"Humanitarian Intervention": A fraud and a danger for world peace


Samantha Power, appointed by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate to replace Susan Rice as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is one of the best known advocates of a foreign policy orientation variously known as humanitarian intervention or Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

This is not good news for those who want a responsible U.S. foreign policy. Ms. Power, an Irish immigrant and a journalist with legal training, has had a long interest in the issue of genocide and crimes against humanity. In her journalistic capacity, she observed the Bosnia War in the early 1990s. She has written a number of books, the best known of which is "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide" (Flamingo, 2003). Her thinking on how to respond to threats of mass violation of human rights was strongly influenced by the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, in which between a half a million and a million people were slaughtered, and the Kosovo War in 1998-1999.

The frame of reference for Ms. Power's thinking sees the United States as self-evidently a force for good in the world, when and if it chooses to act to end the brutal abuses of despotic regimes overseas. U.S. administrations are to be criticized for their failures to act forcefully, not their interventions. She was shocked when the United States, in her opinion, failed to act more forcefully to intervene in Rwanda and the Balkans. She also thinks that there should have been an intervention to overthrow the bizarre Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in 1975 to 1978 (there was, but by socialist Vietnam and not "the West"). She was a strong advocate for U.S. and NATO intervention in Libya in 2011,  and pushes for more forceful intervention in Darfur in the Sudan.

In addition, she sees the main source of violations of human rights worldwide as being national governments and ruling elites who use violence to control their peoples. She pays little attention to economic injustices which, in any given year, kill more innocent people that direct armed action does, through starvation, malnutrition and preventable diseases. And she is criticized for emphasizing the failure of the United States to intervene against certain states, while not talking and writing nearly as much about the fact that the United States, France, Britain and other wealthy capitalist states have themselves been the major supporters of many brutal genocidal regimes: Suharto in Indonesia, the military regimes in Central and South America, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and others. She had criticized Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians, but hastily backed away from those views at her confirmation hearings. It is likely that she will be part of the faction in the Obama administration that pushes for more direct intervention in Syria.

Samantha Power did not invent the "humanitarian intervention" stance by herself. It has been promoted by others, including Power's predecessor as U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, and former French cabinet minister Bernard Kouchner, the founder of Medicins sans Frontieres. Kouchner was Minister of Health in a Socialist Party government but then Minister of Foreign Affairs under right wing President Nicolas Sarkozy. Specific humanitarian interventionists such as Power, Rice and Kouchner are often accused of as being "leftists" but in fact their political advocacy brings them on a converging trajectory with right wing groups such as the neo-cons (in the case of Kouchner, supporting Sarkozy's push to intervene in Libya). Power has been close to President Obama since his Senate days, and would have been given a top post in the Obama administration much earlier had she not, during the 2008 presidential campaign, blurted out to a reporter that she thought Hillary Clinton was "a monster".

Her predecessor, Susan Rice, did not get the job of Secretary of State because of the Republican campaign against her on the issue of the Benghazi attack in which the U.S. ambassador was killed. But as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. she has been known for her attacks on socialist Cuba which have sometimes been quite intemperate.

The humanitarian intervention or R2P stance has spawned the creation or got the support of numerous NGOs.

While the humanitarian position was originally formulated, supposedly, in response to massively genocidal situations, it is subject also to mission creep. In her confirmation hearing, Power emphasized that she was going to work to shape up the United Nations, and specifically that she would use it to go after Cuba, Venezuela, Iran and Russia, all of whom she accused of persecuting "civil society", but in none of which is anything going on remotely similar to the Rwanda genocide. The comments on Venezuela led to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose election on April 14 is still not recognized by the United States, to back away from efforts at reconciliation with the Obama administration. http://english.eluniversal.com/nacional-y-politica/130719/washington-endorses-samantha-powers-criticism-against-venezuela

The Humanitarian Intervention/R2P policy stance as articulated by people like Power, Rice and Kouchner and as practiced by NATO and by the U.S. and Western European governments can be criticized for additional things:

*It weakens the United Nations and other real international bodies, and works to substitute NATO military force for international cooperation.

