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Ken Coates

Benign imperialism versus United Nations

(Winter 1999)

From International Socialism 2:85, Winter 1999.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘Sovereignty is less absolute than in earlier times. Just as we now consider it right to intervene in families to prevent domestic violence, so it has become normal to override state sovereignty in cases of large scale violations of human rights.’ [1] This is the rationale proposed by Mary Kaldor to justify NATO’s decision to bomb Yugoslavia. Ever since the Cold War ended, she claims, ‘the distinction between internal peace and external war, between a domestic rule of law and international anarchy that characterised the Westphalian era has broken down’. [2] Indeed, she continues, since the Second World War ‘there has been steady progress towards a global legal regime which deals both with the laws of war and with human rights, and which has been strengthened by bodies like Amnesty.’

And so we arrive at a new role for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation: ‘benign or ethical imperialism’. NATO at 50 must ‘switch from defence of the West to upholding international law everywhere’. There are some pretty serious difficulties about all this. Firstly, there is not so much international law as Ms Kaldor believes. If the upholding of human rights were to legitimate intervention, then larger transgressions should mean brisker responses: but the truth is very far from this. More, a large part of the responsibility for the failure to generate such rights based law falls on the leader of NATO, the US. It is the US which repeatedly refused to ratify the Convention on Genocide [3], until it gave way with the reservation that, before any dispute to which the United States is a party may be submitted to the jurisdiction of the court, ‘the specific consent of the US is required in each case’. It is the US which refused to recognise the competence of the International Court of Justice in The Hague in the case of Nicaragua, and which defied 15 specific judgements condemning the actions of the US government and awarding compensation to the Nicaraguan government. It is the US which is the largest defaulter on its financial payments to the United Nations.

In all these cases, senior American politicians have claimed that UN decisions must be set aside if they conflict with the interest of the US government. Admittedly, the American state is the most powerful at large in today’s world, so that when it stands off from the principles of international order as agreed by all the other states, by that fact alone it goes a long way to neutralise such principles. Noam Chomsky gives us a much better guide to the real legal position. There is, he says, a regime of international law and order, based on the United Nations Charter, and on the resolutions of the United Nations, together with the decisions of the World Court. This regime rests on the doctrines of national sovereignty, and outlaws the use of force, or even the threat of force between states, unless this has the express authority of the security council. In parallel, there is a Universal Declaration of Human Rights which guarantees the rights of individuals against states, but which provides no legal mechanism for upholding such guarantees and offers no guidance on how the UN Charter can be amended or suspended to provide for its enforcement. To be lawful, any attempt to reconcile this contradiction would need to be based upon consensus. Conquest could impose a solution to the problem, but would itself be unlawful under this system.

‘Benign imperialisms’ could only make law if they conquered everyone and then proclaimed a new law. Even the potent US might balk at this task, which would involve the generation of active government on a forbidding scale. It would surely militarise the economy and thus be inimical to the freedom of enterprise, or at any rate market sovereignty. Short of such highly improbable conquest, consensus is the only way to international law.

Ms Kaldor thinks that we can derive a formula that will help us from Immanuel Kant. She is right that Kant can help us, but he will offer no support whatever to benign imperialism. His proposal was to secure perpetual peace among states, and so, unsurprisingly, like the United Nations organisation, he considered states to be the foundation of the international order. A state is a society of human beings, Kant tells us, that no one other than itself can command or dispose of. Regarding conquest, of which he disapproves, Kant has a simple remedy: standing armies should be abolished. Kant’s fifth principle is that ‘no state shall forcibly interfere in the constitution and government of another state.’ The right to perpetual peace, then, will depend upon reforming states in such a manner as to provide them all with ‘republican’ or constitutional governments. Once they became similar, or sufficiently alike, they could then embrace federalism in a League of Nations which ‘need not be a state of nations’. In this, as in other matters, Kant’s essay is prescient, and its echoes are still resounding.

Certainly the present United Nations has not evolved sufficient congruities among its members to induce them voluntarily to accept such federalism, which might indeed provide for the agreement of enforceable human rights. The question does not arise, although the problem can clearly be seen. The enforcement of human rights today depends, as much as it ever has, on the development of public opinion, both within states and between them.

