28 August 2007

Human rights and the power of propaganda

By Tapani Lausti

Jean Bricmont, Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War. Monthly Review Press 2006.

Much of the mainstream media has this world view as their starting point: The United States and its European allies are shining examples of democracy and respect of human rights. These countries tirelessly fight for these values everywhere in the world where various degrees of dictatorships oppress their peoples. Even when they make mistakes, their motives are benign.

It is time to wake up from this dream and face reality. Jean Bricmont's book is one of the best recent guides to sanity. He starts by this observation: Westerners tend to see as the 20th century's most important developments the rise and fall of fascism or the history of communism. In Bricmont's view the major event was decolonization. This process inverted a centuries-old process of European expansion and hegemony over the rest of the world. Bricmont believes that this liberation will continue during the new century.

Instead of spreading democracy the West has over many centuries helped to destabilise much of the world. Many countries would have probably faired better if they had been left alone instead of the West imposing their dictates and often dictators on them. Even if it is impossible to present any precise calculations, the West's obstruction of more progressive developments in numerous countries "has cost not millions but hundreds of millions of lives destroyed by hunger, disease, and poverty". (p. 39)

The Soviet Union might have developed in a less totalitarian way if the Western powers had not attacked it after the Bolshevik Revolution and contributed to a bitter civil war. Later, "the relative incapacity of the Soviet system to reform itself was partly due to the constant feeling of being under threat..." (p. 46)

Bricmont believes that the same type of reflection applies to most formerly colonized countries: "There is no telling what would have become of Algeria, Vietnam, Korea, China, the Middle East, without the destruction of war, the imposed opium trade, the occupation of Palestine, the Sykes-Picot Accords, Suez, etc. Revolutionary violence can repeatedly be shown to be the product rather than the cause of counterrevolutionary violence, as well as long-lasting oppression by traditional ruling classes and foreign invasions." (pp. 46-47)

After the Vietnam war, the U.S. reputation as the beacon of human rights was in tatters. Since then, however, it has managed a remarkable recovery. Washington's relentless human rights propaganda has been so successful among much of the Western left that "one might gather that the main problem in the world today is the failure of the West to intervene in enough places (Chechnya, Tibet, Kurdistan, Sudan) and with enough force to promote and export its genuine values, democracy and human rights". (p. 66)

Thus the laptop bombardiers arrived on the scene with their self-serving fantasies: "During the conflicts of Bosnia and Kosovo, a certain number of Western intellectuals fancied themselves following in the footsteps of Malraux, Orwell, and Hemingway. But, unlike their predecessors, they largely remained safely at home or ensconced in the same hotel, rather than entering the fray, while the International Brigades and the Spanish Republican Army were replaced by the U.S. Air Force." (p. 66)

While these intellectuals have been busy with their hallucinations about U.S. human rights policies, the world has been changing in a way which is poorly understood. Bricmont points out that the West has become more dependent on the Third World. There is also "a decrease in linkage between the population of the U.S. and their elites or their capitalists, whose interests are less and less tied to those of "their" country". (p. 14)

The question, according to Bricmont, is whether the Americans will be taken in by the fantasies of "the war against terrorism" or will create feelings of solidarity with the emerging countries of the South. This question gets increasingly urgent because of the diminishing capacity of the U.S. to throw its military weight around the world. The U.S. is currently in the process of suffering historical defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan and is simultaneously losing its credibility in the rest of the Middle East. It can try to bomb countries into submission but is not able to find enough soldiers to "die for their country". This, Bricmont thinks, is "major progress in the history of mankind". (p. 11) The frightening side of this is that the U.S. might use nuclear weapons as the last method to impose its will.

According to Bricmont, the twenty-first century will be that of the struggle against neocolonialism, just as the twentieth was the century of struggle against colonialism. Bricmont ends his book with these remarks: "All those who prefer peace to power, and happiness to glory, should thank the colonized peoples for their civilizing mission. By liberating themselves, they made Europeans more modest, less racist, and more human. Let us hope that the process continues and that the Americans are obliged to follow the same course. When one's own cause is unjust, defeat can be liberating." (p. 165)


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