Thursday, March 15, 2007

To intervene or not

Mahmood Mamdani has been a recent presence in the media arguing against a military intervention in Darfur. He elaborated on this in a long piece in the London Review of Books. I am not in the position to argue with him on the facts on the Sudan but I am concerned by the concluding remarks of the essay.

… peace cannot be built on humanitarian intervention, which is the language of big powers. The history of colonialism should teach us that every major intervention has been justified as humanitarian, a ‘civilising mission’. Nor was it mere idiosyncrasy that inspired the devotion with which many colonial officers and archivists recorded the details of barbarity among the colonised – sati, the ban on widow marriage or the practice of child marriage in India, or slavery and female genital mutilation in Africa. I am not suggesting that this was all invention. I mean only to point out that the chronicling of atrocities had a practical purpose: it provided the moral pretext for intervention.

The purpose of this is seems to be to de-legitimate intervention by associating it with imperial designs, which have nothing to do with the ostensible purpose of intervention. This is a familiar line of argument. The obvious objection, that the chroniclers of abuse may indeed be disinterested in anything other than the righting of wrongs and be human beings appalled by human cruelty, rather than sinister agents of imperial aims, is one that needs to be taken seriously. However, there is more to it than that. Whatever the motive for recording it, slavery and genital mutilation are, by any standards, an abomination and do not cease to be so simply because they are recorded by colonial officers. The victims are not fussy where their liberation comes from and it is often only global and regional powers that have the ability to act.

Humanitarian intervention is more frequently the language of the oppressed which the big powers ignore, a sentiment echoed by some bitter voices from Zimbabwe on Radio 4 this morning. Not only that, non-intervention is not some act of benign neutrality, it is always partisan. It ensures the victory of the strong.

That said, intervention can be self-serving and can fail. However, the record of non-intervention is permanently stained, not just by Bosnia and Rwanda, but by the deaths of fifty million consequent on the failures of the Rhineland, Abyssinia, Spain, and Czechoslovakia. There are painful judgements to be made, I was an opponent of the Iraq war though not of regime change, but our presumption should be towards action rather than inaction. The big question is always what form that intervention should take.

Mamdani may well be correct that an armed intervention could make the situation worse in Darfur. That is a judgement I am not qualified to make. However, when he moves from the specific to the general I am reminded of Solzhenitsyn’s 1973 essay, Peace and Violence. In it he argues that establishing peace by merely ensuring the absence of war is not sufficient. Instead a peace camp should raise its standard in opposition to violence of all kinds, especially the violence of a state against its own citizens. He wrote,

To achieve not just a brief postponement of the threat of war, but a real peace, a genuine peace erected on sound foundations, it is necessary to fight the `quiet', hidden forms of violence no less fiercely than the `noisy' kinds. The aim must be not only to stop the rockets and cannons, but also to set the limits of state violence at the threshold where the need to defend society's members ceases. The aim must be to outlaw from the human condition the very idea that some are permitted to use violence regardless of justice, law and mutual agreements.

Peace will then be served not by those who count upon the good nature of the men of violence, but by those who are incorruptible, unbending and tireless in their insistence on the rights of the persecuted, the oppressed and the murdered.

This widespread error of defining peace as 'anti-war' rather than `anti-violence' has naturally also led to a mistaken estimate of the role of certain politicians in the struggle for peace. The best fighter for peace comes to mean someone who collects laurels at airports and in parliaments, who will pay any price to ward off the breath of war…; who is prepared to make any concessions to gain a break in the press recriminations and create a breathing space for trade and pseudo-prosperity. On the other hand people who point out the global dangers to peace from all types of violence run the risk at times of being called `warmongers' - or at least will be called so behind their backs.

How prescient.

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