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Liberal Interventionism, Human Rights, and Political Philosophy

by Zwackus Tue Apr 5th, 2011 at 05:46:41 AM EST

A few days ago Frank Schnittger posted a very interesting diary on Samantha Power, the Monster, and the Libyan Intervention, inviting a discussion on what I think are fundamental questions and problems in liberal thought and political philosophy in the context of the Libyan Intervention.  Later in that diary, ceebs posted another quite interesting discussion of the origins and evolution of the idea of military humanitarian interventionism from the Adam Curtis Blog, Goodies and Baddies.

However, the diary got hijacked by a discussion of DPU ammunition without really addressing the matters initially presented for discussion.  So, round 2!

front-paged by afew


In particular, I would like to bring up the fundamental issues of political philosophy that are brought to light in this context, and the ways they seem to have irreconcilable conflicts.  In this way, I hope to preempt the easy, cynical comments that have often arisen to this issue - "Oh, this is just Empire 2.0" and whatnot.  It may be, but that's not the point I think is particularly interesting.

As I see it, this key issue at the heart of this issue is human rights.  The idea of human rights is a core part of the basic political philosophies built into Liberal Democracy, and it is the extension of this idea of human rights to the world as a whole that is at the heart of the Liberal Interventionist argument.  Namely, that all people in the world have basic human rights, and that when these rights are violated, some sort of criminal action is taking place.  Thus the idea of War Crimes.  

The problem with rights is that if they are not enforced they do not exist.  So, if the human rights of <insert oppressed group here, or X> are being violated, and those who violate them are not taken to account in some way, then it exposes the idea as a sham.

So, given that the rights of X are being violated, by-standers in powerful country A have a couple choices.

  1. Stand by and do nothing, showing clearly their indifference to the violation of X's rights.  For many, indifference of this sort is tantamount to support for the violation, along the lines of being accessory to a crime.  If you see someone committing a crime, and do not stop them, then you too are guilty, at least a little, of that crime.

  2. Try to help those suffering, and use non-violent methods to try and stop the violations of human rights.  This is the response of the Doctors without Borders group, I gather.  But while a band-aid is better than nothing, it's not going to stop a massacre.  And while diplomatic pressure may stop large states from engaging in full-scale war, it has repeatedly proven ineffective in stopping local militias from using small arms and machetes to commit horrible atrocities.

  3. Use military force to stop the atrocities, or to punish the guilty.

All three options are obviously problematic.  1 and 2 both seriously question one's commitment to the notion of human rights, as they are incapable of either stopping atrocity or of bringing those responsible to justice.  

3 brings up an entirely different sort of philosophical conflict, though - human rights versus self-determination (or anti-imperialism), and human rights versus pacifism.

Namely, does anyone have the right to judge the actions of a group or sovereign entity to which one has no direct connection?  Do they not have the right to determine their own actions and behaviors, without judgment from the outside?  If so, then what right do liberal do-gooders in rich, peaceful societies have to question whats going on in the rest of the world?  Further, how is such interference any different from Imperialism?

On the other hand, if one does not believe in the use of violence or force in any context, or believes that all violent deaths are the same no matter who the perpetrator, or will not countenance the use of violence to stop other acts of violence, than the idea of a military intervention over human rights is obviously unacceptable.

From the other side, a strong supporter of human rights can very easily come around to supporting Global Empire, and though not particularly popular at the moment I can imagine the outlines of a very coherent and well-argued case for the issue, so long as one is not particularly worried about either self-determination or non-violence.

Now, if someone can come up with a coherent way to blend these three basic liberal beliefs - human rights, self-determination, and non-violence - in a manner that actually works, I'll be very impressed.  But I really don't think it's possible, as the notion of human rights has a clear statement of value at its core, while self-determination and non-violence both seem to be positions of moral-relativism.  As such, there is an inherent and un-resolvable conflict at a very basic level.  I think that a lot of the moral confusion over events like the Libya intervention stems from this conflict between incompatible political beliefs, and that further this incompatibility is the equivalent of an oozing wound on the side of liberal philosophy in general, one that saps its supporters of the energy and will necessary to make strong arguments and win debates in the public arena as a whole.

But maybe I'm missing something.  Any thoughts?

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Part of the problem is that there is no accepted hierarchy of rights and there is a tendency to conflate various types of rights. What we have is a cafeteria approach to rights, where the assortment selected on any given day can vary according to taste.

An anarchist might place individual human rights at the very top of the list. These must be preserved and cannot be violated. But this position is routinely rendered meaningless by rich and powerful elites being able to grab control of the state and use its powers against the rights of all who oppose the agenda of those elites. The favorite justification for so doing is to preserve "order", which, after some time, devolves into preserving a social order, and the political order through which that social order acts and the virtues of continuity and stability usually come to be emphasized.

The idea of self-determination seems largely derived from cultural and linguistic nationalism. Each ethnic group is entitled to select its own form of government. This is challenged by the de-facto intermixing of ethnicities within defined geographic locations and the lack of any standard for the sort of government that is suitable for a particular people or collection of peoples. Often the result is rule by the most determined and/or sophisticated user of some combination of violence and rhetoric, as in Libya.

