In his new book, Humanitarian Imperialism, Jean Bricmont denounces the use of the human rights pretext to justify attacks against countries in the South. He is a pacifist and a committed intellectual.
How is it that a professor of theoretical physics has just written a book on imperialism?
J.B. I have always been interested in politics, if only passively. I really became involved in 1999 during the war against Yugoslavia. The humanitarian reasons invoked by the United States left me puzzled. I was also shocked by the lack of opposition from the left, even some of the extreme left, to this aggression.
I was asked to address conferences in all kinds of circles: Protestant churches, Muslim movements, student groups, ATTAC, etc. My humanitarian imperialism book is, among other things, a reaction to the concerns and proposals put forward by individuals and groups encountered during these conferences. The book is also a reaction to the attitude of certain political militants claiming to be of the left. In the name of human rights they legitimize aggression against sovereign countries. Or they moderate their opposition so much that it becomes only symbolic.
Human rights is for the rubbish bin, then?
J.B. I defend the aspirations in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights of 1948. It contains a collection of economic, social, political and individual rights. The problem arises when lack of respect, real or presumed, serves to legitimize war, embargoes and other sanctions against a country and when human rights becomes the pretext for a violent assault on that country. Moreover it often happens that only part of the Declaration is cited. When people talk of human rights, economic and social rights are often considered relatively unimportant compared with individual and political rights. Take, for example, the quality of health care in Cuba. This is a remarkable development of a socio-economic right. But it is totally ignored.
While it is true that Cuba conforms perfectly to the very critical description given it by Reporters without Frontiers, this in no way reduces the importance of the quality of its health care. When speaking of Cuba, if you express reservations about lack of respect for political and individual rights you must at least mention the importance of economic and social rights from which the Cubans benefit. What is more important, the rights of individuals or health care? But no-one reasons like this. The right to housing, food, existence and health: these are usually ignored by the defenders of human rights.
In fact, your book shows that these rights are ignored in the media campaigns against Socialist countries, like Cuba or China. You write that four million lives could have been saved if India had adopted the Chinese path.
J.B. The economists Jean DrÃ¨ze and Amartya Sen estimate that, departing from a similar base, China and India have followed different development paths and that the difference between the social systems of these two countries results in about 3.9 million extra deaths in India every year. In Latin America 285,000 lives would be saved each year if Cuban health and food policies were applied.
I am not saying that social and economic performance can justify deficiencies in other fields of human rights. But no-one would maintain that the contrary is true: respect for individual and political rights does not justify flouting social and economic rights. Why do the defenders of human rights never say so?
Let us come back to Cuba. Can the lack of individual freedoms be justified by effective health care? That can be discussed. If, in Cuba, there was a pro-Western regime, it is certain that health care would not be so effective. This can be deduced from the state of people’s health in the “pro-Western” countries of Latin America. Hence, in practical terms there is a choice between the different types of human rights: what are most important, the social and economic ones, or the political and individual ones?
It would of course be best to have both together. The Venezuelan president ChÃ¡vez, for example, is trying to reconcile them. But the US interventionist policy makes this reconciliation difficult in the Third World. What I would like to emphasize is that it is not for us, in the West, who benefit from the two kinds of rights, to lay down what choice is to be made. We should rather put our energies into enabling the Third World countries to carry out their development independently, in the hope that this will eventually help these rights to emerge.
Is there not a great difference between how human rights and the duty to intervene are perceived according to whether you come from the North or the South of the planet?
J.B. In 2002, not long before the war against Iraq, I went to Damascus in Syria and Beirut in Lebanon. I met quite a few people. To say that they opposed the war against Iraq is putting it mildly. And that was the case even at the American University of Beirut. Anti-Americanism and fierce opposition against Israel was tremendous.
When I returned to Belgium I saw no evidence of this at all. Take the question of the disarmament of Iraq. Certain members of the CNAPD (Belgian anti-war coordinating body) told me that this disarmament had to be imposed, although not of course by military, but through peaceful means. If these proposals were advocated in the Middle East, people would immediately reply: “And Israel, why should it not be disarmed?”
In Latin America, and in the Arab-Muslim world particularly, the perception of international law is totally different from ours here, even among the left and the extreme left. The latter do not appear to be interested to know what the populations immediately concerned think about our interventions.
Why is that? Is it a question of navel-gazing? Or of ethnocentricity?
J.B. During decolonization and the Vietnam War, the left adopted a new attitude. It defended an anti-imperialist policy in economic, military and social affairs. Since then this attitude has been undermined by intervention in the name of human rights. The opposition to neo-colonialism has been replaced by the desire to help the peoples of the South to fight against their dictatorial, inefficient and corrupt governments…Those who support this position are not aware of the chasm that separates them from the peoples of the Third World, who do not generally accept the intervention of the Western governments into their internal affairs.
Of course many of them desire more democratic and more honest governments. But why? Because such rulers would manage their natural resources more rationally, obtain better prices for their primary commodities, protect them from control by the multinationals and even build up powerful armies.
When certain people here speak about more democratic governments, they do not mean any of these things. Truly democratic governments in the South would be more like that of ChÃ¡vez than that of the current Iraqi government.
