Getting Beyond Hypocrisy on Humanitarian Intervention

Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin gave a moving speech at the United Nations on September 22, 2004. “Tens of thousands have been murdered, raped and assaulted,” he said. “War crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed.”

Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin gave a moving speech at the United Nations on September 22, 2004. “Tens of thousands have been murdered, raped and assaulted,” he said. “War crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed.”

A courageous act, to say such things about US foreign policy in Iraq. Even though reports of rape in prisons like Abu Ghraib are widespread, the word “rape” is never used in the mainstream US media. Neither is the word “torture”, though Martin didn’t mention torture in his speech. The US invasion of Iraq, as straightforward international aggression (not a ‘pre-emptive’ or even ‘preventive’ strike) definitely counts as a “crime against humanity”, although again, to say such things in public, especially on US soil at the United Nations, would have major implications for a country’s foreign policy and a politician’s career. To be sure, sniper attacks, aerial bombardments, and the use of helicopter and other gunships against civilians are “war crimes”, and “tens of thousands have been murdered” in this way in Iraq (1), but again, in the current political climate, no Western politician could be expected to say so.

It would therefore have been quite impressive if Paul Martin had actually been talking about the US in Iraq. But he was not.

Nor was he talking about Palestinian refugees when he said: “They are hungry, they are homeless, they are sick and many have been driven out of their own country.” This would have particularly true for Palestinian refugees in Gaza, for example, where the UN special rapporteur for food said last year Israel is deliberately starving the population through its policy of closures, resulting in over a fifth of children being malnourished. Israeli policy hasn’t changed. Instead, attacks on civilian infrastructure in the occupied territories have continued, as have the sieges and closures. Malnutrition causes brain damage so that even when a child has been restored to a proper diet he or she may continue to suffer developmental problems.

Talk about Palestine or Iraq would not have earned Paul Martin kudos from US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who praised him as “a good friend and neighbour” and declared him “such a leader in the field.”

What field? Not the killing fields of Haiti, where corpses of Lavalas activists and Aristide supporters have been piling up in morgues and graves, some three thousand, and ongoing, since “good friends and neighbours” and “leaders in the field” Canada and the United States sent their troops to guarantee the February coup against Haiti’s democratically elected and massively supported President (2).

No, Paul Martin was not talking about Iraq or Palestine or Haiti. He was talking about Sudan.

Martin’s concern about mass murder, starvation, and ethnic cleansing in Sudan, like Powell’s, might seem inconsistent, given their eager championing of such deeds elsewhere. The same could be said of US politicians like Republican Senator Bill Frist and Iraq invaders like Tony Blair (3). These notables are either lying about their indignation about what is happening in Sudan, or they are racists, who just can’t summon indignation for dead third-worlders when the killers are from the first world or acting on behalf of it.

In fact the consistency is of a different kind. For it is the selective indignation of the likes of Martin, Blair, and Powell, and their ilk to the atrocities unfolding under the auspices of what they term ‘rogue states’ or ‘failed states’ that leads to the atrocities unfolding under Western occupations. In Haiti, for example, the formula was clear: first, help a state to ‘fail’ by denying it aid, applying vicious sanctions and conditionalities, and arming paramilitary killers to invade and slaughter their way to the capital (4). Then call it a ‘failed state’, oust its leaders, and occupy the place. Whatever atrocities occur in response to Western occupation can then be used as proof of the need for more occupation and intervention. In Iraq, a genuinely tyrannical and dictatorial state was made to ‘fail’ by a process of bombing, bleeding by sanctions, and murderous invasion and occupation. Now, as Blair and Bush’s armies slaughter Iraqis at will (1), interventionists argue that the West needs to ‘stay the course’ lest Iraq, the ‘failed state’, descend into ‘civil war’. Israel’s ongoing massacre, ethnic cleansing and deliberate starvation program is justified by the interventionists as necessary because Palestinians can’t find leaders that will recognize Israel’s security needs.

The Sudan crisis has provided the interventionists with an opportunity to simply change the subject: “if you care so much about the Palestinians,” they can ask, “why don’t you care about Sudan? If you care so much about Iraqis, then why don’t you support intervention to save people in Sudan?” The next step, of course, is to accuse those who talk about Western murders and crimes as ‘anti-semites’, ‘anti-Americans’, or racists. To this, anti-occupation people can reply by calling the liberal interventionists hypocrites, citing liberal indifference or contribution to crimes in the above cases as evidence.