Non-violence is great as a social goal, but weak as a guiding principle. It is, on its own, helpless against determined violence exercised without conscience. The best that can be achieved would seem to be to have as a goal a society in which there is the least level of violence possible. Post WWII Japan ranks high on this scale. But this was made possible by the existence of the USA as the military guarantor of Japan's independence and there are costs to that arrangement.  

When we allow the "principle" of self-determination and national sovereignty to trump the principle of universal human rights we set the stage for debacles such as the various genocides of the 20th century. So self determination and national sovereignty is supported most by those who fear they might have to violate the rights of their citizens in order to remain in power.

A state run in the interests of its elites, be they hereditary nobility or financial elites, and comes to value the institutions that serve their interests. Only fortuitously do their actions seem to conform to any collection of principles. An excellent discussion of this problem in terms of "the real" vs. "the ideal" is provided in E.H. Carr's The 20 Year Crisis.

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat Apr 2nd, 2011 at 11:08:24 AM EST
The problem of inconsistency has always plagued the idea of rights, but without some such doctrine it becomes very, very difficult to make arguments in favor of any sort of checks and balances in a democracy - or even in favor of democracy at all.  Notions of rights do not mix well with utilitarianism at all, and one can make all kinds of rather nasty utilitarian arguments in favor of non-democratic systems.

However, I think it's important to come up with a vaguely coherent statement of value as part of any political project, and right now the obvious and glaring conflicts at the heart of the modern liberal program have rendered it incoherent on issues of foreign policy.  Incoherence and a lack of principle make it impossible to advocate with any force for . . . well . . . anything.

You mention that anarchists would place human rights above all, and I think I can agree with that basic position.  However, in doing that anarchists also reserve for themselves the basic right of self protection, through violence if necessary.  After all, a radical construction of human rights which includes absolute human freedom by necessity rejects any restraints on one's ability to do violence to others, and thus any violation of the freedoms of another could be met with lethal violence.  Endless spiral of chaos, anyone?

The idea of self-determination seems largely derived from cultural and linguistic nationalism. Each ethnic group is entitled to select its own form of government. This is challenged by the de-facto intermixing of ethnicities within defined geographic locations and the lack of any standard for the sort of government that is suitable for a particular people or collection of peoples. Often the result is rule by the most determined and/or sophisticated user of some combination of violence and rhetoric, as in Libya.

So, is your opposition to European domination of North Africa entirely practical/utilitarian in nature?  If the Italians, Spanish, or French could go in and sort things out with a new Imperial settlement, that would be okay?  The principles of self-determination have no sway with you at all?  In all likelihood a re-conquest scenario is not very probable or realistic, but to say that is just skirt the philosophical issue entirely.

What I mean is, if one is going to have any sort of program or goal in mind beyond "do whatever seems like the best idea at the moment," then one needs to coherent explain and defend that position.  If one is comfortable with "do whatever seems like the best idea at the moment," than any principle-based denunciations or attacks on the Western intervention are nothing but hot air.  In my opinion, that includes cynically dismissive statements along the lines of, "it's empire 2.0" or "blood for oil" and whatnot - because if everything is about contingency and the moment, than what on Earth is wrong with that?  Where is the basis for criticizing those objectives?

by Zwackus on Sat Apr 2nd, 2011 at 02:23:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I am agreeing with you that arguments based on rights are inherently messy, not that no such principles are feasible or desirable. I tend to think within a frame of a relative hierarchy of rights, but cannot say that I have a coherent position. I would definitely place the rights of individuals to be free in their persons from arbitrary arrest, imposition, impressment and harassment over the rights of a state to justify such treatment on any but the most fundamental interests the state might claim -- and there we again get into trouble.

The above very limited statement of rights, which could be augmented with everything in the US Bill of Rights, gives us a very partial conception of rights. What rights does or should an individual have against a state that has been captured by a powerful interest group who continually manage to secure practical control of the apparatus of government through electoral means? How do we secure a right to have the policies of our government operate in the interests of 97% of the population instead of 3%? When it becomes obvious that we have lost that struggle what rights do the 97% still have and how are they secured?  

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat Apr 2nd, 2011 at 03:18:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Zwackus:
What I mean is, if one is going to have any sort of program or goal in mind beyond "do whatever seems like the best idea at the moment," then one needs to coherent explain and defend that position.  If one is comfortable with "do whatever seems like the best idea at the moment," than any principle-based denunciations or attacks on the Western intervention are nothing but hot air.  In my opinion, that includes cynically dismissive statements along the lines of, "it's empire 2.0" or "blood for oil" and whatnot - because if everything is about contingency and the moment, than what on Earth is wrong with that?

