MADRE Articles

Policing the Millennium: US Interventions in the Age of Human Rights

Posted on: Monday, January 1, 2001


Fall 1999

In April 1999, as NATO bombs destroyed homes, schools, hospitals and factories throughout Serbia and Kosovo, a three-woman MADRE delegation traveled to Palestine. We went to deliver support to our sister organizations and to learn first-hand from women and families hurt by Israel's policy of house demolition. Our agenda was Palestine, but everywhere we went, people wanted to talk about Yugoslavia. "Nobody here believes that NATO is bombing to protect the Kosovars," said Rim, a young woman from Deheishe refugee camp. Deheishe, home to MADRE's newest sister organization, Ibdaa, was erected in 1948 when 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homes by the nascent Israeli army - a policy that a growing number of Israelis now refer to as ethnic cleansing. Echoing a view we heard from Palestinian farmers, political activists and high school students alike, Rim continued, "No one knows the pain of being made a refugee better than we who have been refugees for 50 years. My grandmother cannot watch the TV images of Kosovo because they bring back her bitter memories of 1948. We sympathize with the Kosovars, but that doesn't mean we are fooled into believing that the US is waging a war for human rights."

In the United States, however, many people believed just that. Even many liberals expressed satisfaction that their government was finally "doing the right thing." Earlier this year President Clinton proclaimed that, "human rights has become the soul of our foreign policy," and many people cheered intervention in Yugoslavia as evidence of his good faith. Some even heralded the NATO bombing as "the first war of globalization," inaugurating a noble new era of the US as benevolent guardian of a global morality. But in fact, the bombing of Yugoslavia embodies four long-standing patterns of US foreign policy:
  • using "humanitarianism" as a smokescreen to pursue US interests
  • undermining the United Nations and international law
  • sidelining diplomacy in favor of force
  • and supporting repressive regimes over democratic movements
As US foreign policy is packaged and sold for the new millennium, we will surely see more "humanitarian wars." Decoding this rhetoric and understanding the policy trends that lie beyond it is a crucial part of challenging the global reach of US aggression.

The Humanitarian Smokescreen

Notwithstanding President Clinton's co-optation of contemporary human rights terminology, his sunny discourse is nothing new. In 1830 Andrew Johnson presented the Indian Removal Act to Congress, touting his policy of ethnic cleansing as a humanitarian gesture of great benevolence towards the Cherokees. In 1918 US Marines invaded Haiti, massacring hundreds, dismantling the constitutional system, enforcing massive land take-overs by US corporations, and installing the brutal National Guard, which terrorized the country for decades. This operation was designated by the Wilson Administration as humanitarian intervention. Similarly, the US invasions of the Philippines (1898), Vietnam (1954-1975), the Dominican Republic (1965), the Congo (1964), Granada (1983) and Panama (1989) as well as the US-sponsored Central America wars of the 1980's were presented publicly as humanitarian interventions.

In 1989, with the end of the Cold War (the main pretense for four and a half decades of US aggression), the "threat of communism," disappeared. But the impetus for intervention, namely, dominating the global economy, remained relevant as ever. Policymakers needed new threats to justify the massive military spending that would enable continued intervention abroad. Soon we began hearing about the lurking dangers of "terrorists," "narco-traffickers" and "rogue states." To combat these evils, the US, we were told, would have to be equipped for rapid military action anywhere in the world - maybe even in two places at once - and could not possibly risk a large reduction in military spending. (Today, "defense" spending hovers at about 80% of the Cold War average).

At home, the threats were crime and drugs, neatly embodied in young black and Latino "superpredators," (male) and "welfare scammers," (female). Conveniently, these were the same people deemed expendable as jobs, healthcare and housing were leeched from poor communities and rerouted into corporate coffers. In fact, corporate reach was extended worldwide as soon as the US could intervene anywhere without risking a Soviet response. In the 1990's, Third World countries were subjected to a barrage of neo-liberal policies (such as structural adjustment and debt servicing) that, like programs implemented in the US, benefited multi-national corporations at the expense of the poor. Countries that did not comply (Cuba, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya - and more recently, Yugoslavia) were designated as "rogue" or outlaw states. Their punishments ranged from trade sanctions to massive bombing. But whether the means were economic or military, US interventions in the 1990's were most often portrayed as humanitarian missions of "peacekeeping," "nation-building" or "enlargement of democracy" - all part of the awesome responsibility incumbent on the world's sole superpower.

