By Ajamu Baraka
iiWho is killing whom in Syria and why? And to whom should we be listening ---- to our corporate media, State Department, and the same corps of “human rights activists” who applauded the Western invasion of Libya, and the dispatch of US special forces to Africa?
Human Rights and Humanitarian Imperialism in Syria: A View From an African American Defender of Human Rights
by Ajamu Baraka
As the corporate media beat the drums of war with Syria, led this time by CNN and the New York Times with support from the rear coming from the confused white left/liberal likes of Democracy Now, a now familiar line is conjured up to rationalize intervention – humanitarian intervention as a basis to exercise the “responsibility to protect (R2P). David Gergen, the “soft neocon” advisor to both republican and democratic Presidents, made the claim on CNN recently that human rights groups would love to see the U.S. intervene in Syria. A claim that is probably accurate for the U.S.-based white, middle-class human rights mainstream. But this position certainly does not represent the positions of the growing, but largely ignored, “new human rights movement” of grassroots organizations of people of color, informed by an African American radical human rights tradition, who are reclaiming and redefining human rights as an anti-oppression, anti-imperialist “people-centered” movement. But before I touch on this new movement let me briefly explore how this new version of the white man’s burden emerged to become the main device for mobilizing public opinion in the U.S. to support war in the guise of humanitarianism.
In a meticulous examination of thousands of national security documents, James Peck demonstrated empirically what many of us already understood from our position in the margins of the human rights movement and from direct experiences with the U.S. settler State. And that was that the human rights idea was severed from its radical potential in the late 1940s and early 1950s, co-opted by ruling class forces in the U.S. and Western Europe in 1970s as a weapon in the ideological battles of the Cold War had and had become a “new language of power designed to promote American foreign policy” with little to do with human rights and everything to do with providing a rationale for protecting and advancing U.S. and Western imperialism. Why was the human rights idea important for U.S. propagandists?
Before the 1990s it would have been a difficult, if not impossible, to persuade the American people to support intervention into another State with the claim that the intervention was necessary to protect lives or human rights.
The idealism of former President Ronald Reagan’s “moral” crusades against Communism and the success of a new phenomenon in the post Cold War era – a North-South war in the form of the United Nations endorsed war against Iraq – suggested to the ruling elements that significant progress had been made moving public opinion away from the geo-political restraints imposed by the “Vietnam syndrome,” (the irrational, from the point of view of the ruling elites, reluctance to support military actions outside of the U.S.). However, it was still not certain that public opinion would support the violence and brutality of war if the terms and interests were more murky than the simple “good versus evil” binary offered by the anti-Communism of the Cold War. What was needed in this period – when it seemed that growing numbers of people in the U.S. would become more inwardly-looking, concerned with issues of domestic economic development, inequality, and environmental justice among a number of domestic issues – was an ideological weapon that would mask U.S. geo-political and economic interests while simultaneously providing a moral rationale for U.S. intervention. Human rights activists gave them the perfect weapon – humanitarian intervention to protect human rights.
So while elements of ruling class were concerned that post-Cold War isolationism would make it harder to justify aggressive military interventions, U.S. human rights leaders were also concerned, albeit for different reason. For them, U.S. disengagement in a world threatened by violence and suffering was morally indefensible. Why? Because the U.S., as the “leader of the Western world” had a responsibility to ensure that people in other societies would enjoy the benefits of Western-style rights. U.S. policy makers were only too willing to accommodate them with soaring rhetoric in defense of human rights.
These Western-based human rights spokespeople, NGOs and theoreticians did not assume this position that dovetailed neatly with the interests of their States as a result of conscious collaboration, but as a result of a shared philosophical and ideological framework – liberalism. A liberalism that is seen as universal, with Western style society and its institutional forms as the ultimate expression of modernity. Noam Chomsky captured the delusionary character of the U.S. and Western world-view at the end of the Cold War and the new role of the U.S. State:
“The millennium ended with an extraordinary display of self-congratulation on the part of Western intellectuals, awe-struck at sight of the “idealistic new world bent on ending inhumanity,” which had entered a “noble phase” in its foreign policy with a “saintly glow” as for the first time in history a state is dedicated to “principles and values,” acting from “altruism” and “moral fervor” alone as the “leader”of the enlightened states,” hence free to use force where its leaders “believe it to be just” …
Humanitarian intervention provided the U.S. State the perfect ideological cover and internal rationalization to continue as the global “gendarme” of the capitalist order. By providing the human rights rationale for the assertion that the “international community” had a moral and legal responsibility to protect a threatened people, mainstream human rights activists effectuated a shift in the discourse on international human rights that moved the R2P assertion from a contested legal and moral augment to a common-sense assumption. And because of their limited perspective, it did not occur to any of these theoreticians that what they propagated was a thinly updated version of the “white man’s burden.” The NATO intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, the assault on Iraq to “save” the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein, and most recently the NATO attack on Libya that brought to power a rag-tag assortment of anti-African racists, have solidified the idea among many in the U.S. that humanitarian intervention to protect human rights through aggressive war is justifiable. The consequence of this for U.S. policy makers and for the likely targets of U.S. aggression in the global South is that if properly framed, war could be moved back to the center of strategic options without much fear of a backlash from the American people—a development especially important for a declining power that appears to have concluded that it will use military means to attempt to maintain its global empire.
