On Humanitarian War

The concept of humanitarian intervention is very broad, and can include diplomatic and legal actions on behalf of a suffering population. However it frequently brings to mind unilateral military intervention, and it is to this specific notion of humanitarian war, semantically an oxymoron, that I will address my remarks. I want to make it clear at the outset that I am not talking here about the mutually-agreed policing by foreign soldiers of truces and peace agreements, such as the United Nations monitoring of the ceasefires in Cyprus and elsewhere.

I have two fundamental points to make. The first is a practical observation, namely that the concept of humanitarian war is used by the most formidable military machine in history, that of the United States and its allied client states, as a smokescreen to camouflage the causes and effects of barbarous wars of aggression against some of the most powerless states and destitute populations on the planet.

My second point concerns potential military interventions justified by humanitarian considerations that some well-meaning people suggest should take place, such as in the Darfur region of the Sudan. Here my point is simple: you cannot solve the problems created by a civil war through the unilateral injection into that war of even more war, and you cannot solve social and environmental problems with missiles, bombs, artillery and rifles. You don't call on a pyromaniac to put out a house fire.

The "international community"

To speak to my first point, then. The discourse of so-called humanitarian war posits the existence of a nebulous entity called the "international community", which is imagined to hold high legal and moral standards. This international community, it is claimed, has the responsibility to protect vulnerable populations from the illegal violence of their own immoral governments. The problem is that no such high-minded entity exists; it is pure hallucination. The term "international community", as used by politicians and the predominant media, is simply a propaganda term, replacing the obsolete Cold War expression "the Free World", to designate the American government and the governments of its client states. As propaganda, it conveys, with the use of the word "international", an utterly false sense of universalism, and with the word "community", an equally false sense of solidarity and benevolence. It is certainly no coincidence that the interrelated notions of international community, responsibility to protect, and clash of civilizations emerged just as the American-led military alliance lost its principal raison d'être with the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

Civil wars

In the last twenty years there have been a large number of civil wars in some of the world's most impoverished countries, usually triggered when armed militias claiming to represent a deprived ethnic or religious minority launch attacks against the central government, and sometimes against other ethnic groups. This type of insurrection has occurred in many places, including the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, the Kurdish regions of Turkey and Iraq, the Shiite region of southern Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Nepal, northeastern India, Sri Lanka, the Indonesian province of Aceh, the southern Philippines, the Darfur region of the Sudan, northern Uganda, Somalia, the eastern Congo, the Côte d'Ivoire, the Casamance region of Senegal, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Western Sahara. In every case the central government and nationalist paramilitary groups respond to the rebel attacks with their own military force. This situation quickly degenerates into a humanitarian disaster, sometimes, especially in Africa, compounding a pre-existing famine or drought. The civilian victims of the war and famine can number in the thousands, the tens of thousands, or even, as in Turkey, Chechnya, and the Darfur, over a hundred thousand.

In the vast majority of these insurgencies, the United States and its allies like Canada support the central government and officially designate the insurrectional militias as terrorists. In this taxonomy the Kurdish rebels of Turkey (but not those of pre-invasion Iraq), the Tamil rebels of Sri Lanka, and the Muslim rebels of the southern Philippines are all terrorists. The government's suppression of the revolt, however brutal and regardless of civilian casualties, has in such instances the full backing of the United States and its allies, and the national state is praised for its role in the war against terrorism. However, in a very small number of cases, usually when the central government refuses to acknowledge American geopolitical hegemony, the United States sides instead with the rebels and charges the central government with ethnic cleansing or even genocide. Examples are Serbia in 1999 and the Sudan in recent years.

"Responsibility to Protect"

In some cases the United States and its allies, not infrequently through the mechanism of the NATO alliance, invoke the notion of the "responsibility to protect" to justify a bloody air war and ground invasion. This concept was developed in particular at the turn of the millennium to give a supposedly legal basis for future wars of aggression like NATO's 1999 war against Serbia, with its non-existent Serbian genocide of the republic's Albanian minority and its trail of carnage, including the bombing of passenger trains, of the University of Nis, of the main Belgrade television station, of the Chinese embassy, and of numerous other civilian targets.

