The Language of Power: Interview with Jean Bricmont

Jean Bricmont is professor of theoretical physics at the University of Louvain, Belgium, and is a member of the Brussels Tribunal.  He is the author of Humanitarian Imperialism and co-author, with Alan Sokal, of Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science.  He has written critically about ‘humanitarian interventionism’ since the Kosovo war in 1999.  In this interview with Thomas Kollmann he discusses the abuse of human rights discourse, relations with Iran and the value of international law.

You have explored how human rights rhetoric has provided a cover for recent military interventions by the West.  However, following the global wave of cynicism regarding the official justifications for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, what are the prospects for the language of human rights as a rallying point for future interventions?

The first observation is that military interventions are not due to human rights rhetoric but to the decision, by the leaders of the countries that have the power and the means to intervene, to do so.  Given the way the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been going, I do not expect the US to launch new wars in the near future, except possibly with Iran.  But the human rights rhetoric will continue as a way to demonize countries whose governments are too independent from the West, like Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, China etc.  It will not necessarily lead to wars, but maintain a climate of hostility and distrust.

Regarding Iran, do you think there is any likelihood of this climate deteriorating to the point of an attack on the country?

I don’t like to make predictions, particularly concerning wars, because I don’t believe that there are ‘laws of history’ when it comes to war and peace.  I don’t believe the US military wants to engage itself in another military adventure in the near future, nor do the more sane parts of the US ruling circles (and that, probably, includes Obama).  However, there is one country that won’t stop being hysterical about Iran and that is Israel.  Given the strength of its lobbies in the West, pressure on Iran is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.  Iran, however, has the desire and the means to resist this pressure (and that is quite independent of who is in charge there, because the issue is one of national independence, which everybody in Iran supports).

So we are likely to be ‘stuck’ for a long time in an absurd situation: the Zionists in the West, helped by a cohort of human rights, feminist or secularist activists, will continue to scream at Iran’s threat, but with no effect on Iran’s policy (which will of course allow the screaming to continue).

The only reasonable solution would be to accept the fact that, if Israel possesses nuclear weapons, as they do, and uses them to maintain its unchallenged superiority in the Middle East, other countries in that region will try to obtain such weapons.  As in the case of the Cold War, the only way out would be detente, but that presupposes the acceptance of some sort of rights for the Palestinians and that is unthinkable.

Do you endorse an alternative vision of human rights to that which dominates in mainstream discussion in the West?

I don’t think I have an alternative vision of human rights.  I completely agree that the principles of the Universal Declaration are desirable goals.  But only if one includes the social and economic rights that are parts of the Declaration.  Where I do not necessarily agree with the mainstream interpretation of the Declaration is that the latter tends to ignore the socio-economic rights or to consider that they will follow in the long run if one respects the individual and political rights, which are then taken as ‘absolutes’.

But, first of all, if respect for individual and political rights leads, through the action of the ‘free market’, to enormous disparities of wealth, I do not see how one can justify that situation as desirable.  This is, in essence, the critique of the liberal vision of human rights made by Marx and other socialists in the 19th century.  Compare, for example, Cuba and the rest of Latin America.  In Cuba, political rights are limited (although not very much, compared to many other historical situations), while now there are formal democracies in most of the rest of Latin America, but with massive ‘violations of human rights’ of the socio-economic type.  How does one decide which situation is preferable?

As for the idea that, in the long run, socio-economic rights will follow if the other ones are respected, I see no evidence for that.  People sometimes argue that this is shown by the history of the West, but quite the opposite is true.  The West built its prosperity through massive violation of human rights, precisely of the individual and political type, by suppression of the right to vote for workers, women and minorities, open dictatorships (in many parts of Europe), colonial conquests, elimination of indigenous people, etc.  Our development was certainly far more brutal than the one of China now, for example.  Yet, our humanitarian imperialists can’t stop lecturing China over human rights violations.

Can you develop what you mean by the ‘absolutist’ approach to individual and political rights that you refer to?