(i have puzzled this one for a while, and it always leads me off an intellectual cliff.)

pragmatically, there's nothing wrong with that, just as pragmatically there's nothing wrong with bopping your neighbour over the head because he has something you fancy, and as you chummily eat his meat round the fire with your tribe, surely their happy smiles and warm gratitude is plenty to soothe any pangs of doubt.

when we were brutes, we were conscience-free, might ruled, end of story.
now we are trying to look in the mirror and see something better than brute, so we construct a narrative to help soothe pangs, such as 'he was the wrong colour, not 'one of us', smelt funny, thumped the wrong tome etc' so he had it coming to him, social darwinism with lipstick of justification.

after a few more million dead, we have become more sophisticated about the rationalisations, that's all. thicker lipstick.

our aspirations remain just that, aspirations, and fine and noble they are, but some of us at least have them, which is marginally better that not.

how do you teach people to abjure force without using force?

no easy answer, methinks, just a long haul up the hill to social responsibility, with many tumbles and trials.

now we can destroy our habitat as the flick of a few switches, we clever apes have come up against a reality we cannot weasel our logic around, so by hook or by crook we have to face up to the fact that brutishness will bring us all to ruin, no payoff there, so with great reluctance we are constrained to contemplate the only rational solution... we need to evolve to better-than-brute, rapidos.

this is the painful blood and radiation-soaked journey we are in the middle of, from animals to angels, some might say. the arrival point is still unknown, but the journeyers, to go on, must envision a goal, even if reaching it seems ludicrously improbable.
to go back is no option, to dwell where we are too dodgy, so onwards and upwards we go, still stinking of mire, stars in our eyes, one step at a time.

it's an exodus from pharaonic institutionalised ignorance and plutocratic misery, towards a land flowing with milk and honey, we are trying to cross a great river of gore and grief to get there. our little boat of hope is tacking across, dodging the jagged spars of fracturing, broken ideologies as they hurtle around in the strong currents.

enough mixed metaphors, fishful winking and delusional whimsy for one comment.

great diary, i wish i had a clearer answer to your question, it is a very perceptive one, i think we better keep asking ourselves what it means to make moral choices, and why we bother even to try, when so little seems to work out optimally in the 'real' world.

the alternative is to accept we are brutes, always were and always will be...

the measure of how far we have to go is the number of people who still do accept that as undeniable, while those of us with the breathing space to contemplate any better alternative feel empowered, even to be able to dream of a nobler ideal than kill-or-be-killed, such as most of the animal kingdom still suffers under.

perhaps it is all an illusion, and brutes we'll remain, but something i love would die if i totally accepted that, so i fervently hope we keep trying to imagine we can affect the course of things with our little thoughtstreams, tiny flaps of tiny wings i guess...

as for dropping multimillion dollar ordinance to sort out libya, it's above my paygrade to morally evaluate. upriver there's the reeking cause of the libyan problem, which is gaddafi would never have had such a vicious hold on the place if we in the west had not armed him, and indulged his delusions.

you can only fight fire with fire so long. i just wish we were dropping millions into PV research, as i think that's what's going to stop this global resource buccaneering that is the endgame otherwise.

"A fool with a tool is still a fool." - Abraham Verghese

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Mon Apr 4th, 2011 at 11:03:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Incoherence and a lack of principle make it impossible to advocate with any force for . . . well . . . anything.

Not so. Incoherence may inhibit those who realize that their position is incoherent or they might just not care. And some of the worst monsters we have had never even realized or accepted that there was any fault with their ideas. The problem is that politics operates much more on rhetoric than on philosophy. Most leaders throughout history have either inherited their position or have just "solved" the practical and rhetorical problems facing them sufficiently to gain control of the power of the state and then used that power to insure the continuation of their rule. Only in the last few centuries have we developed systems that allow leaders to exit office other than feet first.

But, ever hopeful, I would like to see an intellectually coherent position developed. When I was 20 I set for myself the task of examining all of my ideas and revising them until they became mutually coherent. Needless to say I soon found this task to be most grandiose. Fortunately, I did not have too much time to devote to it. My fall back position became one of accepting that all of my ideas were provisional and committing myself to attempting to reconcile differences when I became aware of them. Then I realized that some of the biggest problems were likely to be ones of which I was unaware.

Such is the human condition. As a friend said long ago: "sometimes I feel that life is a joke that someone is playing on me." I could appreciate the sentiment.

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Apr 4th, 2011 at 11:32:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks, Zwackus, for continuing a discussion that I tried to begin in my diary and hoped to develop further at some future stage. I think part of the problem is that people sometimes look for moral or political absolutes which can be applied rigorously and consistently across all situations and thus arrive at a coherent doctrine of world Governance. There may be a movement in that direction - and it is one I would support - but it is very far from the reality of where we are now.

First some historical context:  Medieval wars often involved battles between relatively small armies and left civil societies relatively unscathed  One Monarch/ruler might be replaced by another, and there could be great economic disruption as an army rampaged across a countryside seeking food and women to sustain a rapacious army, but it didn't necessarily involved a systematic attempt at genocide - the attempt to completely wipe out an indigenous population and replace it with an invading one. The officer class/nobility of different countries were often just engaged in a battle over who should own/rule what. Royal intermarriages, shifting diplomatic alliances, an emergent common interests in trade could mitigate the conflicts and even a war might only replace one ruling class with another.