Hype, Hypocrisy and Human Rights

In the new era of humanitarianism, interventions remain conspicuously correlated with US national interest. Consider how the language of "humanitarian crisis" is used to mobilize or demobilize public opinion and even policy. In 1994, while nearly one million people were being raped and slaughtered in Rwanda, the State Department issued a directive forbidding its spokespeople from describing the massacres as genocide. Use of the word would have obligated the US, under the 1951 Genocide Convention, to take action. But intervention, as some government officials explained quite candidly, was not in the strategic interest of the US ("For West, Rwanda is Not Worth Political Candle," New York Times, 4/15/94). In Kosovo, by contrast, US and NATO spokespeople were quick to conflate Serb counter-insurgency tactics with ethnic cleansing, and then ethnic cleansing with genocide. In early April, The New York Times even printed select portions of the Genocide Convention to underscore the need for intervention. At the same time, large-scale massacres were underway in Sierra Leone and the Congo - African countries that, like Rwanda, are of little interest to the United States. President Clinton ignored those abuses, even as he pronounced the "moral imperative" of saving Kosovar Albanians.

In places where the US contributes directly to human rights abuses, crises that might elsewhere be termed "humanitarian" are recast as ideological crusades against terrorists, narco-traffickers or rogue states. Thus, the mass slaughter of Kurdish peasants by Turkey (a NATO member and key US arms customer) is presented as a battle against PKK guerillas. In Colombia last year, many more people were killed than in Kosovo before the bombing – but by forces officially trained, armed and funded by the US. Here the killings are attributed to the "drug war" of a government doubly distinguished as the worst human rights violator in the hemisphere and the third-largest recipient of US military aid worldwide (after Israel and Egypt). In Iraq, three million people are dead because of US sanctions (while their "rogue" leader remains firmly in power). Every month another 5,000 Iraqi children die, mostly for lack of food, clean water and medicines that Iraq produced and even exported before sanctions took hold. Asked during a 1996 Sixty Minutes broadcast to comment on the children's deaths, Secretary of State Albright maintained that, "we think the price is worth it."

Only when human rights abuses threaten the interests of rich and powerful people do we start to hear about "humanitarian crises." Kosovo may be economically marginal to the US, but the "Clinton Doctrine" holds that "stability" (defined in practice as a favorable investment climate) in areas vital to the US may depend on intervention in "remote" areas. In Eastern and Central Europe, stability is derived from two policies, and NATO has been appointed the guarantor of both: 1) to prevent any reversal of the "reforms" that dismantled the area's communist governments (deemed plausible because of the sharp rise in poverty and deprivation produced by the region's shift to capitalist economies); and 2) to lock former Eastern bloc countries into a Third World economic service role of providing cheap labor, raw materials and markets to US and Western European corporations. Transferring the resources of the former Soviet Union to Western corporations has been top priority in the 1990's. Chevron, for one, has bought rights to the oil deposits of Kazakhstan, and several other companies are maneuvering for access to the vast oil reserves of the Caspian Sea.

Throughout the springtime bombing, official rhetoric flip-flopped, alternately invoking interests and values as cause for attack. As the first bombers took off, President Clinton explained that, "If we're going to have a strong economic relationship that includes our ability to sell around the world, Europe has got to be a key... that's what this Kosovo thing is all about... it's about our values" (March 23 televised address).

Conveniently, the logic of the Clinton Doctrine dictates US intervention just about anywhere. As the President explained, "Where our values and our interests are at stake, we must be prepared to [act]" (The Nation, 4/19/99). Of course, since "our values" (i.e., moral good) correlate perfectly with "our interests" (i.e., maintaining US wealth), any military intervention can also be promoted as a humanitarian mission.

Humanitarian Bombing?

One way to test the integrity of Clinton's moral claim is to look at his response to human rights abuses in Kosovo - namely, bombing. NATO's attack created the very humanitarian crisis that the US claimed it was working to avert: the largest flood of European refugees since World War II, fleeing the bombing itself as well as Serb soldiers. NATO's "high-air" strikes allowed Serb forces to plow through Kosovo unimpeded, while its spokespeople explained that it would be too great a risk for pilots to air-lift food or medicine to the battered refugees below. NATO made no provision to care for the refugees, although Commander Wesley Clark announced before the bombing that air strikes would trigger Serb retaliation against civilians. When camps were finally erected, they were administered by NATO troops, not UN relief workers. These are soldiers with no training in humanitarian assistance, whose abuses in the camps included sexual harassment, rape and trafficking women into sexual slavery in collusion with organized crime.

