David Rieff Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Humanitarianism, the Human Rights Movement, and U.S. Foreign Policy: Conversation with David Rieff, author; March 11, 2003 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Human Rights and Imperialism

In preparing for this interview, it struck me that the title of your book, A Bed for the Night, which comes from a Brecht poem about helping the poor for the night with a bed and food, could actually refer to the relationship between humanitarianism and the state -- it [provides the state] a "bed for the night." What then is the response on the part of the humanitarian movement? Because I believe what you're suggesting is that, faced with the kind of dilemmas that arose in Bosnia, some branches of humanitarianism chose to embrace the human rights movement, saying, "If we're really going to solve this problem, we have to bring human rights to the people in this afflicted area." But you see that as having negative consequences. Why?

If I may, let's talk about the description.

There are no villains in my book or in my account of this. I think everybody is honestly groping for solution to these very, very harsh dilemmas. The old-fashioned meaning of dilemma is a situation that has no good solution. This is the original Greek idea of a dilemma: not simply a hard choice (the way it's being used), but a very difficult one which has costs. What people saw from Bosnia, from Rwanda, from Somalia, from Kosovo was that not only were there no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems, but that if humanitarians were ever to hope to contribute to a solution, they had to [work] in tandem with other movements. So humanitarian actors began to see themselves as part of a holistic solution, as part of, in government-speak, the "toolkit" of international mediation, diplomacy, conflict resolution, etc.

So what humanitarians did was think of themselves as actors in this movement for peace and justice. Now, the left-wing ones thought that was through the U.N., or radical moves for justice, [such as] the debt-relief movement. The ones who had more, perhaps, conventional politics saw it as through Western governments. The main thing that humanitarians were very turned on by -- it's unfair of me to put it that way -- found great solace in -- was the intuition of the human rights movement that these crises, these wars, these refugee emergencies were, to a very large extent, the result of human rights abuses, that the governments that committed human rights abuses were the governments that created these emergencies. And that you could address, simultaneously, human rights issues and humanitarian issues. Not that the two movements were the same, and not that they had the same interests, because human rights has to be absolutist. As a practice you can't start grading on a curve. You can't say, "These people torture, but they're the good guys, so it's not as bad as those people who tortured, because they're the bad guys." A humanitarian relief worker has to make deals with gunmen. Otherwise, you don't get your supplies through. But, still, that the interest of the human rights movement and the humanitarian movement were largely the same.

And it also solved for the humanitarians -- and this is an important point for Western relief workers, who are obsessed with the issues of paternalism and neo-colonialism -- the issue of their role, because they could say to themselves, "We're not just benign philanthropists from the rich North; we are people trying to secure rights enshrined in international treaties and declarations for people who can't secure them for themselves -- the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Genocide Commission, the Geneva Conventions, etc."

Now, that sounds very appealing. My problem with it, and the reason I think the marriage of humanitarian action and state power has been such a disaster, is that I think the logic of the human rights movement is imperialist. I don't think it was necessarily intended this way. But once you talk about categories like international justice, or you talk about bringing people to justice, or an end to impunity -- I'm just using the standard slogans of the human rights movement -- if you're really serious about that, the only way to do it is by at least the possible use of force. The human rights movement, whether wittingly or unwittingly, has increasingly become a force for a recolonization of the world, in the name of rights.

The first thing I would say, just historically, is it's an illusion to imagine that previous imperial moments didn't have similar benign rationales. The most terrible of the many terrible European colonial enterprises in Africa in the nineteenth century, which was Leopold's possession of the Congo, the grant of the Congo by the other European powers to Leopold as his private fiefdom, was on the basis of anti-slavery. Leopold promised to end the slave trade in the Congo Basin. In fact, the Abolitionist Society of Britain made him its poster boy at one point. This is a man who was responsible, in a conservative estimate, for the death of ten million people -- one of the great slaughters in human history.

So while human rights people would say, "Oh, David Rieff is very unfair to us; our intentions are quite different," my answer is, " All imperial movements, except maybe Genghis Khan, have had some kind of "civilizing" or humanitarian rationale. Certainly, nineteenth century European colonialism did. In fact, Cecil Rhodes, the great figure of nineteenth century British colonialism in Africa, described colonialism in Africa as "philanthropy plus 5 percent." And was he wrong? I don't know if he was wrong.

