The Last War of the 20th Century - Chapter Nine
April 15, 2008 20:13 | by Jan Marijnissen and Karel Glastra van Loon
Noam Chomsky in Van Aartsen's Paradise
'We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.'
For any of the ordinary mortals who have ever been allowed to speak before the General Assembly of the United Nations, it must have been one of the highpoints of their lives. Whether that was also the case for a politician like Jozias van Aartsen, our own Dutch Minister for Foreign Affairs, is a question that we would have loved to have put to him, but that we must of necessity leave unanswered. What we can, however, confirm is that Van Aartsen, when he took the floor on the 24th September 1999 in the great assembly hall in New York, took advantage of the opportunity to inform the honourable representatives that the Netherlands was always in the forefront of the struggle for a better world.
While the title of his address, "Shifting emphasis" may not sound very ambitious, the content belied this. What Van Aartsen, in his capacity as temporary chair of the Security Council, put on to the agenda, was the view that the UN and the Security Council would become somewhat more effective if all of the member states were to agree that a country's sovereignty would henceforth be subordinate to considerations of human rights. And it didn't stop there.
Van Aartsen said this in his speech: 'Let me go one step further. The blurring of the boundaries of sovereignty does not stop at human rights. In the future, the notion of sovereignty is going to be tested beyond that. Think of decrepit nuclear installations. Or massive damage to the environment. Lack of water. Mass marketing of narcotic drugs. Can responsible statesmen afford to wait until the damage is actually done? Or do they in fact have a duty to prevent it? These are questions which, at some point, the Security Council will have to be involved in.'
Van Aartsen closed with the following words: 'The Security Council should be stronger, not weaker. It should be a credible leader in the maintenance of peace. In order to be credible, it must be consistent, swift and proactive. It must show courage, drive and vision. It must keep changing with the times. It must put people over politics. That is a tall order. Its decision on East-Timor gave us hope for the Council's potential.'
Van Aartsen delivered a message, and he did it whenever the opportunity presented itself. For example on 18th May 1999, in the middle of the Kosovo war, in the Palace of Peace in The Hague. There he spoke at a meeting of peace activists, on the occasion of the centenary of the First International Peace Conference which had been held in The Hague. He said then, amongst other things, that 'In the last few months the war over Kosovo has absorbed all of our attention. People are being pursued, people are fleeing, people are dying. In my opinion, Kosovo must become an important reference point in our thinking about the future of the international legal order. In view of the human tragedy, in view of the devastation and destruction, the war in the Balkans should be seen as demanding an improvement in both international laws and in the manner in which we resolve conflicts, and then primarily on the cutting edge of law and diplomacy. This is, in my opinion, the most important lesson which must be learned, The blueprint for legislation and diplomacy developed in 1899 and then later in 1907, can no longer keep pace with developments in the world we know today. We will have to adapt.'
A few months later, on 9th September, He spoke in Duisburg at the Fourth Dutch-German Conference, which on this occasion had adopted the slogan 'On the way to the Knowledge Society'.
This speech caused quite a stir in the Netherlands because of the fact that the minister had spoken any words of criticism whatsoever over the role of the electronic media during international crises (see also Chapters 5 and 6). Yet what he had to say about diplomacy and the international community was surely just as remarkable. 'While citizens as a result of technological developments expect more and more from the government, the EU and the UN,' Van Aartsen said, 'we have to act within the farmwork of a UN Charter which is half a century old... Today we consider it a generally accepted rule of international law that no sovereign state has the right to terrorise its own citizens. The NATO actions against Yugoslavia confirm this position. The international community must give serious attention to the shift in the balance between respect for national sovereignty on the one hand and human rights and fundamental freedoms on the other. This will not be a pro-western or anti-Third World debate. The shift in this balance brings with it uncertainties. But the international community cannot permit itself to ignore this development. Yesterday it was Kosovo, today it's East Timor, and who knows what tomorrow has in store?'
In a radio programme three days later Van Aartsen further developed his German speech and said, amongst other things, that 'An important part of the debate that I wanted to open up there is that we, just at a time when we are confronted by terrible situations, such as for example in East Timor, are still having to deal with being fenced in by the old Charter of the United Nations, the speed that news travels and the slowness of diplomacy. The Charter, in the framework of the discussion over sovereignty, now has its limitations. I must point that out. And I want to set this discussion going. Because I am the kind of politician who isn't content to stop there, but also wants to do something.'