In Serbia, NATO created another humanitarian crisis, attacking the civilian population and killing over 5,700 people. Another 15,000 were wounded and 7,000 permanently disabled. Using planes bearing the names of Native American victims of US ethnic cleansing (Apache, Black Hawk), NATO bombed 384 schools, including 45 kindergartens; 23 hospitals and clinics; half of the country's factories and its main water treatment and power plants. The long-term impact of such destruction is visible today in other countries where the US has destroyed neighborhoods, schools and workplaces for "military purposes." In the Sudan, massive outbreaks of meningitis and other deadly diseases have resulted from the US bombing one of the country's only pharmaceutical plants. In Iraq, half of all schools remain bombed out and less than half of the population has access to potable water. A three-fold rise in birth defects since the Gulf War is attributed to the same depleted uranium shells used against Yugoslavia, where they have contaminated Europe's largest river, the Danube.
(See other countries the U.S has bombed)

The Rogue Superpower:
Undermining the United Nations and International Law

The US-led attack on Serbian civilians included violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention and other war crimes. In fact, as the world's leading military power, the US routinely holds itself above international law. For example, Chapter VII of the UN Charter asserts that only the Security Council can authorize a state's use of force. Yet in the past year, the US has bombed four countries (and another four "by accident") with no UN mandate. These attacks, including NATO's war, are flatly illegal. They have escalated violence, political instability, and social and ecological destruction worldwide.

US lawlessness in the international arena took root in the 1960's, when newly-independent Third World countries began challenging US hegemony at the United Nations. As the UN became less compliant with US wishes, successive US Administrations have obstructed, or simply ignored, its laws and standards:
  • The US has blocked or refused to ratify many of the very instruments created to prevent the humanitarian crises that it claims to revile: the Comprehensive (nuclear) Test Ban Treaty, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Anti-Personnel Land Mine Treaty, the Declaration on the Right to Development and key socio-economic Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the cornerstone of all human rights law.
  • Today, the US is pressuring other governments not to ratify the international Criminal Court, which would prosecute war crimes (including those committed by US soldiers). The proposed Court is a big improvement over the current UN Court at the Hague, which can only try governments and not individuals.
  • In 1986 George Bush distinguished himself as the first head of state to be condemned by the World Court for illegally using force against Nicaragua. The US ignored this ruling.
  • When expedient, the US uses the UN to further its foreign policy agenda. It has, for example, vetoed more than 40 resolutions condemning aggression by its key Middle Eastern ally, Israel.

Because the United Nations is so thoroughly dominated and disparaged by the US, some argue that the institution is simply not worth defending. In fact, the UN is not a democratic organization. Its strongest body, the Security Council, is composed of five of the world's richest countries (themselves arguably dominated by the US) and UN actions overwhelmingly reflect elite interests. But while deeply flawed, the UN currently remains our best hope for peaceful international relations. Its Charter is the only global standard for governing states' conduct. Without it, people would have even fewer protections against the abuses of government and no basis upon which to claim human rights. Those who would relinquish the UN to the arsenal of US power are most often activists from the global North, for whom life-threatening human rights abuses are a distant abstraction.

But in most communities where MADRE works, local activists know that at a time when economic, political and military power are more globalized than ever, ordinary women and men also require international mechanisms to defend their interests. Democratizing the international arena and creating the means for the world's majority to resist and replace global instruments of domination (like the World Bank and now NATO) is a long-term agenda of human rights work. MADRE's sponsorship of the Women's Caucus for Gender Justice at the International Criminal Court and our efforts to bring community-based women into the process of drafting and improving international law is part of this broader goal.

Sidelining Diplomacy, or:
"What’s the use of having this superb military
. . . if we can’t use it?"