Mutual cries of hypocrisy, however, even when true, won’t help those who are actually being “murdered, raped and assaulted,” who are actually “hungry… homeless… sick and… have been driven out of their own country.” In the specific case of Sudan and Darfur, for example, the hypocrisy of gangsters like Martin, Powell, and Blair does not make atrocities in the region any less real, or the crisis any less urgent.

Lansana Gberie, an Africa expert who has studied numerous interventions and conflict situations in the continent, cites liberal interventionists in his recent paper arguing for intervention in Sudan (5). But he also cites very important and credible human rights organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UN, whose estimates of deaths are in the tens of thousands and displaced people in the hundreds of thousands. These organizations have sometimes been wrong (Amnesty International, for example, picked up the phony story about Iraqis murdering Kuwaiti babies in incubators, helping the propaganda machine of the US devastation of Iraq in 1991) or disproportionate (Some of Human Rights Watch’s material on Venezuela, for example, has condemned the Chavez government in disproportionately harsh terms, helping the US campaign against that government). Their record overall, however, is quite good, and the evidence they presented in the cases where they have turned out to be wrong was rather thin and later discredited. The evidence they have presented on Darfur, however, is solidly documented. Not to prove “genocide”, but certainly to prove massive suffering.

The story is also quite plausible on its face (unlike stories of Saddam Hussein’s al-Qaeda links or imminent nuclear threat). For example, as US-backed paramilitaries in Colombia know, civilian massacres to drive whole populations into refugee camps can be a highly effective counterinsurgency strategy, cutting insurgents off from their support and supply base and terrifying the population away from them.

Gberie’s paper cites Sudan expert Alex de Waal’s excellent July 2004 article from the London Review of Books for background on Darfur (6). That background is too extensive to summarize in a short article. Those concerned about Darfur should read it, and carefully. But suffice it to say that similar dynamics exist in Darfur’s crisis as exist in so many other conflicts that plague the third world today: a legacy of colonial destruction; a postcolonial state that acts like the colonial state did; an elite that uses the state as its own private estate to dole out privileges and power; mobilization along ethnic lines using racist ideologies; interference from outside powers; closed political spaces leading to armed insurgencies, and a state that responds to armed insurgencies with vicious counterinsurgency.

De Waal’s recommendations might strike both anti-imperialists and liberal interventionists as unsatisfactory:

“A huge aid effort is grinding into gear. But the distances involved mean that food relief is expensive and unlikely to be sufficient. It’s tempting to send in the British army to deliver food, but this would be merely symbolic: relief can be flown in more cheaply by civil contractors, and distributed more effectively by relief agencies. The areas controlled by the SLA (Sudan Liberation Army) and JEM (Justice and Equality Movement) contain hundreds of thousands of civilians who are not getting any help. As soon as an intrepid cameraman returns with pictures of this hidden famine, there will be an outcry, and pressure for aid to be delivered across the front lines. There’s no reason to wait for the pictures before acting, although it’s clear that cross-line aid convoys will need to carry armed guards.

“The biggest help would be peace. In theory, there’s a ceasefire; in practice, the government and Janjawiid are ignoring it, and the rebels are responding in kind. The government denies that it set up, armed and directed the Janjawiid. It did, but the monster that Khartoum helped create may not always do its bidding: distrust of the capital runs deep among Darfurians, and the Janjawiid leadership knows it cannot be disarmed by force. When President Bashir promised Kofi Annan and Colin Powell that he would disarm the militia, he was making a promise he couldn’t keep. The best, and perhaps the only, means of disarmament is that employed by the British seventy-five years ago: establish a working local administration, regulate the ownership of arms, and gradually isolate the outlaws and brigands who refuse to conform. It took a decade then, and it won’t be any faster today. Not only are there more weapons now, but the political polarities are much sharper.”

If de Waal’s recommendation of methods used by British colonialists seems unsavory, Gberie’s advocacy of an African solution might seem better:

“By the end of August 2004, the AU had 305 soldiers on the ground in Darfur as part of a ceasefire monitoring mechanism, and the UN was working with the AU on a plan that would raise this force level to 3,000 AU troops and 1,200 police officers. However, the Sudanese government has rejected AU offers to increase the size of the force and extend its mandate to include the protection of civilians, insisting on an AU role that is limited to observation and monitoring.”