To fulfill the dictates of international law in the way that human rights activists want them fulfilled requires guns. So the first problem is that we are kidding ourselves if we imagine that the human rights movement is somehow an oppositional movement to Western power. On the contrary, what it wants to do is it wants to make Western power in the service of good. Samantha Power, again, is a perfect example of this. Her book is a call for the United States to impose an idealistic, Wilsonian order on the world --preferably by diplomacy, but by force if necessary. That's why, frankly, I find that critique of the Bush administration by the human rights movement so preposterous. I think, actually, the Bush people have a much stronger case. The hard Wilsonianism of a Max Boot or a Robert Kagan is a hell of a lot more intellectually coherent than the imperial idealism, swathed in antiseptic sheets of international law, of Samantha Power and the Soros Foundations. I don't necessarily share the Right's view, but it seems to me it's much more both coherent and honest.

However, even if you agree with these premises -- that by making humanitarianism an adjunct of these larger ambitions, you paradoxically diminish it -- what's great about humanitarianism (and this is the argument of my book) is that humanitarianism is a limited thing. It is bringing a bed for the night. It's not able to solve these problems. It shouldn't be viewed as an ideological basis for anything. It should be impartial, and can't be impartial if it is going to become the service arm of imperial power.

It's odd, because I came into this thinking about these issues more than a decade ago in Bosnia, believing that the International Committee of the Red Cross, with its neutrality and its insistence that it couldn't take sides, was a tremendous moral failure. And I've come out of the last ten or eleven years thinking that however austere a creed, neutrality is the only way to do humanitarian aid in a way that fulfills these limited ideals.

You're not a pacifist; you're not categorically opposed to intervention. As I read what you are saying, you want intervention to be judged on political grounds, not on humanitarian ones. Is that fair?

Absolutely. Hell, I'm anything but a pacifist. What I'm not, however, is for endless wars of altruism. I feel that the human rights movement, if it had its way, would plunge us into epics of war. When I read an Arieh Neier, or a Samantha Power, a Bill Berkeley, Kenneth Roth, saying that the problem, for example, in Iraq is that we're not consistent, that we're going to intervene in Iraq, but we're not going to intervene in six other places ... I mean, my view is, this is a plea for endless colonial wars in the name of human rights norms. And that scares me to death.

I had a conversation with Robert Kagan not so long ago in Berlin. I asked him what he thought. He said, "Look, I'm not necessarily for going to war, but I think our presumption should be to lean toward intervention, not to lean away from it." I think that's exactly the presumption of the human rights movement, whereas my presumption is the opposite, that we should precisely lean away from it, that war needs to be an exceptional idea, and something that we do without the idea that it's a precedent for something else. I wish we'd intervened in Rwanda, but had we intervened in Rwanda, that would not have made me think we should have intervened, then, in Congo, or in Angola, or in Sudan, or in Sierra Leone.

I'm anything but a pacifist, but I'm skeptical of intervention in the name of these norms. I think the problem with human rights norms in the abstract is they don't have any objective correlative in the countries in question. What you're really talking about is colonization, and I just don't feel we're smart enough. I also don't think there's any will. I once wrote an essay about liberal imperialism. This was about four or five years ago, in which I said, "If you really wanted to make the lives of ordinary people better in lots of places, in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, you'd probably impose a kind of U.N. mandatory system, and put the things under administration, like we put the Balkans." What have we done in the Balkans, except say they can't govern themselves, and we're going to turn them into a protectorate for the foreseeable future? There will be European and American troops in the south Balkans well into the 2020s.

Even if I'm right that people would be better off, I don't think any nation has the wisdom to govern well and to be a colonial power. I do believe, corny as it sounds, in Lord Acton's great phrase that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." That's my great worry about America at this point, not because I'm always opposed to intervention, and not by any means because I'm anti-military; I absolutely think that at times, American military action has been a force for good and can be a force for good. But I think the absolute power of the United States is going to corrupt the United States, if it hasn't done so already. I think it already is corrupted.

When I read Samantha Power saying the problem is not U.S. power, the problem is that U.S. power isn't pledged to righting all the human rights wrongs in the world, I think, "This is the new imperialism with a vengeance. This is the American empire." I prefer the American republic. But that has nothing to do with pacifism.

I would like to say one thing about that, though, which is that I'm very skeptical of humanitarian intervention, with exceptions. Rwanda being the one that ... having seen the Rwandan genocide with my own eyes, I can tell you that I wish more than I can express that the 82nd Airborne had dropped from the skies.

But in the case of Bosnia, I wasn't for intervention in Bosnia [simply] because the people were suffering. It was terrible; and yet, I lived in Sarajevo during war, so it's not like I didn't know what people's sufferings were. I was for the intervention in Bosnia because I thought my own country, a democracy, had both the right and, to my sense, the interest in supporting this fledgling democracy in the Balkans. That that would have been a political intervention, precisely as you said.

By the same token, I completely opposed the intervention in Iraq -- the one that, by the time your program is broadcast, I assume, will have already been started, and perhaps, even ended -- because I don't think it's the job of the United States to build democracies from whole cloth. That's Wilsonianism to me of the most crazy kind.

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