In short, Van Aartsen's message to the world was laid out here: international law, international legislation must as far as possible be adapted to give the UN Security Council more powers to intervene militarily in sovereign countries who are recalcitrant in the area of human rights, but also in such matters as drug trafficking or environmental pollution. A first step in this direction, as Van Aartsen has since made clear on a number of other occasions, would be to abolish the right of veto within the Security Council. This right gives the Council's five permanent members - the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China - the chance to stop any decision by means of its veto. It was for example well-known that one of the reasons why the Security Council could not decide to act militarily against Yugoslavia over the Kosovo question was that Russia and China would very probably have blocked such a decision with their veto.
For any person not yet overcome by cynicism, Van Aartsen's words have a certain attractiveness. What would, after all, be finer than a world in which 'responsible members of governments' could act via an international forum against the abuse of human rights, against environmental pollution or trade in illegal drugs? Or, even better, that such an international forum would know how to prevent such misdeeds? Would that not create the conditions which would quickly mean the arrival of paradise on earth? Would this not also mean that humanity's struggle for a better world had at long last been crowned with success?
We put these questions - by email, given his overfull diary, which made it impossible to arrange a meeting with him - to a critic and notably independent thinker, the linguist and political commentator quoted in Chapter 3, Noam Chomsky.
Our question is the following: what are your views on the 'blurring boundaries of sovereignty'? In other words: what could be wrong with 'responsible statesmen' stepping in when human rights are violated, or when the health of millions are at risk by 'decrepit nuclear installations'?
Chomsky: First, some preliminary observations. To begin with, I am aware of no evidence that "Today, human rights come to outrank sovereignty." On the contrary, the rich and powerful pay scant attention to human rights and often act to violate them in the most extreme way. It is not necessary to look very far for examples: simply consider the southeast corner of NATO itself in the mid-1990s, and the way the other member states reacted. By defending human rights during some of most outrageous ethnic cleansing and atrocities of this grim decade? Or by leaping enthusiastically into the fray to supply high-tech weapons, military training, and crucial diplomatic support so that the terror could reach a successful conclusion, with several million refugees, 3500 villages destroyed (seven times Kosovo under NATO bombing), and tens of thousands killed?
That is only one example, striking not only because of the scale, but because it is so close to home, therefore impossible to miss, except by deliberate choice.
The rich and powerful guard their own "sovereignty" zealously and show utter contempt for human rights, facts all too easily to demonstrate. In this regard, the patterns of the past persist -- including the pronouncements about a "new era" of devotion to human rights, freedom, and all good things, familiar throughout modern history (with analogues long before).
Second, sovereignty is indeed under attack, and has been for some 25 years, but not in the name of human rights. Rather, in the interest of multinational corporations and particularly, financial capital. As well understood, the dismantling of the Bretton Woods system from the early 1970s, with financial liberalization, has the effect, and the intent, of restricting the possibilities of democratic choice (sovereignty), and transferring decision-making power to the hands of a "virtual Parliament" of investors and lenders, by now overwhelmingly involved in very short-term speculation, which is harmful to the international economy as well as destructive of the exercise of democratic sovereign rights. These matters were well understood, and clearly articulated, by the framers of the Bretton Woods system, and are understood today.
Third, individual cases have to be considered on their own merits, always. That must be kept in mind when we move to the more abstract level of principles.
The question that you are raising, citing Mr. Van Aartsen, is a question of principle. The principle is that "responsible statesmen" should have the power to act to deter human rights violations, risks to health, dangers from nuclear installations, etc. According to what you report, Mr. Van Aartsen has in mind UN actions under Security Council auspices. If so, that would be well within the current framework of international law and world order. Of course, such actions are subject to veto by the great powers, which naturally imposes severe limits on implementation of the principle (whatever we think of it).
How do these limits function in practice? Here there is a factual record to which we can turn. Putting aside much self-serving mythology, we discover that since the UN "fell out of control" with decolonization, the US has been far in the lead in vetoing Security Council Resolutions on a wide range of issues, with Britain second and France a distant third. Recent years provide no evidence of change in that regard.
