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  • "Almost every aggressive act by any great power is justified on humanitarian grounds," says U.S. intellectual Noam Chomsky in an exclusive interview.

    "Almost every aggressive act by any great power is justified on humanitarian grounds," says U.S. intellectual Noam Chomsky in an exclusive interview. | Photo: Commons Wikimedia/Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación Argentina

Published 14 February 2018

"Almost every aggressive act by any great power is justified on humanitarian grounds," says U.S. intellectual Noam Chomsky in an exclusive interview.

In an exclusive interview with teleSUR, renowned intellectual and political activist Noam Chomsky addresses the concept of "humanitarian intervention," which he says is being used to justify violent military intervention by leading global powers, most notably the United States.


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"From the point of view of the aggressor it's a humanitarian intervention, but not from the point of view of the victims. Probably, if we had records from Attila the Hun, we might find the same thing," said Chomsky.

NATO in Serbia

The first time the term 'humanitarian intervention' was widely discussed both in international law and by global organizations was in the wake of NATO intervention in Serbia.

In 1996, secessionist groups in Kosovo, supported by the Albanian army, carried out terrorist attacks on Yugoslavian territory, which in turn triggered reciprocal attacks by Yugoslavia. The United States and NATO countries then used that as an excuse to invade and bomb Serbia.

Wesley Clark, the general in charge of U.S. and NATO forces during the Kosovo war, warned Washington that a U.S. attack on Yugoslavia would only escalate atrocities: unable to attack the United States, Yugoslavia would be forced to retaliate on the ground.

NATO then launched Operation Allied Force, the codename for the bombing of Yugoslavia, ostensibly to prevent further atrocities. This escalated the Yugoslavian response and caused yet more suffering, eventually leading to the trial of Slobodan Milosevic at a U.N. international criminal tribunal.

"If you look back at the discussion, the way it's framed... it was a humanitarian intervention because they had to stop Serbian atrocities, and that's the way it's presented in the West: they have to keep quiet on the fact that the Serbian atrocities were a predicted and expected consequence of the invasion," said Chomsky.

International lawyers and analysts later decided the invasion had been "illegal but legitimate," said Chomsky: "Illegal because of an obvious violation of international law, but legitimate because they had to stop the horrible atrocities which followed the invasion, so they simple inverted the chronology, which is what is usually done... (The United States) invaded in order to prevent atrocities that were cause by the invasion."

The discussion about what constitutes "humanitarian intervention" and how that concept can coexist with sovereignty began after the genocide in Rwanda and the Srebrenica massacre, but the events in Serbia ultimately resulted in international agreements.

The U.N. General Assembly then came up with a resolution regarding the "responsibility to protect," stating that military action cannot be taken unless authorized by the Security Council. This, in effect, prioritizes the application of diplomatic pressures in order to ensure governments don't violate the rights of their own people.

Another legal definition came from the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), led by Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun, and including representatives from Canada, United States, Canada, Russia, Germany, South Africa, Philippines, Switzerland, Guatemala and India.

The commission further refined "responsibility to protect," adding a clause allowing regional groups to intervene "in case the Security Council doesn't agree to authorize intervention," but "subject to subsequent approval by the Security Council."

Which regional grouping can intervene? As Chomsky says: "There's one: it's called NATO, and what this is saying is that even though the U.N. Security Council doesn't authorize it, NATO is justified in intervening." 

In other words, every time the United States or NATO say military intervention is legal under international law with Security Council approval, what they actually mean is that it's legal under the ICISS report and not the U.N. General Assembly agreement.

"That's a beautiful example of how propaganda operates in a well-functioning powerful system," says Chomsky.

Following this reasoning, the bombing of Libya could be considered "humanitarian intervention" per the concept of "responsibility to protect": the U.N. Security Council approved a no-fly zone for Libya and Gaddafi's government agreed to a truce, but when his army continued towards Bengazi, the United States, Great Britain and France launched a bombing campaign.

The attacks destroyed most of Libya's infrastructure and killed about 10,000 people, leaving Libya defenseless "as it is today, in the hands of worrying militias."

Chomsky says this enabled the latest Islamist militias to emerge: Libya represented a proxy for the flow of arms and Jihadis into the Levand and West Africa, "which has now become the major source of radical terrorism in the world – largely a consequence of so-called humanitarian intervention in Libya.

"You look at case after case and ocassionally you can find an example that maybe you can argue is humanitarian intervention," and yet genuine humanitarian cases remain "bitterly opposed" by the United States.

Iraq and Afghanistan

Chomsky argues that U.S. intentions in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, were very different: "In the case of Afghanistan, I suspect it was just revenge. It's probably just as Abdul Haqq said: they wanted to 'show their muscle'. You know, 'somebody attacked us, we're gonna show the world that we can attack somebody even more harshly.'"

This mentality is echoed in Trump's nuclear comment to North Korea about having "a bigger button than you do." As Chomsky points out, there was "no strategic or other purpose behind it."

Iraq, he says, is a different story: "Iraq is a country (the United States) wanted to invade," because of its resources and strategic location in the middle of the world's biggest oil-producing region.

"That you can understand on traditional imperial grounds, but I suspect Afghanistan really was pretty much what Abdul Haqq said."


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