Then a few things happened.  Populations rose exponentially.  Lebensraum became an issue for some. Technology hugely increased the scale of slaughter possible and also gradually blurred the distinctions between combatants and civilians. The twentieth century saw two world wars of unparalleled scale and systematic attempts at civilian genocide - by Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and a variety of smaller scale despots.  Institutions like the League of Nations, International Courts of Justice and UN emerged to try and put some order to international relations and limit the scope of repression and war.  An emerging body of international law, generated by Treaties, International Courts and International organisations began to emerge - and became, haltingly, and selectively, more enforceable.

All of these things limit the absolute right of a Sovereign or a state to do absolutely what it pleases.  The concept of "human rights" as distinct from the rights of citizenship that might or might not be conferred by individual states emerged.  Thus the right of "National Self-Determination" became ever more constrained.  The world might be made up of more or less independent Nation states but all were, to a greater or lesser extent subject to International Law - usually in inverse proportion to their military and economic strength.  And all of this implied - if it were to be more than just paperwork or window dressing - that there were ways of enforcing such laws.

Thus there emerged a range of measures - ranging from diplomatic pressures, economic sanctions, arms embargoes, clandestine actions, media/propaganda wars, threats of prosecution for "war crimes" etc. - which could place some limits of State Sovereignty short of the absolute sanction of military intervention and formal war.  However whilst these changed the nature of international relations, they didn't entirely replace the age old practices of wars of conquest or domination where the powerful states subjugated the weaker.  Whatever change there was, was gradual.

A few factors accelerated the trend:

  1. The threat of Mutually Assured Destruction if all out nuclear war broke out.

  2. Increased economic interdependencies as the world economy globalised

  3. The recognition that wars were an economically inefficient means of dominating a territory or natural resources

  4. Increased awareness of the limits of the biosphere and our increasing footprint which threatened to undermine the sustainability of the international system as a whole

  5. The gradual replacement of an international system of nation states with a system of global corporations which frequently have more power than several individual states put together and which increasingly determine the context within which all states must operate - hence no Tobin taxes, low corporate taxation, private armies of "contractors" not subject to the laws of war

---

Moreover there isn't a clearly distinct Global Judiciary whose decisions are clearly and invariably enforceable. Decisions are enforced only is it is in the interests of major players with the power to do so.  The USA routinely flouts Treaty obligations with impunity. Military interventions as in Libya are the exception rather than the norm.  Many would argue that a law selectively enforced is no law at all.  Others argue that it is better than no law at all.  But clearly enforcement is costly and which Nation wants to put its soldiers at risk unless it is clearly its its self-defined national interest?  This inconsistency undermines the legitimacy of the international system, but is it not better than nothing, and a welcome sign of progress?

Countries such as Israel and Apartheid South Africa are/were particularly vociferous in their complaints of Double standards. Whatever their failings, weren't Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Rwanda etc. far more egregious violations of human rights? Objectively yes.  But if you claim to be a "western democracy" upholding "western" standards, you will also be judged by those standards.  So there is a value in setting international norms and standards for human rights and Governmental conduct which can gradually be applied more generally across a wider sphere.

It would be silly to deny that this movement for Greater global governance isn't also being used by major players to further their interests.   But perhaps even sillier to deny that a movement towards higher global governance standards isn't necessary and good - whatever its limitations at any one point in time. History hasn't ended. Wars will continue to be fought.  Military and Economic might rather than justice will still determine the outcome of conflicts in many cases. Self interest and Greed hasn't been abolished.  But a generalised movement towards higher standards of global governance together with a greater array of non-violent tools for enforcing them cannot but be welcomed - in my view - whatever the merits of a specific intervention in a specific conflict.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Apr 2nd, 2011 at 07:41:29 PM EST
The King's Writ only ran so far until kings became able to take down or order demolished the castles of their nobles. I believe that a similar dynamic applies and will apply to the scope of "international law." The arrest and prosecution of Bush 43, Cheney or Rummy might be a watershed for the respect accorded international law.

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat Apr 2nd, 2011 at 08:07:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Countries such as Israel and Apartheid South Africa are/were particularly vociferous in their complaints of Double standards. Whatever their failings, weren't Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Rwanda etc. far more egregious violations of human rights? Objectively yes.  But if you claim to be a "western democracy" upholding "western" standards, you will also be judged by those standards.

Aside from Israel's claims to be a democracy, there is the far more compelling case that The WestTM is complicit in Israel's crimes, by virtue of active support for them, where it was merely a spectator - and a comparatively impotent one - to Pol Pot's crimes.

The WestTM had no power to compel Pol Pot to respect human rights. Having no economic or diplomatic relations worth speaking of with a regime rather limits your range of sanctions. But The WestTM could compel Israel to respect human rights by the simple expedient of withdrawing the generous support extended to it.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Apr 3rd, 2011 at 12:43:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't think I'd say that the west was a spectator of Pol Pot.

