Humanitarian Intervention

Noam Chomsky


a public talk in February Chomsky was asked:


Clinton recently said the U.S. has the right on humanitarian grounds to

intervene, with force, in any country which it deems is abusing the human rights

of its citizens. Do you agree with President Clinton’s statement?"


is the answer he offered…


statement has interesting consequences. So, for example, I presume the U.S. Air

Force has the capacity to bomb Washington. That would certainly follow. And

plenty of other places. Take, say, East Timor. There was never any intervention

in East Timor, contrary to what you read. There was no intervention because

there was no issue of sovereignty. Indonesian rights in East Timor were granted

solely by the United States. It was an invasion. Indonesia invaded in 1975 with

U.S. authorization. The Security Council ordered them out. Actually the U.S.

voted for that, but undermined the Security Council resolution and, in fact, the

Ambassador said so, and explained why. Then came 25 years of huge massacres,

maybe a third of the population was wiped out with U.S. diplomatic and military

support. In early 1999, the atrocities started escalating again. In the early

months of the year there were thousands of people killed by the Indonesian

military and their paramilitary forces. This wasn’t much reported here, but it

wasn’t very secret. This went on up to the point where, in September last

year, 750,000 people, that’s 85% of the population, were driven out of their

homes, brutally driven out, most of the country destroyed. A couple hundred

thousand were driven into Indonesian territory. 150,000 are still there in

Indonesian concentration camps. The U.S. did nothing. The U.S. position was,

“It’s their responsibility and we don’t want to take it away from them.”

That was the position right through. Finally, in mid-September, Clinton was

compelled–under domestic pressure and pretty heavy international pressure,

primarily from Australia–to tell the Indonesian generals that the game was



essentially what happened, he said, “Look, that’s enough.” Immediately

they left. That tells you exactly how much latent power was always there. It

wasn’t necessary to bomb Washington to stop this atrocity, or to bomb Jakarta,

or to impose sanctions. It was enough to withdraw participation and tell them

it’s finished. They left. After they left, the UN peacekeeping force entered,

and the United States wants it to be reduced and refuses to fund it and so on

and so forth and, of course, doing nothing about those who right now are rotting

in concentration camps. That’s not intervention and it’s not humanitarian




there are many cases like that. If we want to do good in the world, the best

place to start is with the famous Hippocratic principle: first, do no harm. The

first thing to do is to stop carrying out atrocities, and we’re not doing

that. While Clinton is talking about the right of humanitarian intervention,

which he has never once exercised and—I want to cut down the criticism of

Clinton: nor has anyone else; it’s unlikely that in all of history you can

find a genuine case of humanitarian intervention. Try. It’s very hard. I mean

intervention that was carried out with a humanitarian purpose. Occasionally they

have humanitarian effects, which are incidental. And of course, just about every

intervention is declared to be humanitarian—Hitler, Mussolini, everybody. But

real ones, real humanitarian intent, that’s extremely hard to find. There may

not be any examples. So Clinton’s not unusual. But there are many ways in

which we can act to improve things in the world.


example, the easiest way is by not participating in escalating atrocities. And

we’re doing it right now. I’m not talking about the past, not last year.

Next year. So, one of Clinton’s main projects for next year is a huge increase

in military aid to Colombia. Colombia has the worst human rights record in the

hemisphere and has had it for the last ten years, mostly because human rights

violations in our other client states declined so it went up. It’s also been

the leading recipient of U.S. military aid and training during that decade,

going on right under Clinton. Now it’s going to go up even further.


that Colombia has now replaced Turkey at the top of the recipients of U.S.

military aid (actually there’s another category, Israel and Egypt, but

that’s a separate category for totally other reasons). But among the countries

that get military aid, Turkey was top until this year, now Colombia has moved to

the top. The reason is that Turkey was carrying out a murderous, brutal,

counterinsurgency program and ethnic cleansing operation (notice this is within

NATO, it’s not across the borders) which led to about 2-3 million refuges,

3,500 towns destroyed—that’s about seven times Kosovo—tens of thousands of

people killed. How were they doing it? Well, with U.S. military aid that the

Clinton administration was pouring in. As the atrocities escalated the aid

escalated, a lot of it illegal because it was banned by Congress so it had to be

done in devious ways. Why has that declined? Because they pretty much suppressed

the indigenous population that they were attacking, so therefore the aid has

declined. Now it’s shifting over to Colombia where they still have that

problem. About 70%- 80% of the atrocities, several thousand killed a year, are

attributed (even by the State Department) to the paramilitaries who are tightly

linked with the military. The aid is going to exactly those people. It’s being

directed for a counterinsurgency war, it’s going to attack peasants. It’s

avoiding the areas of paramilitary control, even though everybody knows that the

paramilitaries are up to their neck in narco-trafficking, just as the military

is. All of this is under the cover of a drug war, which nobody takes seriously

who knows anything about either Colombia or drugs. OK, that’ s going to

escalate atrocities. That’s very likely going to escalate what is already the

worst level of human rights violations in the hemisphere and it’ s going to

get even higher.


you want to stop. Again, before talking about the academic issue of humanitarian

intervention (of which there are no known examples), you can start by not

escalating atrocities as you have been doing in the past. So instead of

continuing to escalate atrocities, say, in Turkey, and I could give a long list

of others, don’t do it in Colombia, and plenty of other places. So there’s a

lot that can be done. It’s not that there’s nothing that can be done; but

you have to be serious about it.



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