The events in Syria, after those in Libya last year, are accompanied by calls for a military intervention, in order to “protect civilians”, claiming that it is our right or our duty to do so. And, just as last year, some of the loudest voices in favor of intervention are heard on the left or among the Greens, who have totally swallowed the concept of “humanitarian intervention”.
In fact, the rare voices staunchly opposed to such interventions are often associated with the right, either Ron Paul in the US or the National Front in France. The policy the left should support is non-intervention.
The main target of the humanitarian interventionists is the concept of national sovereignty, on which the current international law is based, and which they stigmatize as allowing dictators to kill their own people at will. The impression is sometimes given that national sovereignty is nothing but a protection for dictators whose only desire is to kill their own people.
But in fact, the primary justification of national sovereignty is precisely to provide at least a partial protection of weak states against strong ones. A state that is strong enough can do whatever it chooses without worrying about intervention from outside. Nobody expects Bangladesh to interfere in the internal affairs of the United States. Nobody is going to bomb the United States to force it to modify its immigration or monetary policies because of the human consequences of such policies on other countries. Humanitarian intervention goes only one way, from the powerful to the weak.
The very starting point of the United Nations was to save humankind from “the scourge of war”, with reference to the two World Wars. This was to be done precisely by strict respect for national sovereignty, in order to prevent Great Powers from intervening militarily against weaker ones, regardless of the pretext. The protection of national sovereignty in international law was based on recognition of the fact that internal conflicts in weak countries can be exploited by strong ones, as was shown by Germany’s interventions in Czechoslovakia and Poland, ostensibly “in defense of oppressed minorities”. That led to World War II.
Then came decolonization. Following World War II, dozens of newly independent countries freed themselves from the colonial yoke. The last thing they wanted was to see former colonial powers openly interfering in their internal affairs (even though such interference has often persisted in more or less veiled forms, notably in African countries). This aversion to foreign interference explains why the “right” of humanitarian intervention has been universally rejected by the countries of the South, for example at the South Summit in Havana in April 2000. Meeting in Kuala Lumpur in February 2003, shortly before the US attack on Iraq, “The Heads of State or Government reiterated the rejection by the Non-Aligned Movement of the so-called ‘right’ of humanitarian intervention, which has no basis either in United Nations Charter or in international law” and “also observed similarities between the new expression ‘responsibility to protect’ and ‘humanitarian intervention’ and requested the Co-ordinating Bureau to carefully study and consider the expression ‘the responsibility to protect’ and its implications on the basis of the principles of non-interference and non-intervention as well as the respect for territorial integrity and national sovereignty of States.”
The main failure of the United Nations has not been that it did not stop dictators from murdering their own people, but that it failed to prevent powerful countries from violating the principles of international law: the United States in Indochina and Iraq, South Africa in Angola and Mozambique, Israel in its neighboring countries, Indonesia in East Timor, not to speak of all the coups, threats, embargoes, unilateral sanctions, bought elections, etc. Many millions of people lost their lives because of such repeated violation of international law and of the principle of national sovereignty.
In a post-World War II history that includes the Indochina wars, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, of Panama, even of tiny Grenada, as well as the bombing of Yugoslavia, Libya and various other countries, it is scarcely credible to maintain that it is international law and respect for national sovereignty that prevent the United States from stopping genocide. If the US had had the means and the desire to intervene in Rwanda, it would have done so and no international law would have prevented that. And if a “new norm” is introduced, such as the right of humanitarian intervention or the responsibility to protect, within the context of the current relationship of political and military forces, it will not save anyone anywhere, unless the United States sees fit to intervene, from its own perspective.
US interference in the internal affairs of other states is multi-faceted but constant and repeatedly violates the spirit and often the letter of the UN Charter. Despite claims to act on behalf of principles such as freedom and democracy, US intervention has repeatedly had disastrous consequences: not only the millions of deaths caused by direct and indirect wars, but also the lost opportunities, the “killing of hope” for hundreds of millions of people who might have benefited from progressive social policies initiated by leaders such as Arbenz in Guatemala, Goulart in Brazil, Allende in Chile, Lumumba in the Congo, Mossadegh in Iran, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, or President Chavez in Venezuela, who have been systematically subverted, overthrown or killed with full Western support.
But that is not all. Every aggressive action led by the United States creates a reaction. Deployment of an anti-missile shield produces more missiles, not less. Bombing civilians – whether deliberately or by so-called “collateral damage” – produces more armed resistance, not less. Trying to overthrow or subvert governments produces more internal repression, not less. Encouraging secessionist minorities by giving them the often false impression that the sole Superpower will come to their rescue in case they are repressed, leads to more violence, hatred and death, not less. Surrounding a country with military bases produces more defense spending by that country, not less, and the possession of nuclear weapons by Israel encourages other states of the Middle East to acquire such weapons. If the West hesitates to attack Syria or Iran, it is because these countries are stronger and have more reliable allies than Yugoslavia or Libya. If the West complains about the recent Russian and Chinese vetoes about Syria, it has only to blame itself: indeed, this is the result of the blatant abuse by Nato of Resolution 1973, in order to effect regime change in Libya, which the resolution did not authorize. So, the message sent by our interventionist policy to “dictators” is: be better armed, make less concessions and build better alliances.