I give an example in my book: in 2003, Jacques Chirac, then president of France, said about Tunisia (a pretty rigid dictatorship) that the situation of the socio-economic rights was much better there that in other countries.  I don’t want to comment on the truth of that statement, but the reactions were typical and nearly unanimous: they condemned Chirac by saying that human rights were ‘indivisible’.  But, if people celebrate democracy in South Africa, India or Brazil, nobody would object that there are massive violations of the economic rights there and that ‘human rights are indivisible’.  What was comical is that even the French Communist Party joined the denunciation, on that basis, while Chirac (who had been a communist sympathiser in his youth) was just expressing a mild version of the ideology that the Communist Party had when it was, well, communist, namely that one cannot consider the political freedoms independently of everything else.

I also cite a statement by Jeane Kirkpatrick who, when she was ambassador to the UN under Reagan, called the socio-economic rights a ‘letter to Santa Claus’.  Needless to say, if a Chinese leader called the political rights a ‘letter to Santa Claus’, there would be an uproar in the West.

What responsibility, if any, do human rights organisations bear for the creation of a human rights discourse that serves to legitimise ‘humanitarian intervention’?

I think they bear a lot of responsibility.  Of course, some organizations are worse than others: Human Rights Watch, for example, follows quite closely the policies of the State Department.  History is always written in the critical mode: look at the horrors of colonialism!  Or of Stalinism!  But, at the time when those ‘horrors’ were happening, a large number of intelligent, honest and well-meaning people supported them.

I conjecture that, when the history of our time will be written in the critical mode in the future, people will be amazed at the self-righteousness, the one-sidedness and the sheer blindness of the contemporary Western human rights discourse.  They will be baffled by the near unanimous silence over the casualties of the embargo against Iraq, the hesitations in the opposition to the wars against that country, the long indifference to the national aspirations of the Palestinians, the lack of reactions to the hysteria over Iran, the enthusiasm for the Kosovo war, which was the war to start all wars (of the humanitarian type) and the blind eye turned on the massive killings in Eastern Congo, largely due to foreign interventions in that country by Rwanda and Uganda.

They will also realize that the main problem of our time is development in the South, that development is not easy nor painless, and that it presupposes national sovereignty and independence, which is precisely what the human rights movement ignores and often opposes.

Let us not forget that Stalinism was justified by appeals to socialist ideals, and colonialism by the ‘civilizing mission’ and the ‘white man’s burden’.  The present-day imperialism, although much weaker than before, is justified by the human rights rhetoric.

It was not always like that.  When Amnesty International was founded, it was regarded in the West as too friendly towards revolutionaries.  But after the end of the Vietnam war, Carter shifted the US rhetoric towards ‘human rights’, which became the main ideological weapon against communism; then, with the growth of the human rights organizations, and their need for funding, they became increasingly respectable and mainstream.

With regard to respecting national independence and sovereignty, some would of course respond that it is not legitimate for a brutal dictatorship to claim sovereignty or independence.  What are your thoughts on this?

I think that this question expresses a radical version of the human rights ideology: countries that are run by dictators simply do not exist as sovereign states and are up for grabs by more powerful countries.  But the invasion of Iraq should have demonstrated that a country is not just its form of government.  It includes also, among many other things, an education and health system, which in Iraq has been largely destroyed by the wars and invasion.  And, far from rebuilding what they destroyed, the Americans are now withdrawing, amid self-congratulations.  But that, at a minimum, shows that the fate of the poor suffering Iraqis mattered when they were under a regime considered hostile by the US and Israel and was of no concern whatsoever when the best interests of the US is to leave.

Of course, the same thing happened when the Soviet Union collapsed: the low living standard of the masses there, which was of great concern to Western liberals before the collapse, plunged down much further, but then, the same liberals became totally indifferent to their suffering.  When Putin tried to regain some Russian control over the Russian economy, predictably, concerns for the poor Russians resurfaced.

Besides, when elections are won by the ‘bad guys’, Chavez, Milosevic, Putin, Hamas etc., the West simply declares them to be undemocratic.  Of course, elections are never perfect, and the issue of who controls the media always arises.  But what about the West?  Who controls the media here and how objective are they?

