were this figure of evil, especially in U.S/American discourse, and “the enemy of all human kind”, out to attack us. And then you have the Somali pirates; and within those Somali piracy debates you could constantly see people arguing that pirates are like terrorists, that terrorists and pirates  fund each other, support each other, and create kingdoms of non-state evil……

This view has not been without challenge.  Indeed it was challenged head-on in 2005.  There had been yet another article written by someone from the perspective of insurance companies or some oil interest( I think it had something to do with oil but I don’t recall… but anyway) t- it was a pretty conventionalized argument about how the pirates of Somalia were like terrorists. And then a maritime security expert called Charles Dragonette, really really really laid into them.  He wrote a letter to the editor of Foreign Affairs, infuriated: “Well, all those people, they completely ignore everything that research tells us. The entire maritime securities community is absolutely 100% certain that contemporary maritime piracy and contemporary networks of international terrorism have nothing whatsoever to do with each other and this ‘pirate-terrorist nexus’ that they imagine is constantly showing up and it’s really really getting on my nerves.” This is essentially what he wrote in this comparatively short piece but after that this “pirate-terrorist nexus” became a phrase because it really refers only to a discursive link between pirates and terrorists that does not necessarily have anything to do with a link of the phenomena that you want to describe by these terms. And so this “pirate-terrorist nexus”, as Dragonette calls it, that actually has been tested by U.S. Administrations ever since the 1980s. And so the discourse itself is not necessarily that new but it is more exercisable at the moment. The thing was that in the ’80s, the Reagan Administration confronted a situation. The international community did. And that situation was the Achille Lauro incident. This was the incident where Palestinian… yeah, well, since we are talking about pirates and terrorists, you don’t know what to call them. So, in any case, they hijacked a ship – a cruise ship – and wanted to free a number of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli camps and for some reason a Nazi from a French prison and in exchange they would set the hostages free; and in the course of that very dramatic but, in comparison, I think one person died, comparatively bloodless hijacking situation, they crossed territorial waters, the high seas various national territories and so on and so forth; air space. So, basically, the problem was that this incident showed the international community, which was generally in agreement that these were terrorists; showed them, however, that the crime of piracy, as it was understood before the twentieth century (perhaps we would want to get back to that)… so the early modern understanding of pirates and the then contemporary understanding of terrorists may have something to do with each other and may be comparatively close or closer than one would have thought. And actually the Reagan Administration was the only Administration that surprised everybody. They’d said no, these are not terrorists, they are pirates. And the reason for that – of course, they changed their tune after they got a lot of resistance against that – but the reason though, the logic, was that they wanted to be able to use Hostis Humani Generis for terrorists because previously terrorism was something that was conventionally understood as an attack from within a specific nation state – of course you would always have these international connections but really generally it was an attack against a state within state territory.

T.P.: Since you’ve mentioned this term – Hostis Humani Generis, “the enemy of all human kind” – is there a particular image that you actually adhere to or is it a rather broad term that includes specific categories of the enemy? Could you maybe elaborate a bit on this? Because you use these terms of Hostis Humani Generis, legitimate violence…

S.S.:  Hostis Humani Generis has often been used when it was studied in its own right, which hasn’t happened a lot so far. But it has always been studied as a figure, as an image – “the enemy of all human kind” has certain properties that are constant over time, etc. But, of course, the wide varieties of perpetrators that I actually characterized as “enemies of all human kind” speak against that. Because, for instance, if you compare a classic maritime pirate and a torturer – both of them have been characterized as “enemies of all human kind” .  But if you look at the perpetrators who have been charged and the context –  how they interact within statehood, for example, or towards statehood in general – they are extremely different. So I have come to view it not as a figure, but rather as a constellation.  This is in contrast to those positions that are, for instance, represented by the seminal study of Daniel Heller-Roazen, “The Enemy of All”.   I see Hostis Humani Generis not as the characterization of a figure but as a constellation in its own right  – a relationship between certain figures – and this relationship has to have certain specific properties.  What that relationship specifically looks like, I trace in my book. But with regard to the “pirate-terrorist nexus”, this is an interesting overlap; this is why I think the “pirate-terrorist nexus” is not really a relationship between two perpetrator figures that is defining for Hostis Humani Generis but it’s interesting because there we have an overlap between an older figure of the pirate and a more recent figure that is just still in the process of being established as a figure, namely the international terrorist. And the link – the legal link – between them has been made via Hostis Humani Generis.