*It weakens the state sovereignty of the poorer countries in the world; this sovereignty is essential to prevent the wealthier capitalist powers from riding roughshod on other nations and forcing them to accept trade and financial arrangements that are opposed to the interests of their working class and poor farmers.

*It willfully ignores the law of "unintended consequences"; in the case of Libya, for example, it glosses over the fact that the violent overthrow of the Gadafi regime has had some extremely negative consequences, including civil war in Mali and the loss of formerly generous Libyan financial aid to very poor African countries.

In several of the cases which have been used to push the argument for humanitarian intervention by the U.S.A., NATO or the wealthy powers, it can be shown that these powers had a lot to do with creating the circumstances for genocide in the first place.

In the Bosnia and Kosovo cases, the United States, after the Second World War, provided refuge for fascist ultra-nationalists of all groups (including Serbs, Croatians and others), and worked for decades to exacerbate ethnic tensions in socialist Yugoslavia. Sometimes right wing Serbian "Chetniks" and Croatian "Ustashe" were known to fight it out within ethnic enclaves of the United States itself, but the point was to undo the fragile ethnic unity of Tito's socialist Yugoslavia. "Displaced persons", included Nazi collaborators, were allowed to settle in the United States and continue to agitate for their irredentist ethnic causes. When the Yugoslav communists could not keep things together after the death of Tito, these elements came to the fore with programs of ethnic cleansing.

The case of Rwanda involved commercial and geopolitical rivalry between the United States and France in Central Africa. Rwanda, and its twin state, Burundi, were never French colonies. They had been independent African kingdoms until taken over by Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany in the 1890s. After the First World War they were awarded to Belgium, to punish Germany and to compensate Belgium for German depredations during the war. Nobody asked the mass of the Rwandan and Burundian people for their views on the matter; nor did it occur to the victorious Entente powers that Belgium's record in colonial administration in Central Africa was not exactly spotless!

Both Germany and Belgium found it convenient to rule Rwanda and Burundi through their indigenous monarchs, who were derived from the Tutsi social group, about 17 percent of the population of Rwanda. The social stratification of the two kingdoms involved a differentiation of wealth, prestige and power between an elite group of the dominant Tutsis and the subordinate Hutu farmers. Instead of trying to soften these differences, the German and Belgian colonial regimes made them more rigid. Thus, when the two countries gained independence in 1960, violence between Hutus and Tutsis flared. Long before the 1994 genocide, there had been bloodletting in both places, both of whose monarchies were overthrown. In Ruanda, the Hutus became dominant and many Tutsis were exiled.

The wealthy developed countries, France and the United States, did not play a constructive role. The French, under the presidency of the Socialist Party's Francois Mitterand, saw an opportunity to expand trade and influence into another "francophone" state, Rwanda. They began to channel support to the government of President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, in spite of the fact that its policy toward the Tutsi population was moving in a genocidal direction. http://porfinenafrica.blogspot.com/p/el-genocidio-de-ruanda.html The United States began to tilt toward Tutsi rebels living in Uganda. Washington brought a major leader of the Tutsi exiles in Uganda, Paul Kagame, to the U.S. to participate in a military training course, and flew him back to assume command of the Rwandan Patriotic Army, composed of exiled Tutsi fighters, in 1990.

There is much yet unknown about the specific roles that outside forces, particularly France and the United States, played in the lead-up to the Rwandan genocide. Two days after the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were killed when their airplane was shot down over the Rwandan capital, Kigali, two French agents and the wife of one of them were murdered by parties unknown in their house in Kigali, raising the suspicion that they might have known too much about French-Rwandan cooperation and the plans for the genocide. http://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade+world/rwanda A French parliamentary investigation after the fact is seen as a snow job by some. But a new investigation is ongoing.

Kagame, now president of Rwanda, has been praised by some for bringing order and prosperity to his country. But some of that prosperity may have come from continuing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo next door, where Rwanda is accused of participating in the violent looting of Congolese mineral wealth. The deaths in the various Congolese civil wars, still ongoing, have passed five million, or five to ten times the maximum number who died in the 1994 Rwanda genocide. In addition, Rwandan laws prohibiting denial of the 1994 genocide have been used to persecute dissidents.