NATO shelling in Afghanistan
NATO shelling
Other wars of aggression and occupation have been at least partly justified by bogus claims that these wars are intended to help the populations that are being massacred and occupied by the American and NATO military machine. Thus it was claimed that a major reason for the war on Iraq, which has resulted in the death of literally hundreds of thousands of civilians, was to save them from Saddam Hussein. Similarly, as thousands of indigent civilians in southern and eastern Afghanistan are shelled and bombed to death by American and Canadian forces, displaced from their homes in the hundreds of thousands, and driven into even deeper poverty, we are told the bone-chilling lie that this is all being done out of compassion, to help them, to provide them with development, to bring them democracy, and to rescue the women from their burqas.

Adding more war to civil war

This brings me to my second point. You cannot solve social problems, such as the place of women in a particular society, or the clash between agrarian and nomadic lifestyles, by adding more war to a civil war. There is not a single example in history of civilians being saved from the effects of a civil war by unilateral military intervention from outsiders, especially when those outsiders are themselves guilty of unspeakable atrocities. Well-meaning humanitarians who clamour for American or Canadian intervention in the Sudanese civil war are like animal rights advocates demanding that the wolf protect the chickens from the farmer. The idea that the American government is qualified to be an enforcer of human rights grounded in international law is preposterous. This government claims to be exempt from the Geneva Conventions in its expeditionary wars, conducts kidnappings and so-called "extraordinary renditions", constructs torture centres at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and in the still-functioning facility of Bagram, Afghanistan. It refuses to sign international agreements such as the Ottawa Treaty on Land Mines, the international Law of the Sea, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, or the Kyoto Accord on Climate Change, and unlike Iran, for example, it does not respect the provisions of the international treaty on nuclear proliferation

Intervention in whose interest?

American bomber used in Afghanistan
Military intervention by the United States and its allies will always be carried out solely to advance the interests of these countries and their powerful arms and energy companies. The effect of such intervention on a civil war can only be to intensify the conflict on both sides, and to bring even more suffering. For the same reason the western world's most informed specialist on the Darfur, Alex de Waal, argues, in spite of evidence of war crimes, against attempting to bring Sudanese president Omar Ahmed al-Bashir to trial on charges of genocide, especially since investigations by the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union, Amnesty International, and Doctors Without Borders have, unlike that of the prosecutors of the International Criminal Court, concluded that the genocide label is in this situation inappropriate. It is instructive that the genocide epithet for the Darfur tragedy originated in 2004 with American politicians, including former American Secretary of State Colin Powell, who the previous year in his shameful Security Council speech had justified the impending bombing and invasion of Iraq by proving the existence of the non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

One has reason as well to be very suspicious of the motives of several influential American and Canadian associations that on the one hand call for intervention against what they call a genocide by Sudanese groups deceptively branded as "Arabs", and on the other hand defend and support, through demonstrations and other actions, the recent killing and injuring within only a few weeks of over 5000 refugees and other civilians in the Gaza strip.

My concluding word is for all those who like myself are outraged by the humanitarian catastrophe in the Darfur and other war zones. We must understand what the fundamental problem is here, namely that in governments, economies, media, arts, and schools, participation in the bloody slaughter of war is reckoned as normal, acceptable, and even honorable and praiseworthy. The billions of dollars being spent on the Canadian war machine are billions of dollars not being spent on health, food, education, and the environmental crisis, either in Canada or in Afghanistan or in the Darfur. Instead, war is regarded as so perversely normal that generals who boast "Our job is to be able to kill people" become celebrities and are appointed to the chancellery of universities.

Those who want such slaughters to stop will do everything they can to challenge, resist, and subvert this grotesque idea of normalcy.

James MacLean

This text was initially presented as a contribution to panel discussion "No Justice, No Peace? International Intervention in Question", Memorial University, March 4, 2009.

For an introduction to the historical and legal aspects of this question, see Noam Chomsky, Statement to the United Nations General Assembly Thematic Dialogue on the Responsibilty to Protect, 23 July 2009 (pdf).

See also Jean Bricmont, Statement to the United Nations General Assembly Thematic Dialogue on the Responsibilty to Protect, 23 July 2009 (pdf).

Other essays by James MacLean

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