What the “pirate-terrorist nexus” does culturally speaking, is to reinforce the parallels and make them defining. This is not about the pirate then. This is in order to be able to have an image of the terrorist as an international terrorist and also as a figure against whom legitimate violence can basically always be committed. Because one of the most important legal implications of Hostis Humani Generis is the notion of universal jurisdiction, which means that a state can intervene against an enemy of all human kind, basically outside of its conventional boundaries that is in different territory by different means and what comes to mind here, of course, is the assassination of Somali pirates in the Maersk Alabama hijacking case [the incident on which the 2013 film Captain Phillips was based] followed comparatively closely by the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Both of them by U.S. military outside of U.S. territory and both of them – both of these cases – being against international law.   But because the terrorist and the pirate were associated with each other and as “enemies of all human kind”, the United States receive comparatively little resistance against these assassinations. And that is due to the very very successful usage of this fiction and of its cultural interpretation.

T.P.: That’s what I wanted to ask you, concerning the culture or cultural aspects of this Hostis Humani Generis… Because you focused quite a lot on the time period of the Reagan presidency and the 1980s and how the discourse was formulated, or maybe reshaped at those times. Would you say that this pirate-terrorist nexus has changed culturally by now? After all, it’s been like 35 years. Has the culture of this phenomenon changed?

S.S.: Well, the fiction itself – and in my book I trace the history of the fiction back until antiquity – was subject to two major interpretive shifts, namely at the beginning of modernity and then in the early/mid twentieth century, when it began to be used in the context of human rights law. And now we see a third shift in the United States until the present day, this is basically a backlash to the early modern usage of the fiction, and this is what I trace in the book. However, there is one difference between the 1980s and today and that is of course that in the 1980s you still had the Cold War.

There is a very interesting, somewhat disturbing but very interesting publication that Benjamin Netanyahu edited, “Terrorism: How the West Can Win”, and that publication is essentially an attempt to lobby for the usage of Hostis Humani Generis in the case of terrorists. And in this publication you see very clearly the restrictions that the Cold War places on this discourse at that time because you still have the Soviet Union as the main enemy from which the terrorist is derived as some kind of loose cannon sideshow. But today that has changed and the context within which terrorists or international terrorists as Hostis Humani Generis, are viewed is no longer the Soviet Union but it’s Islam. It’s an extremely racist and essentializing notion of Islam that is now taking the place of the Soviet Union as the ultimate enemy, which the terrorist is then deemed to represent.

T.P.: Would you say that this particular point of view is promoted by the United States or is it a worldwide accepted position?

S.S.: Well, it depends a little bit on which cultures, which legal cultures also, are actually using Hostis Humani Generis in that way. For instance, you would have difficulty, I think, finding many African states that are particularly keen on it. It’s more a Western notion because it facilitates intervention. And this is a point that has constantly been made throughout the small body of research that has so far been done on the fiction. Something that people are very clear about is that this is an enabling constellation, it’s an enabling framework that is not used to describe the phenomenon but to create discursive conditions for legitimate violence or violence that can then be sold as legitimate, represented as legitimate.

That is the point. It’s not to describe a phenomenon in the best way and this is the entire thing that the “pirate-terrorist nexus” charge also referred to in a nutshell because what Dragonette did was really to call attention to this huge discrepancy of the phenomenon or the phenomena that you could look at in the real world and the way it was characterized in order to make intervention against these phenomena legitimate. And that essentially is that.

T.P.: Sonja, could you maybe draw a brief conclusion that you come up with in your book?

S.S.: A brief conclusion… In my book… we have only talked about a very tiny part of it both temporarily and methodologically so perhaps it might be… The conclusion of the book is really to draw attention to this Hostis Humani Generis fiction as a kind of cultural blueprint to create texts within which a sustainable claim to legitimate violence can be made.

Hostis Humani Generis creates conditions that have to be met in order to make such a claim persuasive, at least in cultures that have that cultural background, such as the United States or Great Britain or, in some ways, Israel.

But perhaps the conclusion for this conversation would come back to the “pirate-terrorist nexus” discrepancy,  to emphasise once more that both “pirate” and “terrorist” are not descriptive labels. It’s never a good idea to use these terms in order to describe anything. Many piracy scholars today speak of maritime violence rather than of piracy – starting with Patricia Risso who was the first to use this phrase, to my knowledge,  because ‘piracy’ is such a biased term, and is enabling rather than descriptive. And it’s the same thing with terrorism. And it’s just interesting to see not only that it is enabling but also how exactly it is enabling, what the conditions are. And that is something that I unpack very extensively in my forthcoming book.

T.P: Thank you very much for your talk.

S.S.: Thank you for the conversation.


Picture:  Royal Marines Conducting Boarding Training with Pistols.  Pictured are Royal Marines from Fleet Protection Group (Scotland) (FPGRM)conducting boarding training on HMS Monmouth, to aid the Type 23 frigate during Counter Piracy Operations.  Photographer: LA(Phot) Stuart Hill

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