Humanitarian, or Intervention?

EDITORIAL, 30 May 2011

#166 | Johan Galtung

The problem is in the term “humanitarian intervention”. “Humanitarian” is OK: protecting victims of autocratic killing and repression.  With the two human rights conventions of 16 Dec 66 as guide we may also want to protect victims of economic exploitation and cultural alienation.  They all have a human right to be protected, and “we”, also we on the other side of some state borders, have a human duty to do something.

We do, try to do, or at least should do so, inside democratic countries devoted to human rights.  For the violence of nature–tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes and epidemics–this works well both within and between states.  For direct violence by dictators there is a high level of consensus to do something; for the structural violence of the market, or for cultural indoctrination, much less so.  There are moves toward regionalization, like the EU solidarity with market victims in the PIG(S) countries (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain).  And for banks even globalization, toward a world with no borders limiting protection.  So far, so good.

Then comes the “intervention” part; like medical intervention in the workings of a human body incapable of self-repair, e.g., through the immune system.  The social parallel is self-corrective nonviolent uprisings from the social body restoring, or creating, rule of, by and for the people; doing no harm.  But there is a major problem as seen in Tunisia and Egypt: the autocracy may have roots outside the borders.  Inside uprisings may prove insufficient against powerful outside states propping up, even bribing deeply entrenched military or commercial elites.  One answer is nonviolent uprisings in those states, but we have generally not come that far in global solidarity.

Enters the idea of surgical intervention with the pin-point precision attributed to surgeons.  Human bodies, like social bodies, are complex.  A pathology is part of a complex anatomy-physiology, and we usually respect medical judgment. Skill presupposes deep knowledge.

The same applies to the social body, but the military wielding a “surgical strike” to eliminate a social pathology may be uninformed about normal social workings.  So they construct the society to be intervened so as to make intervention look rational.  They have a powerful hammer, and construct a nail–as Mark Twain pointed out.

The West has some bizarre ways of doing this, helped by obedient media, and then fall into the trap of believing their constructions.

First, a sociology with one inhabitant–Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein or bin Laden (or Milosevic/Karadic/Mladic-Ho Chi Minh-Mao-Castro)–who is then demonized so that his removal will look like the solution;

Second, a geography of a state system with provinces and power centers, oblivious of clans, nations within nations, religions with subdivisions, age-old strong local autonomies down to villages, all so different from lines drawn by foreigners in desert sands or in the wilderness, by rulers with an excess load of Euclidean geometry in their education using rulers to draw straight lines on maps.

Third, a history blind to their own role, even when the problem may even be of their own making, like the construction of Iraq out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.  This becomes even more absurd when former colonial powers–never fully accepting the end of colonialism after the Second World War–are intervening in “their” old continent, even “their” old colony, like Italy in Libya.  Or France in Côte d’Ivoire, unable to admit that they constructed an absurdity where a loose federation between the Muslim North and the Christian South might have been better; then enforcing a democracy without roots.

When the military intervene, victory is the issue, not any solution; when the courts decide, guilty-not guilty is the issue, not understanding. Success is to kill the demon or convict him in The Hague; NATO-ICC hand in hand.  Saddam Hussein was executed without due process, bin Laden extra judicially in his bedroom, Karadic-Mladic are waiting.

But Iraq is more ridden by divisive factors than ever, so is Afghanistan.  Is Libya less complex?  Look at these seven key actors:

Tripoli-Qaddafi: autocratic and brutal no doubt; but a client to nobody after the strike in 1969 and ouster of the US airbase, his role in just oil prices, housing for lower income classes, and for an African Union.

Benghazi: pro-democracy; but the revolt is violent, and supported from the outside; any victory might well lead to a client autocracy.

Al Qaeda: anti-Tripoli and anti-Benghazi for their secularism, violent, anti-democratic; but standing up against repression of Islam.

The West: favoring a duty to protect, and democracy; but also for reentry in “their” old country-continent, for oil contracts with short transportation distance, for control of a Mediterranean space against a strong African Union, for their own against Chinese influence, &c.

The UN Security Council: Resolution 1973 authorized a no-fly zone and R2P (right to protect civilians), but not regime change and occupation; the BRIC members (Brazil, Russia, India, China) + Germany (50% of humanity) abstained because it was not applied to Bahrain-Yemen;

The Arab League: very split, only 2 of the 22 participating;

The African Union: unable to act decisively for a solution.  But look at a map: the Libyans reach below that road deep into Africa.

“Messy” is an understatement.  All seven are ambiguous, so are their relations except for the Tripoli-Benghazi hatred-violence in Western propaganda.  Overturn unstable equilibria and it may take decades to build something new; probably by Libyans-AU-BRIC-UN, not NATO.

We are now more than two months into what may last two decades.  Surgical cruise missiles fired from aircraft carriers on identified Libyan aircraft might have made some sense, but the Western construct demands regime change “by all necessary means”; not all humanitarian.  The price is occupation, deep intervention.

By the wayside of history are all the offers of ceasefires and negotiations, lost opportunities. And any deeper understanding that might lead to more positive pursuits.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 30 May 2011.

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3 Responses to “Humanitarian, or Intervention?”

  1. […] Traduzione di Miky Lanza per il Centro Sereno Regis Titolo originale: HUMANITARIAN, Or INTERVENTION Stampa questo articolo Non ci sono […]

  2. I agree with Mr. galtung.