Sometimes the great powers resort to formal veto to block international action to deter major atrocities. Sometimes other means suffice. Thus the US did veto a resolution calling on all states to observe international law (naming no one, though the intent was clear) after Washington had rejected the World Court demand that it terminate its "unlawful use of force" (terrorism, aggression) against Nicaragua and pay substantial reparations. But Washington was able to rely on other means to compel Nicaragua to submit, and later to withdraw its request for reparations. Or, to take another case, the US did not have to resort to a veto to block any inquiry into its destruction of half the pharmaceutical supplies of a poor African country in 1998, leading to many thousands of deaths. No one knows how many thousands, and in the West at least, no one seems to care very much, given the agent of this particular criminal atrocity.
This case, incidentally, though small on the scale of atrocities (by the West in particular), provides a fair illustration of the attitude towards "sovereignty" in the rich countries that describe themselves as "the international community." Imagine that Islamic terrorists had done this in the Netherlands or the U.S. The attack on "sovereignty" might then have been taken a shade more seriously. As noted, huge atrocities even within NATO itself, with decisive and increasing support from the Clinton administration as atrocities peaked, merited no attention from the "international community" and its "responsible statesmen." They were apparently not even mentioned at the 50th anniversary of NATO in April, held under the sombre shadow of "ethnic cleansing" -- by the wrong hands. In brief, in the real world "responsible statesmen" do as they choose, pursuing power interests, as in the past. And they can do so with impunity, for the most part, unless deterred from within.
Let us, however, imagine that some extraordinary conversion takes place and, breaking the rather consistent historical pattern, "responsible statesmen" begin to act in accord with the impressive rhetoric that they produce, and that is produced on their behalf by the educated classes. On that assumption, we can set aside all of history as irrelevant and dismiss the institutional framework of policy making, which remains unchanged, but is inoperative (by assumption) in the post-conversion era. A number of simple questions then come to mind. Who are the "responsible statesmen," and how do they attain that rank? The answer appears to be: by self-acclaim, as in the past. We can also hardly avoid Juvenal's question from 2000 years ago: Who will guard the guardians? And another more mundane question arises: does anyone take the proposals about the new era seriously? That is readily tested.
Take the cases you mention: "massive damage to the environment," "mass marketing of narcotic drugs," threats to "the health of millions." These are very serious problems today. Should "responsible statesmen" therefore act to overcome them, disregarding sovereignty (hence presumably by force)? That should not be difficult. The US air force is capable of bombing Washington, which would only be appropriate under the principles proposed, since the US is a major actor in each case mentioned.
The US is the world's major polluter. It is not only the leading consumer of narcotics but also a major producer (particularly, of "high tech" narcotics) and a major marketer: perhaps about half of the profits from narcotrafficking flow through US banks, and early efforts to stem these crimes were blocked by George Bush, in his capacity as "Drug Czar" of the Reagan Administration.
The threat to "the health of millions" is even more clear. In Africa, for example, it is expected that there will soon be tens of millions of orphans because of death from AIDS. Tuberculosis is now one of the world's leading killers. Malaria takes an enormous toll. The Security Council is scheduled to have its first meeting on these matters in a few days, January 10. We will therefore be able to evaluate the commitment to the principles that are allegedly to guide the "new era." These atrocities can be significantly reduced by simple means, for example, by introducing free market conditions. Until now, that has been blocked by the extreme protectionism that the great powers, primarily the US, have introduced into the ludicrously-named "free trade agreements": the extremely onerous patent regime, which of course the rich societies never considered accepting until they reached their current pinnacles of power and wealth.
In the case of pharmaceuticals (as throughout most of the economy), Western protectionism is based on the principle that the public should pay a large share of the costs of research and development (R&D), and when some useful product results, it should be handed as a public gift to pharmaceutical giants, who are then protected from market competition by the sanctity of "intellectual property rights"; in the current scheme, including product patents that not only protect the publicly-subsidized corporate giants from market discipline but also deter innovation and technological progress, so that the protected firms can gain enormous profits. And of course, elementary market conditions entail the 90-10 rule, as it is called in the public health profession: 90% of R&D is devoted to threats to the health of 10% of the population -- in the real world, the 10% represented by the self-defined "responsible statesmen."