Moreover, the humanitarian disasters in Eastern Congo, which are probably the largest in recent decades, are mainly due to foreign interventions (mostly from Rwanda, a US ally), not to a lack of them. To take a most extreme case, which is a favorite example of horrors cited by advocates of the humanitarian interventions, it is most unlikely that the Khmer Rouge would ever have taken power in Cambodia without the massive “secret” US bombing followed by US-engineered regime change that left that unfortunate country totally disrupted and destabilized.
Another problem with the “right of humanitarian intervention” is that it fails to suggest any principle to replace national sovereignty. When NATO exercised its own self-proclaimed right to intervene in Kosovo, where diplomatic efforts were far from having been exhausted, it was praised by the Western media. When Russia exercised what it regarded as its own responsibility to protect in South Ossetia, it was uniformly condemned in the same Western media. When Vietnam intervened in Cambodia, to put an end to the Khmer Rouge, or India intervened to free Bangladesh from Pakistan, their actions were also harshly condemned in the United States. So, either every country with the means to do so acquires the right to intervene whenever a humanitarian reason can be invoked as a justification, and we are back to the war of all against all, or only an all-powerful state, namely the United States (and its allies) are allowed to do so, and we are back to a form of dictatorship in international affairs.
It is often replied that the interventions are not to be carried out by one state, but by the “international community”. But the concept of “international community” is used primarily by the United States and its allies to designate themselves and whoever agrees with them at the time. It has grown into a concept that both rivals the United Nations (the “international community” claims to be more “democratic” than many UN member states) and tends to take it over in many ways.
In reality, there is no such thing as a genuine international community. NATO’s intervention in Kosovo was not approved by Russia and Russian intervention in South Ossetia was condemned by the West. There would have been no Security Council approval for either intervention. The African Union has rejected the indictment by the International Criminal Court of the President of Sudan. Any system of international justice or police, whether it is the responsibility to protect or the International Criminal Court, would need to be based on a relationship of equality and a climate of trust. Today, there is no equality and no trust, between West and East, between North and South, largely as a result of the record of US policies. For some version of the responsibility to protect to be consensually functional in the future, we need first to build a relationship of equality and trust.
The Libyan adventure has illustrated another reality conveniently overlooked by the supporters of humanitarian intervention, namely that without the huge US military machine, the sort of safe no-casualty (on our side) intervention which can hope to gain public support is not possible. The Western countries are not willing to risk sacrificing too many lives of their troops, and waging a purely aerial war requires an enormous amount of high technology equipment. Those who support such interventions are supporting, whether they realize it or not, the continued existence of the US military machine, with its bloated budgets and its weight on the national debt. The European Greens and Social Democrats who support the war in Libya should have the honesty to tell their constituents that they need to accept massive cuts in public spending on pensions, unemployment, health care and education, in order to bring such social expenses down to an American level and use the hundreds of billions of euros thus saved to build a military machine that will be able to intervene whenever and wherever there is a humanitarian crisis.
If it is true that the 21st century needs a new United Nations, it does not need one that legitimizes such interventions by novel arguments, such as responsibility to protect, but one that gives at least moral support to those who try to construct a world less dominated by a single military superpower. The United Nations needs to pursue its efforts to achieve its founding purpose before setting a new, supposedly humanitarian priority, which may in reality be used by the Great Powers to justify their own future wars by undermining the principle of national sovereignty.
The left should support an active peace policy through international cooperation, disarmament, and non-intervention of states in the internal affairs of others. We could use our overblown military budgets to implement a form of global Keynesianism: instead of demanding “balanced budgets” in the developing world, we should use the resources wasted on our military to finance massive investments in education, health care and development. If this sounds utopian, it is not more so than the belief that a stable world will emerge from the way our current “war on terror” is being carried out.
Moreover, the left should strive towards strict respect for international law on the part of Western powers, implementing the UN resolutions concerning Israel, dismantling the worldwide US empire of bases as well as NATO, ceasing all threats concerning the unilateral use of force, stopping all interference in the internal affairs of other States, in particular all operations of “democracy promotion”, “color” revolutions, and the exploitation of the politics of minorities. This necessary respect for national sovereignty means that the ultimate sovereign of each nation state is the people of that state, whose right to replace unjust governments cannot be taken over by supposedly benevolent outsiders.
It will be objected that such a policy would allow dictators to “murder their own people”, the current slogan justifying intervention. But if non-intervention may allow such terrible things to happen, history shows that military intervention frequently has the same result, when cornered leaders and their followers turn their wrath on the “traitors” supporting foreign intervention. On the other hand, non- intervention spares domestic oppositions from being regarded as fifth columns of the Western powers – an inevitable result of our interventionist policies. Actively seeking peaceful solutions would allow a reduction of military expenditures, arms sales (including to dictators who may use them to “murder their own people”) and use of resources to improve social standards.
Coming to the present situation, one must acknowledge that the West has been supporting Arab dictators for a variety of reasons, ranging from oil to Israel, in order to control that region, and that this policy is slowly collapsing. But the lesson to draw is not to rush into yet another war, in Syria, as we did in Libya, claiming this time to be on the right side, defending the people against dictators, but to recognize that it is high time for us to stop assuming that we must control the Arab world. At the dawn of the 20th century, most of the world was under European control. Eventually, the West will lose control over that part of the world, as it lost it in East Asia and is losing it in Latin America. How the West will adapt itself to its decline is the crucial political question of our time; answering it is unlikely to be either easy or pleasant.
Counterpunch, February 20, 2012.
Jean Bricmont teaches physics at the University of Louvain in Belgium. He is author of “Humanitarian Imperialism”.