This was the foundation upon which we tried to build the Russell Tribunals which investigated the abuse of human rights, first of all in relation to torture and violent oppression in Latin America, and later considering other abuses, such as the mistreatment of indigenous peoples. In a number of sessions, key witnesses were interrogated, and the evidence of abuse was evaluated. The findings of the tribunals were widely reported in the press. The tribunals became necessary because, in the words of Lelio Basso, ‘human rights are at the same time proclaimed and left unprotected, devoid of international or national safeguards’. But when Basso gave his authority to upholding human rights in Latin America in the 1970s, the science of spin was in its infancy. Today public opinion is almost a department of state, so that it becomes ever more difficult even to imagine what justice might be. Mary Kaldor is right to say that the work of Amnesty International has powerfully assisted in the creation of a public opinion which now both sustains and feeds on a wide variety of more specialised human rights agencies.

But, without the reform of the international system, there is no law to justify the intervention of any state or group of states, or to support the use of force to uphold human rights in any other state. Ms Kaldor implies that humanitarian intervention is a matter of opportunity because, although there are many cases in which it is not possible, ‘that is not a reason to stand aside’ when it is possible. The condition thus described has nothing whatever to do with law. It would fit, perhaps, the primitive rules which guarantee circumscribed security in gangland. Certain types of crimes will be punished if they simultaneously offend one or other of the principal gangsters. Other victims of arbitrary misbehaviour need not apply for such ‘justice’. But law gives equal treatment to all cases, so all victims are entitled to equal redress. Discriminatory treatment is the antithesis of law.

Numerous commentators have compared the repression in Kosovo before the US bombardment with the sustained and ferocious military action of the Turkish state against the Kurds in south east Turkey. In fact, repressive legislation against the Kosovans had rightly aroused sustained opposition elsewhere in Europe since 1989 [4], but it was nothing like as bad as the more comprehensive repression, indeed slaughter, of Kurds in Turkey. As repression fomented rebellion, massacres became more common and more bloody. And yet Kaldor’s benign imperialism recruits one set of oppressors from Turkey, under the flag of NATO, in order to redress the complaints of another set of oppressed in Kosovo. Justice would require that an impartial hearing be granted to both Kosovans and Kurds, and their separate complaints adjudicated within the framework of even handed fidelity to the law. If it is possible to bomb Belgrade in pursuit of justice, it is equally possible to bomb Ankara. The logistics involved are not the problem. The problem is that the bombardment of our Turkish ally is as unthinkable to NATO, as is justice for the Kurds. The Turkish establishment are our own oppressors, and it is necessary to be evil minded to see any equivalence at all between their behaviour and that alleged against Yugoslav Serbs.

Of course, in reality, bombing from outside is no more conducive to the defence of human rights in Kurdistan than it was in Kosovo: in both cases the remedy was or would be even worse than the original disorder. But we are not engaged in a plea for benign imperialism. It is not necessary to list the fearful roster of gross violations of human rights around the world to see that the only pretexts for intervention which concern benevolent imperialism are those in which some material strategic concern already exists. But the law does need to be reformed, because proxy wars, destabilisation and direct manipulation are more and more common in the modern world, and indeed are frequently found to be happening under the tutelage of the US or other NATO allies.

Until comparatively recently the European allies would quite normally have sought diplomatic release from the more bellicose US projects by a very simple device. They would have brought in an appeal to the UN in order to find a diplomatically acceptable way of getting out of the unwanted Yugoslav confrontations. Why did they not do this in the case of Yugoslavia? They could then have relied on Russia or China to veto the bombardment and thus escaped the responsibility for blocking the US project themselves. But by arranging to bypass the security council and its veto, the European allies have achieved a number of very undesirable results, most of which damage them far more than their possible adversaries.

Firstly, they have given the US hegemony over some important future decisions in the Balkans and further afield, which they are likely to find rather embarrassing and quite difficult to modify. Secondly, by breaching the rule of unanimity among the Great Powers represented by the veto, they have not secured any better mechanism for avoiding serious collisions of interest. The US and China can come into fierce conflict, and the possible beginnings of this can already be seen in Taiwan and even Kashmir. The veto was a poor instrument for the maintenance of peace, and no doubt it would be possible to improve on it. But to kick it away before any alternative has been devised will not be deemed very sensible by future generations.

China will presumably veto any ‘humanitarian intervention’, because it will not wish to welcome such an intervention into Tibet or Xinjiang. At this time, though, there is not much likelihood of Ms Kaldor’s freedom legions following her up the Himalayas. The Dalai Lama thinks that public opinion can still play an important part in moderating China’s behaviour in Tibet. Certainly he understands the limits of benign imperialism. During the Gulf War, after I had conducted hearings with him in the European Parliament, I wrote to him to ask if he could support the pope’s stance on that conflict. He replied by saying that there were undoubtedly some similarities between the cases of Kuwait and Tibet, ‘but unfortunately, so far as is known, in Tibet there is absolutely no oil whatever to be found.’ Perhaps that reinforces his view that, in Tibet’s case, the movement of argument and persuasion is more likely to be effective than military action of any kind.