You champion international law as a useful defense against imperial aggression.  However, isn’t it the case that, within the current U.N. system, activism by the Security Council or its members — such as during the U.S./U.K. subversion of the sanctions regime against Iraq (1991-2003) — is sufficient to sabotage attempts to foster any kind of international rule of law?

Yes and no.  What I support is the UN Charter and the equal sovereignty of all nations upon which it is founded.  I also believe that the votes of the General Assembly, even though they have no force, are much more representative of world opinion than those of the Security Council, which is indeed corrupted by the right of veto of the Great Powers.  I still think that the UN system, however imperfect it may be, represents a major advance over the situation that existed before WW2.  For one thing, it allows some sort of discussions between different nations, which, on the whole, is rather a factor in favour of peace.  Who knows what could have happened during the Cold War without such exchanges?

Besides, many UN agencies do useful work.  The UN system also acknowledges that there is such a thing as international law, which, on paper at least, is a limitation of the exercise of force by the powerful.  After all, everybody could see that the war against Iraq was illegal — without international law, such an idea could not even be formulated.  Parenthetically, the Kosovo war was also illegal, although very few people in the West admitted it.

The basic defect of the UN system is that it does not have any police to enforce its decisions, at least when they run against the demands of powerful states, such as the US or Israel.  And the effect of the veto is that, very often, no decision is taken against those countries.  Still, there are a number of UN resolutions that the Palestinians can invoke; but, of course, it remains just that: a piece of paper that one can wave.

What I would prefer is that the UN be rebuilt from scratch, starting with the movement of the non-aligned countries, which regroups already the vast majority of the world population, and to which the Western countries could apply and join under the condition that they strictly follow the rules: respect for the equal sovereignty of all nations and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

Would this proposal to set up an alternative to the UN require the creation of a parallel institution, similar to the U.N.?  If so, wouldn’t this risk balkanisation within this group or between this group and other states within the U.N.?

Well, obviously I said that in jest, since I do not really expect the leaders of the non-aligned movement to pay attention to my modest proposal.  But what is happening is that, increasingly, political alliances are made between countries of the South, even between those with very different political regimes, like Brazil, Turkey and Iran, or between Venezuela and Iran, in order to counter the hegemonic ambitions of the US.  And it should be obvious that those ambitions lead nowhere, see the disaster in Afghanistan, and only weaken the US at the international and domestic levels.  Yet, we can count on the chorus of self-proclaimed defenders of human rights to denounce these counter-hegemonic forces with their usual rhetoric and thus to blind the Western public to the aspirations of the majority of the world’s population.  In the name of democracy, of course.

With respect to your general endorsement of the role of international law, even granted your proposed improvements to it, some leftists would argue that we should not confine ourselves to any sort of legalistic approach, just as we typically do not with regard to domestic law.

I do not argue for a legalistic approach.  Back in 1991, I was opposed to the Iraq war, although it was legal in a very narrow sense, having been approved by the Security Council.  The legal basis was narrow, because part of the Council was simply bribed: the then dying Soviet Union received lots of money from Saudi Arabia in order to support the war, and there were other pressures that would be unthinkable in an ordinary court of justice in a democratic country.  Besides, the lack of genuine negotiations and the peculiar situation of that part of the world, where the West insists that Israel can occupy Arab lands if it so desires, but that Kuwait has to be independent, because it is a pro-Western oil producing state, were enough reasons to oppose that war.

But one has to distinguish between the principle upon which the UN was founded and its practice.  My attitude here is similar to the one I have with respect to what is sometimes called class justice.  Because of huge biases in the administration of justice, some leftists tend to reject the whole notion of ‘bourgeois law’.  I think this is a mistake; there are many positive aspects in the principles of our system of law, which represent genuine progresses over previous systems.  The same thing is true with international law and the UN.

Thomas Kollmann is an independent journalist based in London.  This interview was first published in New Left Project on 21 September 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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