Let us turn to the next example, nuclear threats, surely severe, perhaps the main threat to survival of the species. There are, on the record, evaluations of these threats, for example, by the former Commander-in-Chief of the US Strategic Command, General Lee Butler, who spent his professional career on these matters. He regards it as "dangerous in the extreme that in the cauldron of animosities that we call the Middle East, one nation has armed itself, ostensibly, with stockpiles of nuclear weapons, perhaps numbering in the hundreds, and that inspires other nations to do so." That seems a reasonable judgement. Strategic analysts in Israel have recently claimed, rightly or wrongly, that the major stumbling-block in the current Israel-Syria negotiations is Israel's unwillingness to permit international inspection of its Dimona nuclear plant; it can refuse with impunity thanks to US support. How should "responsible statesmen" react to this threat? By bombing Dimona or Tel Aviv; or Washington, which provides the shield and support? By sanctions? By a faint word of criticism?
Proceeding, how should responsible statesmen, and responsible intellectuals in the West, respond to the threat posed by the one and only global superpower? As they know, or can easily discover, it is committed to first strike, including pre-emptive nuclear strike, even against non-nuclear countries that have signed the non-proliferation agreement, not to speak of the rest of the "nuclear posture" outlined by Clinton's Strategic Command, which should be common knowledge in countries that value their freedom.
These are serious questions. There are many like them. When they reach the agenda, we will know that the fine words are intended seriously.
Our second question was about East Timor. In the past Noam Chomsky has written regularly on the question, continually pointing to the United States' involvement in the Indonesian terror directed against the island. It is therefore unsurprising that he reacted with ill-concealed anger to our next question:
Minister Van Aartsen in his speech at the United Nations referred to the UN's actions in East Timor as a hopeful example of the direction in which the UN should be developing when it comes to humanitarian interventions. How do you see the UN intervention in east Timor?
Chomsky: It is a familiar observation that the way in which questions are posed shapes the kinds of answers that can be given, often in quite misleading ways. I believe this is a case in point. The framework in which the question is formulated seems to me so misleading as to preclude a sensible consideration of the issues.
The alleged "humanitarian intervention" was in a territory under military occupation by an aggressor that had been ordered to withdraw forthwith by the Security Council, in December 1975. There was no issue of "sovereignty." Indonesia's "sovereign rights" were essentially those of Nazi Germany in occupied Europe. Its sole claim to sovereignty is that its aggression was ratified by the great powers, in violation of their formal stand at the United Nations, which in the case of the U.S., was a complete farce, as explained frankly by UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his memoirs 20 years ago.
Accordingly, if we are to be serious, there was no "intervention" (a fortiori, "humanitarian intervention") in the Portuguese-administered territory, which should have been under effective UN jurisdiction in the first place. For 23 years, the US and its allies participated actively in expediting Indonesia's aggression and the enormous crimes that followed: the generally-accepted toll is now about 200,000 deaths, almost a third of the population. At least as recently as 1998, the Clinton administration -- in violation of congressional restrictions -- was sending arms to Indonesia and training Indonesian army forces (ABRI, now TNI), particularly the elite Kopassus commandos, notorious for their brutality. By January of 1999, paramilitaries organized by Kopassus and other TNI units sent to East Timor were instituting a renewed reign of terror. Terror increased through the year, including such atrocities as the massacre of dozens of people who had fled for refuge to a church in Liquica. The UN tried to send monitors in preparation for the scheduled referendum of August 30. Clinton delayed authorization, and the few hundred who were finally sent were unarmed. Washington's stand was that Indonesia was in charge. In the official wording, "It's their responsibility, we don't want to take it away from them." Of course, the US knew full well that TNI was implementing the atrocities; intelligence leaks from Australia make that more than amply clear, as do the reports of the UN observer mission and other sources.
On August 6, the East Timorese Church, which has been a reliable source of information for many years, estimated killings in the preceding months at 3-5000; for comparison, that is about twice the killings on all sides in Kosovo prior to the NATO bombings, four times the number relative to population (which means comparable to the deaths in Kosovo under NATO bombing). A few weeks later the US army and TNI carried out a joint "training exercise focused on humanitarian and disaster relief activities," the Pentagon reported. The lessons were put to use a few days later, when TNI-paramilitary atrocities escalated to new heights, destroying much of the country and driving most of its population to the hills or to concentration camps in Indonesian territory.
