How Human Rights Sell War

  • Amnesty International campaign poster issued during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
    Amnesty International campaign poster issued during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. | Photo: Links.
teleSUR spoke to author Jean Bricmont on how the industry and ideology of human rights has been used to justify imperialism and undermine the European and North American left.

teleSUR: Your book “Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War” was released in English back in 2006 following the invasion of Iraq by the U.S. and the British, so for those not familiar with the book could you briefly outline the contents and the argument and tell us what exactly inspired you to write it?

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Jean Bricmont: It goes back to the Kosovo War when there was no opposition to the war in at least Belgium and France. In fact, there was widespread consensus on the left and the far left for that war because it was a war for “human rights” and we “had to stop genocide.” The opposition to the Iraq War was actually quite weak because people accepted sanctions and all sorts of things that led to the war, but there was at least a certain opposition to the war. But there was no opposition to the Libyan War to speak of and there’s been indirect support for interventions in Syria and Ukraine. I think the left has completely lost its senses because they have totally lost any idea of the relationship of forces between nations in the world. Of course, this goes along with the liberal ideology of the market: Everyone goes to the market, everyone competes on the market and all the nations are equal, and then there’s a superpower that’s supposed to be the cop that’s going to enforce human rights. And the human rights ideology, not the goal of human rights as such but the ideology that the West should always intervene and human rights organizations should always denounce, this ideology has totally wiped out the West including the left in the West and maybe more the left than the right. On the right there are still people who think of the national interest in terms of realpolitik, which I think nowadays is a lesser evil than waging war against everybody.

Dec. 10 is International Human Rights Day which celebrates the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the General Assembly. Could you briefly chart the history of human rights in the 20th and 21st centuries and tell us what, in your opinion, went wrong?

The Declaration of Human Rights is obviously full of good intentions. There is a right to education, there is a right to food and so on. But suppose I am hungry, how am I going to enforce those rights? Those rights cannot be enforced because rights can only be enforced within a state that has the power to enforce those rights. You need police, you need courts and so on and so forth. The problem mostly comes after the 1960s. Before that it’s true that respect for state power was far too extreme, so I understand why people thought that they needed to protest against state power, but the problem is that they’ve never incorporated a desire for peace. The Declaration of Human Rights was introduced at the same time of the Nuremberg trials and the principles and charters of the U .N. The charter of the U.N. is also an important document to maintain peace because it assumes we have to have equal respect for states large and small, strong and weak.

“The ideology of human rights … has been used in a systematic way in order to undermine the sovereignty of weak states and justify intervention.”

The ideology of human rights, however, has been used in a systematic way in order to undermine the sovereignty of weak states and justify intervention, which has always existed and was one of the causes of World War II. One of the reasons why the U.N. charter was created after the war was to prevent the repetition of such events, and now we have chaos in Libya, Syria and Ukraine, we have chaos everywhere. Then there are refugees and then there’s a xenophobic reaction to the refugees, but what do you expect? It’s totally unrealistic to expect people to welcome millions of refugees and not protest, just as it’s totally unrealistic to think human rights can be enforced through war. Eventually, war makes the worst in human beings come to the fore. We say we have a responsibility to protect without asking who’s responsible for the protection. The protection, of course, comes from the United States, but the United States is not a benevolent power as we’ve seen throughout history. It has its own agenda and it wages war against the countries it considers its enemies. It’s not going to protect the Palestinians, it’s not going to protect the Yemenis, it’s not going to intervene in Saudi Arabia. And so we give power to an absolute sovereign who uses it as it sees fit. This has been a total subversion of human rights, which I of course respect as an idea but not the way it has been put into practice. That includes Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, who have all been incredibly biased in their denunciation of human rights abuses.

I was just going to ask you about the relationship between the left, the imperial governments such as the U.S., France and Britain, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as the U.N. itself? What’s the relationship between these different actors?

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Bloc, the left needed a holy ghost to rally around and instead of socialism it chose human rights. The problem with that is that human rights were always used during the Cold War as a rallying cry for the right against the Communists. You don’t need to be a Communist to be suspicious of this ideology of human rights. By embracing this ideology of human rights they thought they were subversive but they were not. The right was actually quite happy with the way it was used ideologically, they’ve always had those kinds of double standards. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, far from seeing the birth of a genuine left as people like Chomsky might have hoped for, what happened was a total capitulation and an embrace of the idea of the enemy. Now we have a sort of artificial division between the left and the right, for example in the area of gay rights which the right might not like, but when it comes to war, peace, the market and the economy there isn’t any consistent thought, even in thinking of alternatives to neoliberalism.

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