Pol Pot was a consequence of the greater Vietnam War. He came out of - for lack of a better term for this discussion - extreme violations of human rights and international law by the US.

aspiring to genteel poverty

by edwin (eeeeeeee222222rrrrreeeeeaaaaadddddd@@@@yyyyaaaaaaa) on Sun Apr 3rd, 2011 at 02:48:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
One of the consequences of Kissinger's "your either with us or against us" policy towards Cambodia. Henry is first in line in my books for the blame for Pol Pot. Kick around a weak country for your own domestic and international agenda goals and sometimes you get blowback. It might have been fairer had some of that blow-back landed on those who supported Nixon and Kissinger instead of on the average sane Cambodian.

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Apr 3rd, 2011 at 03:12:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... is a lot easier to make in principle than it is in practise.

In practise, the case for liberal intervention has to overcome not simply the principled objection to violent conflict resolution, or the objection that it interferes with the right of people to self-determination. It also has to make the case that the intervention will actually support the principles of liberal intervention. To that end,

  • The intervening power must argue convincingly that the destruction and misery it visits upon the targeted country is at worst proportional to the future atrocities prevented by the intervention. This bar is not easy to clear if your principal military doctrine involves terror bombing (as all Atlantic powers' military doctrines have, in various guises, since at least the second world war).

  • The intervening power must either be prepared to annex the target country wholesale (and grant its inhabitants full political rights as citizens) or make a compelling case that an intervention will strengthen indigenous political structures that are preferable to the political structures that caused the crisis provoking intervention. Replacing a despot with a civil war, a Balkanized patchwork of warlords or another despot does not really qualify.

  • The intervening power must make a credible case that it is able to carry out a decisive intervention. If the intervention ends up simply prolonging a futile conflict, it confers no benefits.

Further, a doctrine of liberal intervention (as opposed to ) faces two additional objections, related to the credibility of the claim that it is actually a doctrine of liberal intervention, as opposed to a doctrine of aggressive colonialism:

  • A power that adopts a doctrine of liberal intervention must have a record of even-handedness in its treatment of human rights violations. In particular, it must pressure any client states it has to observe human rights. If a power does not care enough about human rights to force the states that it has economic or cultural power over to refrain from violations, then it is incredible that it would sacrifice blood and treasure to secure human rights by force of arms.

  • The sort of military organisation and equipment that is required for liberal intervention is identical to the sort of military organisation and equipment that allows one to launch colonial expeditions. A power that adopts a doctrine of liberal intervention must therefore be able to credibly argue that the armaments it procures are for use in liberal intervention, rather than colonial mischief. This is not easy to argue when one has (as all powers currently capable of projecting military force a significant distance beyond their borders have) an unbroken history of colonial mischief.

At present, none of the powers that lay claim to the mantle of liberal intervention fulfil even one of these criteria. Until and unless they do, the finer points of principle are perhaps not the most relevant point of departure for the discussion.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Apr 3rd, 2011 at 12:37:49 PM EST
the finer points of principle are perhaps not the most relevant point of departure for the discussion.

Starting with a policy of stopping imminent or ongoing slaughters where possible might be appropriate. That is hardly a fine point, nor would taking military action against those who are known to be killing political opponents or particular tribes or ethnicities on a large scale and using rape or mutilation as tactics of intimidation.  

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Apr 3rd, 2011 at 01:44:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks to all for an interesting discussion. I agree with much of what has been said. But I'd like to add one quick point that (I think) hasn't been made yet.  The notion of human rights, appealing as it may be on the surface, is deeply flawed: not only is it hard to agree on why they might be but whatever we end up will always be limiting. If your list of rights does not include X, then is X ok? To draw a fence around a set of morally protected goods is a dodgy practice. Might be good as an instrumental device (a political slogan to rally people around a cause) but philosophically the notion is a mess. I wouldn't go as far as Alasdair MacIntyre and deny the very existence of rights, but I believe that rights are, at most, the corollaries of a moral system and not its foundations. So then why do we need rights? What's wrong with duty, or virtue, or utility, or categorical imperatives? Take your pick. Rights are like money: they are created for a purpose. So let's stick to the purpose.

Is there a price to pay for appealing to rights? I believe there is one, which the demonization of the enemy. A violator of human rights is, de facto, a subhuman. That's why all  modern western wars are  "just." The enemy is never just "against our interests": it is always evil. Communism was evil, so it was OK to kill 3 million Vietnamese. Saddam was evil, so it's fine if we slaughtered 100K+ Iraqi civilians. Note that this is NOT optional. It's not self-flattery. Because if you remove that protection clause (ie, just-war) then we become "just fucking war criminals."  But, in fact, in Vietnam, we were "just fucking war criminals." Same with Iraq. But a rights theory is what allowed Madeleine Albright to say that the sanction-induced deaths were all "worth the price." When you fight Satan, no price is too high.

Never mind that Gaddafi was cavorting with Sarko and Blair not long ago. Today he's not just a baddie past his expiration date: he's a genocidal evil monster -- the new Hitler. A title he shares with Ahmadinejad. Milosevic was our earlier Hitler. It's wrong to think that we call all our enemies Hitler out of political expediency. We do because it's in the logic of rights-based liberal interventions. We never intervene to engineer a peace resolution between opposing  parties. No, we take sides and declare our side noble and the other pure evil. Milosevic was Hitler and Kosovo was the land of Mother Teresa. It is an outlandish concept that a country, the US, that has killed more innocent Muslims in the last 10 years than all other nations on earth put together should be the one lecturing the world about preventing genocide in Libya. This collective blindness we see everywhere is the result of a rights-based approach to interventions. It so happens that demonizing the enemy (the necessary consequence) often coincides with age-old racism (look at those barbarians!) and entail a huge dose of hypocrisy. Our new Hitlers often were our drinking buddies years earlier.  And I won't get into the lies. "We stopped Gaddafi from killing 100,000!" Yeah, right.