This question, posed by Madeleine Albright in 1993, neatly embodies the Clinton Administration's approach to the use of force. The bombing of Yugoslavia was presented in the US as a last resort. But even a cursory look at events leading up to March 24 indicates that the US pursued a violent course all along. The Rambouillet talks, which lasted less than three weeks, were more a platform for US intimidation than for diplomacy. The State department's ultimatum to the Serb delegation was, "sign on or be bombed," while the Kosovar delegation was prodded to accept the Accords by Secretary Albright's increasingly shrill warnings that without the KLA on board, NATO could not initiate the bombing. The Accords themselves effectively codified a US/NATO occupation of Yugoslavia, prompting speculation that the US deliberately set untenable terms that Milosevic would reject in order to then justify bombing. The KLA, for its part, signed on to Rambouillet only once it was clear that Milosevic would refuse the deal.

Some argue that the US was intent on a show of NATO force just prior to the Alliance's 50th Anniversary Summit in April. In fact, the bombing was used to inaugurate NATO's new post-Cold War mission as a global police force and to argue a need for more military spending. The corporate media did its part by reporting that Milosevic refused to negotiate. Erased from this version is the Serb delegation's counter-offer to the US at Rambouillet: a peaceful settlement monitored by UN forces and far-reaching autonomy for Kosovo (which had been the main Albanian demand until Madeleine Albright hinted at Rambouillet that KLA leaders could hold out for full succession). Authentic negotiations are, by definition, a volley of offers, counter-offers and compromise. But in this case, Serbia's very attempts at diplomacy were deemed grounds for war. The scenario recalls Saddam Hussein's offer of a diplomatic (and many argue quite workable) solution to the Gulf crisis before the US bombing of 1991. His proposal was rejected by the US, which then cited "Iraqi intransigence" as cause for launching the Gulf War. The initial terms of settlement offered by both Saddam Hussein and Milosevic are not very different from those reached after Iraq and Yugoslavia were virtually decimated by the US.

But why would the US use force unnecessarily? As Noam Chomsky explained in an interview with MADRE, "When involved in a confrontation, you use your strongest card to shift the confrontation to the arena in which you are most powerful. The strong card of the United States is the use of force. That's perhaps the only realm of international relations where the US has a near monopoly." In fact, since the end of World War II, when the US achieved military preeminence, it has become the world's leading international aggressor. Diplomacy, by contrast, is a weak link for the US. Its foreign policy serves mostly to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a small elite. This is an unpopular project and difficult to implement through negotiations, which are more vulnerable to public opinion than, for example, top-secret decisions to deploy bombers.

Subverting Democracy

By the same token, authentic democracy in countries where the US seeks to exert influence is inimical to US foreign policy. If the majority of a country's population were to take part in meaningful decisions about national policy (let's consider that a working definition of democracy), it is unlikely that they would choose to direct their natural resources, labor and economic markets to benefit US investors - especially at the expense of their own health and welfare. Ideally, governments with which the US has friendly relations will be like the US itself: technically democratic, with much-touted two-party elections and a mostly disempowered population. But where a veneer of democracy is not practical, the US supports despotic regimes, as long as they suppress local movements against US exploitation. The list includes Indonesia's Suharto, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko, the Philippines' Marcos, Haiti's Duvaliers, Nicaragua's Somoza, the Dominican Republic's Trujillo and Panama's Noriega. These rulers fell out of favor only once they exhausted their usefulness as enforcers of US policy. When genuinely democratic governments have threatened US interests, the US has backed their overthrow, as in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954, 1963), the Dominican Republic (1963, 1965), Brazil (1964) and Chile (1973).

In Yugoslavia, as elsewhere, the US has undercut democratic forces and fortified repressive leadership. One casualty of the US/NATO bombing was Serbia's democratic opposition, which was badly undermined when all Yugoslavs were called on to close ranks in the face of US attack. The movement's demise was of little concern to US policymakers, who have been working since the early 1990's to prop up a parallel "opposition;" one that would restructure the Yugoslav economy according to a neo-liberal model. In July 1999, Senator Jesse Helms announced a bill to channel $100 million "to 'promote democracy and civil society' and increase radio broadcasts by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe" in Serbia (New York Times, 7/24/99). The proposal is part of a larger policy of "democracy promotion" in the Balkans and throughout Eastern Europe. Here, the self-serving conflation between the language of values and interests is blatant, as "democracy" has been made virtually synonymous with market capitalism.

