Review of Jean Bricmont’s Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War

This is the first in a series of book reviews on militarism by Midge Quandt.

Jean Bricmont, Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War, Monthly Review Press, 2006, 183 pp.

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 1992 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.

In this scenario, the enemies of human rights are rogue states (Serbia, for one) and left-leaning, democratically elected “autocracies” (Chavez’s Venezuela, for example). These are home to the “new Hitlers.” In an effective effort to give legitimacy to the Balkan War, Bill Clinton drew a parallel between Nazi genocide and Serbian atrocities. “What if somebody had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler sooner? How many lives might have been saved?” he said at the start of the 1999 bombing campaign. The Kosovo intervention became the model for humanitarian intervention.

Jean Bricmont, a Belgian physicist and a self-proclaimed product of the 1960s, has written a powerful polemic against humanitarian intervention, renamed humanitarian imperialism. After the fall of the Soviet Union, human rights, especially the rights associated with liberal democracy, moved into the vacuum left by the absence of a Left alternative. There was no challenge to capitalism. As a result, the free market and representative democracy were embraced not only by mainstream liberals as they always had been but by large segments of the Western Left. In the process, the defense of human rights became an occasion for the display of First World arrogance. More importantly, said defense supplied the rationale for military intervention. (All wars need a legitimating ideology, Bricmont reminds us.)

Military intervention is especially sanctioned where the “new Hitlers” have sprung up, notably in the former Yugoslavia with Slobodan Milosevic and in Iraq with Sadam Hussein. Some defenders of human rights justified the Iraq war by appealing to the rights of the Iraqi people against a “semi-fascist” regime. (Currently, humanitarian intervention is being invoked as the reason for the war against Libya, what one commentator called “an old fashioned colonial smash and grab affair.”)

Which brings us to the Third World. Whereas the Western Left, as Bricmont tells us, has historically expressed solidarity with Third World countries, it has now abandoned that position. Instead it has gone on the attack. This reversal is what most offends Bricmont; it is the betrayal of anti-imperialism.

The apologists for humanitarian intervention in the service of human rights freely use the language of totalitarianism. This puts them on the moral high ground. To call the supposed enemies of freedom “the new Hitlers” and “the new fascism” immediately signals evil. There are no distinctions or factual comparisons. Hugo Chavez, for example, has effectively been demonized by invoking the specter of Hitler. Both the U. S. media and the Venezuelan opposition have done this. (A variant of this theme is the analogy made between Muslim fundamentalism and Nazi Germany that has given birth to the concept of Islamofascism. After 9/11, apologists for empire used this language to justify the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.)

The rhetoric of totalitarianism used by the defenders of human rights should not be dismissed as simply over-the-top or excessive. Behind the rhetoric is the conviction that we should have waged preventive war against Nazi Germany in the 1930s to save the Jews. The fact that we did not is meant to induce guilt. (The West’s failure to intervene in Rwanda in the 1990s adds to liberal-left guilt, witness Bill Clinton’s hand-wringing regrets.)

We solidarity activists and progressives need to be wary of human rights arguments because they can, and often do, lead to a defense or humanitarian intervention. Which is another name for imperialism.