Humanitarian Imperialism

The New Doctrine of Imperial Right

Published on Monthly Review, by Noam Chomsky, September 2008.

… The millennium ended with an extraordinary display of self-congratulation on the part of Western intellectuals, awe-struck at the sight of the “idealistic new world bent on ending inhumanity,” which had entered a “noble phase” in its foreign policy with a “saintly glow” as for the first time in history a state is dedicated to “principles and values,” acting from “altruism” and “moral fervor” alone as the leader of the “enlightened states,” hence free to use force where its leaders “believe it to be just”—only a small sample of a deluge from respected liberal voices …

… In 2002, an Amnesty International mission to protect human rights defenders worldwide began with a visit to Colombia, chosen because of its extreme record of state-backed violence against these courageous activists, as well as labor leaders, more of whom were killed in Colombia than in the rest of the world combined, not to speak of campesinos, indigenous people, and Afro-Colombians, the most tragic victims. As a member of the delegation, I was able to meet with a group of human rights activists in Vásquez Carrizosa’s heavily guarded home in Bogotá, hearing their painful reports and later taking testimonials in the field, a shattering experience …

… The State Department even explained to Congress why it was supporting both the remnants of the Pol Pot regime (Democratic Kampuchea) and the Indonesian aggressors who were engaged in crimes in East Timor that were comparable to Pol Pot’s. The reason for this remarkable decision was that the “continuity” of Democratic Kampuchea with the Khmer Rouge regime “unquestionably” makes it “more representative of the Cambodian people than the Fretilin [the East Timorese resistance] is of the Timorese people.” The explanation was not reported, and has been effaced from properly sanitized history.

Perhaps a few genuine cases of humanitarian intervention can be discovered. There is, however, good reason to take seriously the stand of the “improvident rabble,” reaffirmed by the authentic international community at the highest level. The essential insight was articulated by the unanimous vote of the International Court of Justice in one of its earliest rulings, in 1949: “The Court can only regard the alleged right of intervention as the manifestation of a policy of force, such as has, in the past, given rise to most serious abuses and such as cannot, whatever be the defects in international organization, find a place in international law…; from the nature of things, [intervention] would be reserved for the most powerful states, and might easily lead to perverting the administration of justice itself.” The judgment does not bar “the responsibility to protect,” as long as it is interpreted in the manner of the South, the high-level UN Panel, and the UN World Summit.

Sixty years later, there is little reason to question the court’s judgment. The UN system doubtless suffers from severe defects. The most critical defect is the overwhelming role of the leading violators of Security Council resolutions. The most effective way to violate them is to veto them, a privilege of the permanent members. Since the UN fell out of its control forty years ago the United States is far in the lead in vetoing resolutions on a wide range of issues, its British ally is second, and no one else is even close. Nevertheless, despite these and other serious defects of the UN system, the current world order offers no preferable alternative than to vest the “responsibility to protect” in the United Nations. In the real world, the only alternative, as Bricmont eloquently explains, is the “humanitarian imperialism” of the powerful states that claim the right to use force because they “believe it to be just,” all too regularly and predictably “perverting the administration of justice itself.” (full long text).

Comments are closed.