Is there not a background of colonial ideology in all this?
J.B. Perhaps, but it is presented in a post-colonial language. Everyone condemns colonialism. Those who defend the current wars insist that humanitarian intervention is “totally different” from colonialism. However, one can only remark the continuity in this change. Intervention was first legitimized by Christianity, then by a civilizing mission – also by anti-Communism. Our claim to superiority has always authorized us to commit a series of monstrous actions.
What is the role of the media in propagating this “humanitarian imperialism”?
J.B. It is fundamental. In the case of the Yugoslav war, the media was used to prepare public opinion for such attacks. As with Iraq, the journalists are constantly repeating “all the same, it is a good thing that Saddam Hussein has been overthrown.” But to what extent is it legitimate for the United States to overthrow Saddam Hussein? This question is never posed in the newspapers. Do the Iraqis consider that this intervention benefits them? If this is the case, why do more than 80 per cent of them desire the departure of the United States? The press criticizes the United States, but its criticism is mostly about the methods used during the war and the occupation, not about the very principle of intervention.
Would the United States be less likely to make war under a Democratic president?
J.B. That largely depends on the way in which the occupation of Iraq winds up. There are many voices in the United States that call for the withdrawal of the troops and there is a climate of panic in many sectors of the society. If, as in Vietnam, the Iraq war concludes with a catastrophe, there could be a considerable interlude from such policies for a while. If the retreat goes smoothly, if there is not too much damage, they could then rapidly go off to war again. But it is a widespread illusion that the Democrats are less aggressive and that they do not support military interventions.
Why is the reaction to the war by progressive Europeans so weak?
J.B. The ecologists, the Socialist left, the traditional Communist parties, the Trotskyites and most of the NGOs have opposed the war very feebly. Their positions have been undermined by the ideology of humanitarian intervention and all serious references to socialism in their programme have been abandoned. Part of this left has substituted the struggle for human rights for its initial aims of social improvements or revolution.
As it is difficult for these movements to defend the war of the USA against Yugoslavia and Iraq, they adopt the rather convenient position of “Neither, nor”. “Neither Bush nor Saddam”: this enables them to avoid any criticism. Of course I can understand why Saddam Hussein is not liked. But the implications of the “Neither, nor” position go well beyond this.
First, it does not recognize the legitimacy of international law. It does not distinguish between the aggressors and the aggressed. Just to make a comparison: it would have been difficult, during the Second World War, to affirm “Neither Hitler, nor Stalin” without being considered a collaborator.
Second, this approach underestimates the extent of the damage caused by the United States since 1945. Since the end of the Second World War, they have been intervening everywhere in the world to support or install conservative and reactionary forces, from Guatemala to the Congo, from Indonesia to Chile. They have been busy killing the hope of the poor for social change everywhere. It is they, and not Saddam Hussein, who want to overthrow Hugo ChÃ¡vez. The Vietnam War was nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. Even if it is admitted that Milosevic and Saddam Hussein have been demonized, putting them in the same category as the USA at the world level is, for them, totally unjust and false.
Finally, what upsets me most with this “Neither, nor” attitude is the position that we assume, by adopting such slogans, towards our own responsibility.
When we see policies that don’t like in the Third World, we must begin by discussing them with the people who live there, and do this with organizations that represent large sections of the population, not with little groups or isolated individuals. We must try to see if their priorities are the same as ours. I hope that the alternative world movement will create channels of communication that promote a better understanding of the viewpoints of the South. For the time being, the Western left tends to stay in its corner, having very little influence in its own home base and indirectly playing the game of imperialism by demonizing the Arabs, the Russians, the Chinese – in the name of democracy and human rights.
What we are mainly responsible for is the imperialism of our own countries. Let us start by tackling that – and effectively!
Thanks to Victoria Bawtree for the translation!
Jean Bricmont. ImpÃ©ralisme humanitaire. Droits de l’Homme, droit d’ingÃ©rence, droit du plus fort?, Ed. Aden, 2005, 253 pages, 18 euros. Can be ordered from Ã©ditions Aden : http://www.rezolibre.com/librairie/detail.php?article=98
See also (in French) : Biography of Jean Bricmont http://www.michelcollon.info/bio_invites.php?invite=Jean%20Bricmont
Jean Bricmont – Quelques remarques sur la violence, la dÃ©mocratie et l’espoir: http://www.michelcollon.info/articles.php?dateaccess=2005-03-16%2017: 32:42&log=invites
Jean Bricmont – EuropÃ©ens, encore un effort si vous voulez vous joindre au genre humain! http://www.michelcollon.info/articles.php?dateaccess=2003-02-16%2018: 24:22&log=invites
Jean Bricmont and Diana Johnstone – Les deux faces de la politique amÃ©ricaine http://www.michelcollon.info/articles.php?dateaccess=2001-11-07%2018: 35:48&log=invites
On the war on Iraq and its causes, see also the new book: “Bush, le cyclone” : http://www.michelcollon.info/bush_le_cyclone.php
Jean Brcmont UCL-FYMA 2, chemin du cyclotron B-1348 Louvain la Neuve Belgium 0032-10-473277(office) 00-32-2-5020141(home) 00-32-478908170 (portable)