But, yes, there needs to be a continuous effort to create a more civilised international regime, in which human rights may genuinely flourish. This needs to be a regime of law, and it is difficult to see how any progress towards this can be made by destroying the frail system that was created at the end of the Second World War. Back in 1945 destruction had raged across the world and focused the minds of governments everywhere. The impulse to avoid new wars was powerful enough to give us the UN Charter, with all its faults and all its promises. Nobody can expect governments to suddenly improve and be made moral by their agreement to league together in a United Nations. But they are not worsened in this effort either.

The problem which has been created by the actions of benign or ethical imperialism is, of course, that it has seriously undermined the UN. That the most powerful state can lead its allies into a unilateral military onslaught, without the express endorsement of the security council, means that brute force alone now determines whether any other state or combination of states might take unilateral action in their own interests. Conflict zones abound around the world, and most of them engender fairly serious cases of human rights abuse. Ethical imperialism is supposed to sound quite innocuous. But what if there were to be several such imperialisms?

It is not likely that the UN machinery will disintegrate as a result of the war in the Balkans. But it has been undermined, and it may begin to give way to other alliances, calculated to ward off the hegemony of US ethics. The true face of these ethics was revealed by Mr Karl Bildt, speaking for the UN in a television interview on Newsnight on 28 July 1999, about the progress made in organising international aid for the reconstruction of those areas of Yugoslavia, including Kosovo, which had been devastated during the war. Mr Bildt maintained that it was difficult, if not impossible, to aid Serbia, because the economic system there was not conducive to receiving aid. That is how far the sovereignty of the market place has undermined that of ethics. Yugoslavia had established a form of market socialism with self management, which functioned adequately. But was it this unusual economic system as modified by the IMF, rather than any ethical judgements on its leaders and administrators, which informed Mr Bildt’s response to questioners? Or was it the war economy of Yugoslavia which could not be aided?

If ethical imperialism is driven by the need to assert the absolute domination of market forces over society, there will be other states which begin to find it tiresome. And the UN will have to contend with the ideological debates which ensue. In short, the Balkan War has established a new order of extreme instability and insecurity. That is why the parliament of the Ukraine voted recently for nuclear rearmament, because it felt that the security guarantees it had previously been given by the US were no longer valid. That is why the Russian government, caught in a very precarious political balance, encouraged statements to the effect that it was now abandoning its ‘no first use’ pledge. Ethical imperialism has thus begun the reversal of all the gains which had previously been made to limit and control the possibilities of nuclear war.

The ink on this article was scarcely dry when all the issues which it discusses were highlighted once again, in the savage tragedy of East Timor. East Timor was a classic victim of old imperialisms, which never pretended to be benign. The former colonial power, Portugal, was by far the most humane actor involved, however. The 1975 invasion by Indonesia was unbelievably brutal and murderous. The Western allies encouraged it. There is evidence that the US actively approved of it, and the British continued to supply a comprehensive range of armaments before, during and after the East Timor bloodbath, in which Indonesian forces killed more than 200,000 people.

The recent revolutionary upheaval in Indonesia, following economic collapse, loosened the grip of the Indonesian state on its East Timorese colony and produced an agreement for a referendum on independence. Now that the result of the referendum has been as decisive as every one expected, the Indonesian military are determined to prevent its implementation, and another terrible bloodbath is already beginning. But there is no benign or ethical face on the global imperialism which confronts this dreadful situation. Neither the US nor its British dogs of war are in the least bit moved to intervention by the worst human rights violations in the modern world.

The intervention in Kosovo showed how heartlessly great military power could be used. But the non-intervention in East Timor shows that it can be even more heartlessly not used.


1. The Observer, 18 July 1999.

2. A Benign Imperialism, Prospect, April 1999.

3. This convention was unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, and came into force in January 1951. It was signed by the US but not ratified by the Senate, on the grounds that it was poorly drafted and could allow intervention by other governments in US affairs. The Senate again refused to ratify in 1984, while supporting the ‘principles embodied in the convention’. It was finally ratified on 25 November 1988, with the reservation.

4. In the early 1990s I received Ibrahim Rugova and a group of leading Kosovans as chairman of the Sub-committee on Human Rights in the European Parliament. Although we obtained a sympathetic response from our colleagues, I cannot say that much was done to help redress the grievances of which Rugova was complaining.

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