The US continued to support TNI, as did the British; as late as Sept. 20 British jets were being sent to Indonesia. In mid-September, under sharply mounting domestic and international (mainly Australian) criticism, Clinton finally signalled to the Indonesian generals that the game was over. Very quickly, they announced their withdrawal, an illustration of the latent power that had always been in reserve. At that point the Security Council authorized an Australian-led peacekeeping force. The US and Britain, which had primary responsibility for the massive atrocities of the years (to be sure, shared with France and other powers), refuse to lift a finger. There were no airdrops of food to hundreds of thousands of refugees starving in the mountains, and nothing more than a few rebukes to the generals controlling the concentration camps. They are offering no significant reconstruction aid, let alone the huge reparations that would be called for if minimal decency were to be even conceivable. Presumably, they do not want to prejudice their relations with the Indonesian military, which retains enormous power in a country that has been a "paradise for investors" ever since the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly landless peasants, in 1965, greeting with unrestrained euphoria in the West.
It is common to condemn the UN for the gruesome record; one of the functions of the UN for Western propaganda is to provide a way to deflect attention to Western crimes, by blaming the UN. In reality, the UN can act only within limits permitted by the great powers, and as Ambassador Moynihan explained 20 years ago, "The United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success" -- knowing full well the human costs of the "success," as he also made clear. Once again, in societies that valued their freedom, these words would be taught in every school -- among many others like them.
The conditions Moynihan described persisted until mid-September 1999. To terminate the aggression and atrocities, it would not have been necessary to bomb Jakarta or impose sanctions; or even, very likely, to send a UN peacekeeping force. As in the case of ethnic cleansing within NATO in the mid-1990s, it would have sufficed for the US and its allies to have withdrawn their active participation and support, and to send the Indonesian military the message that Clinton finally became willing to accept, under enormous pressure, after the final paroxysm of terror.
Returning to your question, we can hardly look at this shameful record as indicating a "direction in which the UN should evolve when it comes to `humanitarian interventions'." Rather, we should face up honestly to what we have done, and devote ourselves to an effort to compensate the victims for our enormous crimes. To recast them as proof of our remarkable humanism and dedication to human rights is beyond the describable heights of cynicism.
To close we asked Noam Chomsky what he found to be the greatest dangers of the present tendency to see so-called humanitarian interventions as a solution to all the world's problems?
Chomsky: Again, the question is wrongly put, begging the basic questions. Has there been a "tendency to emphasize the desirability of the so-called humanitarian interventions"? No more so than in the past. After all, even Mussolini and Hitler justified their actions with impressive humanitarian rhetoric -- taken quite seriously in the West, incidentally. In 1937 the State Department effusively praised Mussolini's "magnificent" and "superlative... achievements" in Ethiopia, while depicting Hitler
as a moderate standing between the extremes of left and right. A century ago the Concert of Europe basked in self-adulation as it set forth again on its task of civilizing the world through "humanitarian intervention," with consequences that we can inspect. It is necessary to demonstrate -- not proclaim - that today's calls for "humanitarian interventions" are of a different character. That requires investigation of the facts, as in the case of East Timor that was just too briefly reviewed. When we
inspect the record, I think we find little basis for these self-serving pretensions; rather, we see variations on ancient themes.
As for "the desirability of humanitarian intervention," one is tempted to borrow a comment attributed to Gandhi when asked what he thought about Western civilization: "it might be a good idea," he is said to have responded. If the issue of humanitarian intervention arises in a serious way, which has not yet happened, we will then have to consider some of the more obvious questions, for example, those raised by the International Court of Justice when it considered the matter 50 years ago. The Court concluded
that it "can only regard the alleged right of intervention as the manifestation of a policy of force, such as has, in the past, given rise to most serious abuses and... from the nature of things,...would be reserved for the most powerful states, and might easily lead to perverting the administration of justice itself." Have matters changed in that regard? If so, let us see the evidence.
Perhaps it is worth restating the fact that these truisms -- which is what they are -- do not answer the question of what should be done in particular cases. These must be considered in their own terms, with their own historical particularities. A heavy burden of proof rests on those who advocate the resort to violence. Perhaps the resort to force is advisable, but one needs serious argument, not mere rehearsal of traditional exercises in self-adulation.