Final point: demonization in war is a terrible thing to do because that's what leads to total war. After all, against evil, no holds barred. Shock and Awe could not have happened if Saddam had not been convincingly labeled as the new Hitler.

by Bernard Chazelle (Bernard Chazelle) on Sun Apr 3rd, 2011 at 07:06:42 PM EST
Bernard Chazelle:
But a rights theory is what allowed Madeleine Albright to say that the sanction-induced deaths were all "worth the price." When you fight Satan, no price is too high.
Especially when it's a third party paying the price.

Economics is politics by other means
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Apr 4th, 2011 at 04:15:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree with most of what you say except perhaps the central point of your thesis: that demonisation of the enemy is a necessary and unavoidable consequence of the concept of human rights.

People have been demonising their enemies - think Genghis Khan - since the beginning of time and ascribing all sorts exceptional virtues to their own side for just as long.  Chauvinism or nationalism or tribalism are not new or recent phenomena whereas the concept of human rights wasn't really main-streamed until adoption by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

Sure, there were prior philosophical and constitutional echoes in the enlightenment and he United States Bill of Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen but these were enforceable primarily through the state of which a citizen was a member. What distinguished the concept of human rights is that it not dependent on whatever rights of citizenship your state does or does not confer.

Indeed the very concept of human rights - because it is applicable to all humans, even your enemies - is also a powerful rejection of the demonisation of your enemies dynamic and lays down minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners and the avoidance of war crimes etc.  To be even partially enforceable, human rights require a grounding of international law and international institutions and courts because nation states are just as likely to be violators as are various rebel or revolutionary or terrorist groups.

The concept of human rights is thus transcendent of the current political order and is applicable to both sides to a conflict. It relativises the conflict and the actors to that conflict and imposes restrictions on the methods they can use.  Of course the reality is often very different and powerful nation states can get away with violations more or less with impunity because no one can enforce the law against them.  But that is not to say that the development of the concept of human rights and the development of international law and institutions to develop and support it is not a good thing.  Even the USA under Obama is giving it some more consideration, notwithstanding Guantanamo and various egregious violations of the rights of US citizens within their own country.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Apr 4th, 2011 at 06:59:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The notion of human rights, appealing as it may be on the surface, is deeply flawed: not only is it hard to agree on why they might be but whatever we end up will always be limiting. If your list of rights does not include X, then is X ok? To draw a fence around a set of morally protected goods is a dodgy practice.

My inner anarchist quickens! There is truth here, but this truth equally applies to laws, which suffer from the same problem as rights. Perhaps that is why people have noted that sometimes the law is an ass. Then my thoughts turn to babies and bath water. These problem raise the need for looking to the spirit, rather than the letter of the law. But that only helps in those situations where the dissonance between the letter and the spirit of the law arouses public opinion -- on in those cases where one agrees with the judgment.

But I do not think it is appropriate to throw out the concept of rights, which is based on empathy and compassion, because of the vulnerability of so much of the population to the psychological vices of splitting and projecton, which are at the basis of demonization. We have to find some way to save the baby, however foul be the bathwater. Any suggestions on that front?

And it is good to see you on ET again.

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Apr 4th, 2011 at 06:07:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks, all, for your interesting comments. I don't want to overstate my case against human rights. In the context of war, I didn't mean to imply that they're the reason for the modern western concept of war: they just tag along for the ride and are supervened by something deeper. After WWII, western wars could only be launched on humanitarian grounds, so a rights theory was developed (UN declaration) in conjunction with a revival of just-war theory (Walzer, etc). One turns to Clausewitz or Karl Schmitt for wisdom with some trepidation, but still they were on to something when they highlighted the benefits of conducting war as a violent form of political bargaining. That's how medieval wars were fought all the way through Napoleonic wars and there's something to be said about the ability of combatants to fight to the death and then, once it's over, go back to treating one another as equals.  Just think of how leniently Napoleon and France were treated afterwards.  This is unthinkable today. The US punished Vietnam for winning the war by slapping sanctions on that impoverished country for two decades. The concept of rights dovetailed the pursuit of imperialistic aims with astonishing consistency. (Until Gaza '09, Walzer had called all of Israel's wars just.)

Have rights played a useful role? It's hard to think of any. Better treatment of prisoners? But that preceded WWII and the renewed emphasis on rights. In fact, that's a 19c concept. Today's war prisoners are killed or end up in Gitmo. Modern warfare takes no prisoners. (See Iraq war I.) Is that better?

