Since the end of the Cold War, the doctrine of humanitarian intervention — which asserts that severe human rights violations justify the abrogation of national sovereignty — has become a hallmark of liberal and left opinion on international affairs. A Carnegie Endowment Report of echoed this view when it stated that the destruction of populations within states called for international intervention. The massacre of Bosnian Muslims by Serbs; genocide in Rwanda; the famines and wars elsewhere in Africa — all these understandably added fuel to the argument. Denial of personal and political freedoms was also deemed grounds for intervention, including military intervention, in the affairs of other countries. How many lives might have been saved?
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No offense to Trekkies, but this phrase brilliantly captures the way U. Many liberal and formerly left-wing intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens were not just duped by the new humanitarianism, they adopted it as their own position. A host of recently published books analyzes the new humanitarian interventionism and its apologists.
Foley is an insider, a career humanitarian, who has served in nearly every recent intervention from Kosovo to Afghanistan. These formations grew while the traditional left—demoralized by the failures of postcolonial regimes and the collapse of Stalinism—declined.
The United States has been happy to incorporate such NGOs into military planning, operations, and postwar occupations. Foley pulls no punches looking at the disastrous results of the political humanitarian collaboration with U. He even goes so far as to question the viability of the various international institutions like the ICC because they are so compromised by their subordination to the UN Security Council and the Western powers, especially the United States.
However, he discounts left-wing criticism of humanitarianism as complicit with imperialism. As a career humanitarian, he defends the old position of NGO neutrality, holds out hope for reformed international law and institutions that can oversee humanitarian interventions, and even defends interventions as a necessary evil.
In its present form, the call for justice is really a slogan that masks a big-power agenda to recolonize Africa. Mamdani exposes the hypocrisy of the United States expressing concern about Darfur while Washington was engaged in mass murder, torture, and ethnic cleansing in Iraq. While the antiwar movement agitated against U. Infamously, SDC inflated the numbers of those killed in Darfur, claiming that the Sudanese government and its allied militias had killed , people in Darfur between and The Government Accountability Office called their claims into question.
The most credible study by an affiliate of the World Health Organization found only , excess deaths, most as a result of disease and malnutrition. Moreover, after the African Union orchestrated a peace deal in , the violence had plummeted to levels far below other conflicts in Africa. He shows that the complex conflict in Darfur began with an ecological crisis that precipitated a civil war between groups of sedentary farmers.
He demonstrates that it is impossible to reduce this conflict to one between Arabs and Black Africans or Muslims and Christians. He also shows that atrocities, especially rape, were committed on all sides. Recent U. The United States pressured the ICC to ignore the atrocities committed by the insurgency and only indict Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide. These moves have inspired the rebels, who have refused peace deals and continued to fight the central government.
In place of calling for Western intervention, Mamdani argues for a regional African political settlement that aims at reconciliation and an approach to war crimes involving exposure but not retribution. For international activists concerned about the crisis, he advocates a return to the left-wing tradition of solidarity with Africa against imperialism, not for it.
Bricmont defends a tradition of anti-imperialism and Third World solidarity. He argues that the left is confronting imperialist aggression led by the United States to reverse one of the key victories of the twentieth century—decolonization. The United States is using humanitarianism as a cover for a wholesale attack on the Third World, violating sovereignty, and overriding international law along the way.
However, the left has been ill-equipped to counter this new onslaught. Much of the left, as Foley argues, has suffered disillusionment in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the failures of postcolonial regimes. In addition, the right has organized a well-funded campaign that has co-opted many ex-leftists to relegitimize imperialism. To counter this pro-imperialist consensus, Bricmont contends that the left must draw on the enlightenment commitment to universalism, human rights, and international law.
He shows how imperialism wrought horrors through colonialism, and continued to do so after decolonization. The United States overthrew progressive governments and installed reactionary dictators, the paradigmatic example being the U. Foley stresses that far from ending, this history continues through the Afghan and Iraq wars and occupations today.
Given these facts, there is no credible basis for taking U. For an adequate reconstruction of the left, which is one of his stated goals, we must simultaneously oppose imperialism and criticize Stalinism and nationalist dictatorships as oppressive barriers to the transformation of our world. He also exaggerates the ability of the left to use the UN or international law to resist U. Whether between workers and bosses for wage labor or between a buyer and a seller of a product or service, commodity exchange takes place as a contract between legally equal individuals.
