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Humanitarian Intervention

By Noam Chomsky


At a public talk in February Chomsky was asked:

"President 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?"


Here is the answer he offered...

The 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 over.  

That's 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 intervention.  

And 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&emdash;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&emdash;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.  

For 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.  

Notice 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&emdash;that's about seven times Kosovo&emdash;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.  

OK, 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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Emanzipation Humanum, version 7. 2000, criticism, suggestions as to form and content, dialogue, translation into other languages are all desired