If a million kids are starving because of some conflict I am all for intervention, but I don't see what rights have to do with it. Right to life? You're going to tell me that kids should not starve to death because they have a right to life. It's doubly absurd. First, because the reason why kids should not starve to death speaks for itself. Would you feed your own child because of her right to life? Of course, not. So to extend this principle to starving kids via the categorical imperative is much more powerful than via imaginary rights. Second, because the right to life (article 3 of the UN declaration) is an absurdity. No society honors that right or even seeks to honor it. (If you have an army, even only for self-defense, you de facto violate that right. If you have hospitals that provide "end of life" care, you violate that right, etc.) Perhaps one could claim a right of not being killed unjustly but that's different.

Which points to the eminently ridiculous 1948 declaration, which also features the right to work and leisure. Who's not for it? Great, but it's no more than a snapshot of the dominant moral sentiment of the day. Lovely, but it's thin stuff.  

Rights can be useful to shame moral miscreants. So maybe indeed one should worry about throwing out the baby with the bathwater. But I don't accept the analogy with the law. Laws are intentionally ambiguous and vague and malleable. There's an indisputable logic behind that. But rights have neither the force of law nor their contingency. Rights are presented as first-principles not as normative devices. To break the law is failing to be a good citizen but to violate a human right is failing to be a human.    And therein lies the danger. One postulates the existence of stellar objects that don't exist anywhere -- and cannot be inferred from natural law (even though the concept of rights is ultimately a Christian derivation) -- and use them as a bludgeon to enforce one's definition of  humanhood. Just saying there are better ways of doing it, which are slightly less "totalitarian" in spirit than a rights-inspired discourse.

by Bernard Chazelle (Bernard Chazelle) on Tue Apr 5th, 2011 at 01:02:24 AM EST
It is easy to be disgusted by the facile way in which rights are proclaimed when compared to the efficiency with which they are enforced. A "right" is a philosophical and intellectual construct, but it can also be embodied in law, as were those rights which were included in the U.S. Bill of Rights, and those rights can be enforced by the force of law and made effective in courts of law. It is a very imperfect history, but the effect of the Bill of Rights has expanded significantly, at least in terms of the context in which it was intended. A similar process cannot be ruled out for the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Much of the problem currently derives from the fact that economic rights have not been incorporated with the same strength as have civil and legal rights. And, since the economy has been less well policed by constitutional protections, it has been there that the civil and legal "rights" won in courts and Congress have been most effectively undermined.

It never occurred to many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence that the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which were to be secured by a government deriving its legitimacy from the consent of the governed, might come to apply to women, Native Americans and black slaves. But, from his writings on banks, it is apparent that he saw that concentrated economic power could undermine political liberty. But there were no clear limitations on the development of concentrated economic power. Arguably, that has proved the Achilles' Heel of US politics. A few "corporate persons" and the individuals who control them have come to have vastly more power than >99% of the rest of the US population and, in practice, Return on Investment has come to be, in practice, more important that the rest of our high sounding rights and liberties combined.

As the Dutch said while fighting the Spanish: "It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Apr 5th, 2011 at 11:13:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
does anyone have the right to judge the actions of a group or sovereign entity to which one has no direct connection?  Do they not have the right to determine their own actions and behaviors, without judgment from the outside?

Yes, certainly. For a start, who decides the perimeter of the "group or sovereign entity"?  You have left this deliberately vague. If my neighbour's family constitutes a "group or sovereign entity", of which the man of the house arbitrarily designates himself as the absolute monarch, am I forbidden to judge if he beats his children, or to intervene? One thing's for sure in this example: if one of the kids asks for my help, I will help.

This is one criterion for deciding the correctness of an intervention : in the case of Libya, the intervention was ardently desired and requested by the spontaneous insurrection.

Secondly, what's this idea of a "direct connection"? Can I judge and intervene only if it's my brother beating his children? Am I disqualified if my neighbour belongs to a different ethnic or religious group? I think not.

To make it clear where I'm coming from :
It may be that my idea of the existence of autonomous human beings with individual rights is a mere western bourgeois arbitrary cultural construct. Regardless, it's a damn good construct, and I have the outrageous arrogance to postulate its universality (in fact, I would argue that the arrogance is on the side of those who would pretend that it is an exclusively western bourgeois arbitrary cultural construct, whereas in reality it is spontaneously reinvented by anyone who is free to think for themself). When Arab bloggers or Chinese intellectuals claim human rights for their fellow citizens, they are not indulging in me-tooism but proclaiming universal truths.

This does not mean that we are going to install human rights by military means (as was the proclaimed intention of the US intervention in Iraq). In all likelihood, the outcome in Libya, once the insurrection has won, will not be optimal from a human rights point of view. Likewise in Tunisia or Egypt, where outside intervention was not requested. That's the self-determination thing, and the more or less inevitable result of any revolution (captation of power by the existing or emerging elite). We can only do what we can to help civil society in these countries.