The Contras of Kosovo

In Kosovo, the US thwarted Ibrahim Rugova's non-violent Kosovo Democratic League for 10 years. At the 1995 Dayton peace conference, for example, US negotiators betrayed the League's demand for autonomy in order to reach a deal with Milosevic. By weakening this moderate movement, the US helped give rise to the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), a violent, ultra-nationalist group demanding total secession from a multi-ethnic Yugoslavia. In the US, the KLA was classified as a "terrorist organization" as recently as February 1998. But by mid-year the US was arming, equipping and training these forces, whose tactics include: massacres of civilians; targeted assassinations of anti-secessionists, including Albanian Kosovars; forced conscription; heavy reliance on foreign mercenaries; extortion of money and property from local Albanians; and burning and looting the homes of political opponents.

At Rambouillet, Secretary Albright openly backed the KLA in usurping the leadership of the Albanian delegation from Rugova's democratic faction. KLA operations, like those of the Nicaraguan contras and Haitian paramilitaries, are widely reported to be financed through drug money. Central to their program is ethnic cleansing of the Serb and Roma minorities from Kosovo. Immediately after NATO's bombing, the KLA fomented chaos and violence throughout Kosovo. The strategy, coined by Germany's Nazi Party in the early 1930's, is typically fascist: generate a desperate desire for security by inciting terror, then win popular support through "crackdowns" that prove your capability (and brutality) to guarantee much-needed law and order.

Despite their ruthlessness, the KLA first made US headlines, not as a "terrorist organization," but as a band of gallant, if roughshod "freedom fighters." As Diana Johnstone, former European editor of In These Times, has pointed out, the group's image underwent a make-over once State Department and Pentagon officials assessed that the KLA could effectively fill the foreign policy vacuum still gaping after the end of the Cold War, and help to stimulate new defense contracts. The key was to present the group in the fashion of the day: as a human rights rather than a nationalist cause. The humanitarian spin enabled NATO to bill itself as the defender of an oppressed minority, thereby launching its new mission as the world's self-appointed guardian of human rights.

Lost in the media glitz - and even in most serious public debate - was any distinction between human and national rights; between self-determination and separatism. National independence is not a magic formula to be instantly endorsed whenever it is invoked. Even when a group is oppressed by its government, breaking off to form a separate state is not necessarily the best solution. Rather, each claim for independence should be evaluated according to whether it would serve the needs of the majority of those caught in the conflict. Where sovereignty would enable people to protect human rights and create a more equitable distribution of resources and political power, we might well support it. But where, as in Kosovo, calls for independence emanate from a reactionary group with a fascist structure and a feudal social vision, we should endorse alternative solutions. In Kosovo and Serbia, a democratic alternative is embodied by MADRE's sister organizations, Motrat Qiriazi and Women in Black. These are women fighting for a non-nationalist, multi-ethnic and democratic solution to the crisis in Yugoslavia.

Rethinking Humanitarian Intervention

Given the historical record of the US, and the corporate ties that bind those who direct foreign policy and those who profit from warfare, any US claim of humanitarian intervention is suspect. In NATO's "humanitarian" war, Serb military violence became a pretext for the US to assert its dominance over Europe and establish NATO as its global strike force. But the cynicism of NATO's mission does not negate abuses committed against Kosovar Albanians. Like human rights violations everywhere, these were serious crimes that warranted international attention. No situation justifies indiscriminate bombing of civilians. Nevertheless, there may be times, like Rwanda in 1994, where military action is necessary. If we want to hold US policymakers accountable to human rights standards and international law, we need to evaluate each potential intervention on its own terms, prioritizing the needs of those communities most threatened by the crisis. Some basic questions serve as a starting point:

  1. Given that few political problems can be resolved by either force or foreign pressure, will military intervention actually have the capacity to remedy the problem at hand?
  2. Will force be used only as a last resort and at a minimum needed to deter greater destruction?
  3. Is the local population calling for foreign military intervention?
  4. Will the intervention be conducted through appropriate international bodies and sustained by a high degree of multi-lateralism, including across the divide between the global North and South?

There is, of course, no easy formula for foreign policy or morality. But the next time that "ethnic conflict," "evil dictators," or "narco-guerillas" are presented as grounds for military action, we should consult the lessons of NATO's war against Yugoslavia.

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