Gberie sensibly argues that the Sudanese government’s consent ought to be irrelevant (as irrelevant, for example, as Israel’s consent ought to be if an international intervention to protect Palestinians from massacre, assassination, and starvation were ever mounted). The example he provides, however, is equally unsavory to anti-imperialists: “However, the issue of consent should be irrelevant. There was no consent in 1999, to the aerial bombardment and insertion of some 50,000 NATO troops into Kosovo in response to the deaths of some 2,000 people.” When one considers the problems the NATO intervention caused compared to those it solved, this ‘success’ of ‘humanitarian intervention’ seems less ‘humanitarian’ and less ‘successful’ (7). The same is true of the world’s response to the mass murder in the Congo, which took place largely in Rwandan and Ugandan-controlled parts of the Congo between 1998-2001 (8), while the liberal interventionists were still trying to find ways of using the Rwandan genocide of 1994/5 as a rhetorical device to justify future Western interventions.

Clearly Ramesh Thakur, Vice Rector of the UN University, who Gberie also cites, is correct when he argues that “Western Medicine is no cure for Darfur’s ills”, and that “a Western intervention, far from offering a solution, may add to the problems.” Thakur has good reasons for thinking so. The US’s actions in Afghanistan, where funds were available for bombing but not for rebuilding, show that the US is more interested in building bases, controlling regions, and controlling energy sources than solving local humanitarian crises. The oil connection in Darfur also casts doubt on US humanitarian intentions. Sudan is a country with a Muslim population and, even though the Islamist regime is oppressive and unpopular, an invasion would do little for pro-US sentiment in a region where such sentiment is sorely lacking. US military doctrine, which compensates for its reluctance to risk its soldiers by using firepower and ruthlessness against non-US civilians, tends to have very un-humanitarian effects. A year after the Iraq invasion, there should be little doubt about any of these points.

Given that, one would have to disagree with the conclusion of the Black Commentator’s well-reasoned editorial of September 23, 2004, that: “No matter how cynical U.S. motives, Colin Powell’s invocation of the Genocide Convention in Darfur invigorates forces seeking a more just world. When criminals are compelled to cite the law, we know that justice is within our reach.” (9) In fact, we know no such thing. The Colin Powell brand of criminal always cites the law, whether he’s ignoring it, upholding it, or tearing it up. Proposals for an African Union intervention as cited by Gberie, however flawed, could have the best chance of success (it was African intervention that brought the Congo civil war to a halt).

The real world demands not allowing genuine concern for victims of atrocities to be transmuted by interventionist hypocrites into apologetics for an imperialism that will ultimately produce more victims of more atrocities. But those same victims deserve better than mere denunciations of intervention and its apologists as hypocrites and warmongers. Perhaps Khalid Fishawy and Ahmed Zaki of Egyptian alternative media site posed the challenge for movements best:

“Could we imagine building a front for the potentials of peoples and democratic movements in Sudan, hurt and disaffected by war, with the solidarity of the global antiwar movement, to impose democratic mechanisms caring for the interests of oppressed Sudanese communities, races, cultures and classes, against the rapacity of the interests of US and Western European Imperialists? Could this aim be possible? Is it promising for the global justice and peace movement to regain its momentum, instead of supporting undemocratic authoritarian and fundamentalist forces, this time in Sudan, under the title of allying with whomever is against the American Empire?” (10)


1) Take a look at Mahajan links to a video of what probably is an exemplar of callous brutality and murder. Don’t expect to hear about this from Bill Frist, Tony Blair, or Paul Martin. Look at for the latest news of the victims of the unfolding atrocity in Iraq.

2) If you are curious about how a ‘human rights advocate’ handles being confronted his own participation in mass murder so that he can sleep at night, take a look at Anthony Fenton’s interview with Canadian government functionary Denis Paradis.

3) David Peterson has been monitoring liberal hypocrisy on Sudan in his ZNet blog.

4) For coverage of the coup and the US role, see ZNet’s Haiti Watch

5) Lansana Gberie, September 2004. The Darfur Crisis: A Test Case for Humanitarian Intervention. Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre. Avaialable online here via

6) Alex de Waal, ‘Counterinsurgency on the Cheap’. London Review of Books, July 2004.

7) See, for example, Neil Clark’s retrospective in the Guardian (posted to ZNet:, or Diana Johnston’s book ‘Fool’s Crusade’ for an evaluation of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo.

8) I reviewed some books on the Congo conflict and its relationship to the Rwandan genocide. The review can be found on ZNet

9) See’s very nuanced and principled piece on Darfur

10) Fishawy and Zaki, “Sudan: Can We Learn?” ZNet August 26, 2004.

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.