I am no doubt a hopeless romantic, but I believe there is a real change of paradigm behind the Arab spring. Internet connectivity leads to spontaneous consciousness-raising and oraganisation; it also reduces the relevance of arbitrarily constituted groups or sovereign entities. A global civil society is being constituted, and we are part of it. It may well be that our governments intervened primarily to protect their access to oil (from their hypothetically cynical point of view, a liberal democracy is neither better nor worse than Gaddafi, as long as the infrastructure is preserved), but insofar as they are ALSO doing it at the behest of global civil society, which will judge the result by its own criteria, the intervention constitutes an interesting, and promising, precedent.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Tue Apr 5th, 2011 at 10:32:00 AM EST
I do not believe in "Liberal intervention" for "humanitarian reasons"...sorry. It is the case that governments are presenting it as "humanitarian intervention" and people would believe it for some reason...probably because we want to see ourselves as "good guys" if possible.
Military intervention is never "humanitarian" even if there was will to be...Cause one have to make a choice which side to take and while we are saving some people we are killing others. When you have lunatics in power who will not restrain from mass killings it really looks like something has to be done (at least western public opinion goes this way). But it is always some hidden reason for military intervention...follow  the money.


Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind...Albert Einstein
by vbo on Tue Apr 5th, 2011 at 06:37:10 PM EST
I think this goes to the heart of the matter.

vbo:

Military intervention is never "humanitarian" even if there was will to be...

Indeed, wars are in many ways the opposition of human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

In wars, wearing a uniform removes your right to life and grants you the right to take life clad in other uniforms. Also wars are destructive, not constructive. They can destroy the current structure, but not build a new one.

Cause one have to make a choice which side to take and while we are saving some people we are killing others.

So one side has to be chosen to take over control, unless the military power is ready to by itself occupy the society intervened into.

vbo:

But it is always some hidden reason for military intervention...follow  the money.

I think this is a more real description of the relationship between military expeditions and the will of the people than the one in the diary.

European Tribune - Liberal Interventionism, Human Rights, and Political Philosophy

by-standers in powerful country A have a couple choices [...] use military force to stop the atrocities, or to punish the guilty

Either these by-standers are ordinary people, in which case they are unlikely to wield any direct influence over military force (in particular if it is powerful), or they are an elite that controls the state apparatus, in which case they are unlikely to do little unless it furthers their position.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Wed Apr 6th, 2011 at 04:29:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I found two articles with the same title:

One Hundred Years of Bombing Libya
by Paul Doolan

...most people seem to be unaware that this year marks an important centenary in aeronautics, for it is exactly 100 years ago that humans first bombed other humans from airplanes. Should we be celebrating this example of human ingenuity?

Already in the late 19th century some were becoming nervous that developments in balloon and dirigible technology meant it was only a question of time before humans took warfare to the skies. Delegates from various states met in The Hague in 1899 and signed a declaration banning the militarization of the air. Ominously the biggest global power, Great Britain, refused to sign. In 1903 the first airplane flight took place, and within six years a pilot flew across the English Channel. In the meantime it was writers such as Jules Verne who, in their science fiction novels, created nightmare scenarios with death falling from the sky. In 1907 H. G. Wells published his prophetic The War in the Air.

Lieutenant Guilo Cavotti was a future oriented, risk taking, innovative Italian pilot. One day he took off on his plane, equipped with a Danish "Hassen" hand grenade. When he spotted the enemy he lobbed the grenade at them, to great effect, and thereby introduced aerial warfare to human kind. The time was 100 years ago. The place was Libya. His exploits constituted an opening salvo in Italy's 1911 attack on Libya. One hundred years later, almost as if it is to mark the centenary with near poetic symmetry, Italy is active once more as part of the coalition that is attacking from the skies over Libya again. The Libyan theatre of 1911 was also the place of the first aerial photo and the first ever night bombing raid.

The public in the "civilized" countries expressed anger at the Italian outrages. But two years later Spanish planes bombed upstart Moroccans. By 1919 Britain had become the first power to create an independent airforce - the Royal Air Force. Within the year they were dropping bombs in, again, irony of irony, Iraq and Afghanistan. The first town to be destroyed by aerial bombardment was not Guernica in 1937, as our Eurocentric histories claim, but the Moroccan town of Chechaouen, bombed by the Spanish in 1925.

100 Years of Bombing Libya
By Mark Almond

... On 1st November, 1911, Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti dropped the first bomb from an aeroplane. According to the Ottoman authorities it hit the military hospital in Ayn Zara in the Libyan desert. The Italians strongly denied targeting an installation protected by the Geneva Convention. Modern aerial warfare and the propaganda battle which has accompanied it ever since was underway from the start.

Lt. Gavotti's four bombs were modified hand grenades, but soon the Italians had learned how to drop incendiary bomb and shrapnel bombs - what we would now call cluster munitions.

On 1st November, 1911, Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti dropped the first bomb from an aeroplane. According to the Ottoman authorities it hit the military hospital in Ayn Zara in the Libyan desert. The Italians strongly denied targeting an installation protected by the Geneva Convention. Modern aerial warfare and the propaganda battle which has accompanied it ever since was underway from the start.

Lt. Gavotti's four bombs were modified hand grenades, but soon the Italians had learned how to drop incendiary bomb and shrapnel bombs - what we would now call cluster munitions.


by das monde on Wed Apr 6th, 2011 at 12:45:15 AM EST


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