Thus the legal contract, law, has emerged as the ubiquitous social relation between individuals as well as nation-states in the international system. Coercion is implicit. Moreover, legal equality masks actual inequality. In the world system, advanced capitalist powers and oppressed nations are not in fact equal. So in a legal contest over the interpretation of, say, the legality of a war, the nation with the greatest power is more likely to win its interpretation over those with less power.
This is particularly so in international law, since there is no sovereign state to oversee and enforce legal rulings as in domestic law. As a result, the interpretation and policing of international law comes down to the capitalist nation-states themselves. It is simultaneously a genuine relation between equals and a form that the weaker states cannot hope to win.
Appeals to international law are, therefore, completely incapable of resisting imperialism. Either way, out of an apparent legal triumph for progressives, the international legal system is undermined as a site for activism. He points out that imperialism and its international law, while predicated on sovereign property-owning states, always built in qualifications of sovereignty so that powers could legally intervene in other states.
The United States and other powers are using political humanitarianism and various international institutions as ideological justification and tools for traditional inter-imperial conflicts and to intervene in weaker nations. Seymour shows how the leading lights of European liberalism supplied their ruling classes with ideas, especially white supremacy, to justify conquest, colonialism, and war. Seymour also reveals how European imperialism produced its own revolutionary opposition, Marxism, that argued for international working-class revolution against capitalism and its empires.
He argues that leftists who end up joining liberals in support of imperialism have abandoned Marxism for reformism or were always just reformists. Tragically, the socialists of the Second International were reformists by the eve of the First World War, so instead of opposing the gigantic inter-imperial slaughter over the colonial division of the world, they each backed their respective capitalist governments.
Stalinism in turn became an imperialist force in its own right, conquering Eastern Europe. It then ordered its affiliated Communist Parties to curry favor with their home states to win them as allies for Russia. After exposing the history of European imperialism and its left apologists, Seymour turns his sights on U. Woodrow Wilson best embodies the official liberal face of empire. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused.
The Truman, Johnson, and Kennedy administrations promised mild tinkering with the system at home and support for anticommunist right-wing dictatorships abroad. The New Left of the s discredited Cold War liberalism among intellectuals for a period. It found willing aides de camp among, of course, the neoconservatives and the anti-totalitarian left but also from ex-leftist intellectuals.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rout was nearly complete. Ex-leftist intellectuals of all sorts backed interventions from the Gulf War to Yugoslavia and Kosovo, where they supported U. The liberal and reformist intellectuals have played a vital role in justifying the new imperialism. A look at what they have helped to rationalize and humanize, and the means they have used to do so, suggests that the colonial habits of mind have not left us.
Most importantly it has argued the only way to abolish empire and win genuine human liberation is through international working class revolution. The Marxist tradition can thus help a new generation of activists explode the myth of humanitarianism intervention and build a new movement of international solidarity from below against imperialism and the capitalist system that sustains it. Skip to main content. Review by Ashley Smith. Issue 67 : Reviews Share. By Conor Foley.
By Mahmood Mamdani. By Jean Bricmont. By Richard Seymour. Search form Search. Bloody Trump's first year. Issue contents. Top story Paul Le Blanc. Tony McKenna. Matthew E.
Lance Selfa. Elizabeth Schulte. Gilbert Achcar. Charles Post.
Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War
Since the end of the Cold War, the idea of human rights has been made into a justification for intervention by the world's leading economic and military powers—above all, the United States—in countries that are vulnerable to their attacks. The criteria for such intervention have become more arbitrary and self-serving, and their form more destructive, from Yugoslavia to Afghanistan to Iraq. Until the U. It seeks to restore the critique of imperialism to its rightful place in the defense of human rights. It describes the leading role of the United States in initiating military and other interventions, but also on the obvious support given to it by European powers and NATO. It outlines an alternative approach to the question of human rights, based on the genuine recognition of the equal rights of people in poor and wealthy countries. Jean Bricmont is professor of theoretical physics at the University of Louvain, Belgium.
Review of Jean Bricmont’s Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War
No offense to Trekkies, but this phrase brilliantly captures the way U. Many liberal and formerly left-wing intellectuals like Christopher Hitchens were not just duped by the new humanitarianism, they adopted it as their own position. A host of recently published books analyzes the new humanitarian interventionism and its apologists. Foley is an insider, a career humanitarian, who has served in nearly every recent intervention from Kosovo to Afghanistan. These formations grew while the traditional left—demoralized by the failures of postcolonial regimes and the collapse of Stalinism—declined. The United States has been happy to incorporate such NGOs into military planning, operations, and postwar occupations.