In other cases, including especially Darfur in the Sudan and the multiple conflicts in the Sahel region of West Africa, massive human rights crises have been caused by conflict arising from competition over resources. In both places, advancing desertification has led herding communities to push into areas traditionally inhabited by crop cultivators, leading to bloodshed and massive refugee problems. The "West" has worsened these situations by its trade and economic policies, and by the military intervention in Libya which has spread former Libyan fighters and vast quantities of armaments all over the Sahel region. This has given France a convenient excuse for yet more "humanitarian intervention", in this case in Mali.

In each of these cases, the imperial policies of the "humanitarian" developed capitalist states set the stage for the ensuing bloodshed. In each case U.S. and European based multinational corporations were the beneficiaries of the intervention. Yugoslavia's publicly controlled industries, including the Yugo automobile works, were destroyed, to be replaced by multinationals. In Ruanda, the replacement of French by U.S. interests has been so great that the country is now an Anglophone and not Francophone state.

There is real danger that with appointments such as those of Power and Rice, the Obama administration may be moving in an even more interventionist direction. All progressive people should oppose this, and struggle instead for a policy that eschews military solutions even under a "humanitarian" pretext, and instead, changes U.S. trade and economic policy in such a way that the kinds of situations which are likely to produce mass killings and refugee crises can be stopped before the blood begins to flow.

Photo: Creative Commons 3.0


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  • "genocide and crimes against humanity" - I totally agree to that!
    What I remember was Vietnam, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Iraq..
    They drop bombs, they shot civil people, they invade.
    That's so wrong! Can anyone tell US Government that their foreign policy is wrong???

    Posted by William Miller, 08/28/2013 3:56am (11 years ago)

  • Adam Hochschild, very early in his book King Leopold's Ghost, reminds us that the subjugation of the Congo, later the African continent, took place under the rubric of humanitarian intervention and anti-slavery. The history of 19th and 20th-21st Century colonial and neocolonial Africa, shows us that Emile Scheper's concerns are anything but new. What we on the left and our allies need to come to grips with is our problem of allowing the capitalists and imperialists to snooker our support...or at least our hand-wringing silence... in the face of their genocidal skulduggery.

    Posted by gary hicks, 08/18/2013 3:19am (11 years ago)

  • Sometimes we can get lost in the grasses...

    Socialism was always conceived as an international affair. Nationalism was fine up to a point, but the salient issues were the ideas that an injury to one is an injury to all and international worker solidarity.

    R2p honors those basic premisses in the abstract, but in practice has been a vehicle for economic imperialism.

    Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Fix the problem of self-determination of peoples and corrupted processes.

    Posted by Michael Sweney, 08/16/2013 9:57am (11 years ago)

  • This is a very deceptive article. It has a number of facts, but these are woven together in a way that presents an untrue picture, either out of ignorance or deception.

    Some French people were murdered in Rwanda: this is a fact. The question "raised" as to whether they "knew too much" about French involvement is silly speculation, unless there are some other facts not presented.

    More importantly, this article conflates humanitarian intervention and R2P, two completely different things. While the former is self-explanatory, the latter is a concept that was agreed upon unanimously, meaning by every country in the world, in 2005 at the United Nations World Summit.

    Under R2P doctrine, responsibility for the wellbeing of a population is multifaceted. First and foremost, the state is responsible to protect its people. This means that, for the first time in history, world society recognized that it is the fundamental duty of a state to provide for its people, to ensure their safety. If a state cannot do this, it then becomes the duty of the international community, especially regional neighbors, to assist the state in alleviating the situation. If all that doesn't work, or if the state is actually unwilling to/is causing the problems, the state's sovereignty is passed to the international community, which then must take steps to solve the situation. Intervention under R2P can be invoked by regional groups (such as the African Union) or by the UN Security Council.

    That means that this statement - "It weakens the United Nations and other real international bodies, and works to substitute NATO military force for international cooperation." - is simply wrong. Perhaps if you are talking about humanitarian intervention unsanctioned by the UN, you might be correct. IN regards to R2P, there is not a kernel of truth.

    Another statement from this article: "It weakens the state sovereignty of the poorer countries in the world; this sovereignty is essential to prevent the wealthier capitalist powers from riding roughshod on other nations and forcing them to accept trade and financial arrangements that are opposed to the interests of their working class and poor farmers." Also nonsense. R2P interventions can be invoked in only very extreme situations; it cannot be invoked because the U.S. wants access to some oilfield somewhere. It is true that sovereignty is weakened, or, at the very least, changed. But that is good: R2P recognizes that all states have a responsibility to protect their population. Absolute Westphalian sovereignty, where the state is inviolable, cannot be defended. It is the duty of the world community to protect against genocide and other atrocities. If you don't agree with that, you are disagreeing with the stated position of all states on Earth.

    This article mixes together questions of what rich and powerful nations will do in their own interests with the overwhelmingly accepted doctrine of R2P, which, incidentally, was adopted as a way to protect poorer countries from plunder under the guise of "humanitarian intervention." The fact that Power stated U.S. position on some states - and Russia does persecute civil society, as we see in the laws criminalizing gay people - says nothing about R2P. Power stated U.S. policy there, not the doctrine of R2P, which has no bearing.

    One might agree or disagree with the position of Samantha Power on Libya or Rwanda (though, in all honesty, it is hard to imagine a serious internationalist opposing action to end the Rwandan genocide), but it is appalling that you would damage with half- or non-truths the reputation of R2P.

    Posted by Matt Daniels, 08/15/2013 1:33pm (11 years ago)

  • R2P is a very good idea, but as always the devil is in the details. The working class in the U.S. has a great responsibility to protect the masses both here and abroad, but only after a democratic decision process is gone through.

    Since the democratic process in this country is regrettably corrupted by the de facto corporate capture of the political class and the political process, then political decisions to intervene in a humanitarian fashion cannot be trusted to have come from uncorrupted decision processes.

    What is needed is some kind of direct democratic plebiscite of the masses before militarily intervening anywhere, humanitarian motives or no.

    Posted by Michael Sweney, 08/14/2013 6:08pm (11 years ago)

  • I agree with both Emile and E.E. W. Clay. "Responsibility to protect" and "humanitarian intervention" are in the hands of those who preach them today ideological covers for imperialist interventions into conflicts whose roots are often with previous imperialist interventions.
    In the 1930s, the Soviets called for a policy of collective security against military aggression, coming directly from the European fascist states and the Japanese empire, a regional policy which would hopefully be endorsed by a strengthened league of nations. Of course this did not happen and in the cold war period, those cold warriors who had previously opposed collective security twisted it as a concept and used it against the Soviet Union.
    Roosevelt at the end of WWII also proposed under the United Nations which was just coming into existence, regional peace keeping alliances and forces. These two ideas, connected to and with international economic policies to raise world living standards, not the present "free market" robber baron capitalist global policies, which are the opposite, is the only real way to prevent the atrocities that the proponents of "humanitarian intervention" point to. Gandhi's famous comment concerning poverty as the greatest violence and the foundation of violence is also very significant here. the capitalist policies of today are creating more and more poverty, more and more violence, through warlords, religious fanatics, adventurers and opportunists who prey on the people

    Posted by norman markowitz, 08/14/2013 1:59pm (11 years ago)

  • The issue seems not whether R2P and humanitarian aid are alike or different, but rather, whether trade and economic policy of imperialist nation-states protect their respective working class, and that state's working class of the cataclysmic event(genocide, ethnic cleansing, refugee crisis, mass starvation, war, etc.).
    Massive support and knowledge of, by, and for the world's working class, and through the United Nations's General Assembly, has to be built and demonstrated to protect the international working class.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 08/13/2013 12:16pm (11 years ago)

  • R2P and humanitarian intervention are fundamentally different things.

    Posted by Keith Porter, 08/13/2013 10:10am (11 years ago)

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