But explaining how human rights and humanitarian intervention came to be co-opted by the U.S. State does not really address the question related to the ease with which this notion has been accepted by people in the West, including white progressives and human rights activists. Why was it so easy for these groups to accept the notion that the U.S. has the right and responsibility to intervene into the affairs of sovereign states by any means, including military? For a possible explanation, we need to delve into the assumptions that serve as the basis for the Western world-view. Space does not allow me to give this question the attention it deserves in this brief piece. But a brief exploration of this question will demonstrate source of the delusion. An exploration of this question will also help to differentiate the political stance of the mainstream human rights movement from the “new” human rights movement in formation here in the U.S. I will turn to this question now.
In his critique of Western human rights practice, the African human rights scholar Makau Muta provides an insight into the question when he asserts that human rights are fundamentally influenced by the normativity of liberal theoretical and philosophical assumptions. For the Eurocentric human rights activist, the assumption that Western society, its institutions, values, social practices and culture represent the embodiment of civilized modernity is uncontested. Therefore, Muta points out that the West as the “saviors” of the innocent “victims” of the evil (read non-Western) State with its savage repression and authoritarism is seen as a both a natural and desirable occurrence, when it can indeed happen. The subtext to this is that non-Western, non-liberal societies require outside intervention, at various times, to bring them up to the level of Western (read fully human) societies.
This perspective is the cornerstone of white supremacist ideology that has been internalized by the mass populations in Europe and the U.S., no matter the ethnicity or race. It is an essential element of the normalization and universality of white supremacy as an ideological and cultural phenomenon. From the point of view of the psychologically decolonized “other,” the projection of Western liberal society as the model for all of humanity is absurd. But what makes White supremacy so powerful as an instrument of social conformity and national identity in the U.S., and dangerous for the non-white world, is not just its ubiquity but also its invisibility. Liberal universality is therefore turned into not a process but a natural development – the very expression of modernity that every people, if free, would want.
The latest charade of supposed concern for the people of Libya and Syria, while ignoring the cries for democracy and human rights emanating from the people of Bahrain, demonstrate once again the cynicism and hypocrisy of a human rights project in need of decolonization.
Syria as a line of demarcation for anti-imperialists
One of the most vexing aspects of the consciousness of radicals in the U.S. is connected to the ease with which they are manipulated by the bourgeoisie. It is much more understandable how the mass of people in the U.S. are manipulated by the ruling elements with appeals to humanitarian sentiments into supporting imperialist adventures from Iraq to Libya, but the ease in which U.S. leftists find themselves on the same side along with the U.S., Western colonial States, Saudi Arabia and Al-Qaeda in situations like Libya and what is unfolding in Syria requires more analysis than can be attempted in this piece. But as I have argued, I think it can be partially explained by the power of this new weapon – humanitarian intervention – and the racist, ‘white man’s burden” components of its assumptions. From celebrity leftists like Amy Goodman to significant elements of the mainstream anti-war movement, Syria is seen as an extension of the distorted and now meaningless appellate of the “Arab spring.” The “uprising” in Syria is covered as the embodiment of a moral crusade against a ruthless dictator bent on suppressing his people through indiscriminate killings and torture. CNN carries almost nightly broadcasts, primarily through Anderson Cooper’s program, in which he solemnly describes the latest outrage on the part of the Assad government, all with the sole purpose of creating the justification for intervention under the dubious “right to protect” doctrine, which is the more refined notion of humanitarian intervention. Yet, because of the internalized imperatives of white supremacy, very few question the moral or legal basis of intervention, including these celebrity leftists and their liberal friends in the human rights field. That question is not raised because it is not even seen as a question. The prerogatives of white supremacy are so normalized as to be invisible and thus beyond question.
But just a cursory view of the Syria situation beyond the bourgeois hysterics and from the perspective of people who are still able to see, is in textbook form, represents the new modalities of imperialist maneuvering on both the domestic and geo-political level. There is no question that Syria is in conflict and that people are losing their lives. But a contextualization of the situation provides a much more complex reality.
The U.S. corporate media has provided no context, historical analysis or plausible explanation of the events in Syria for the people in the U.S. The situation is presented as a continuation of the so-called Arab Spring, despite the enormous differences in the specifics of the domestic uprisings against those Western-supported regimes. In both Egypt and Tunisia, for example, neo-liberal policies and long histories of repression created broad popular grievances. And most critically, those popular uprising (I refrain from calling them revolutions) did not depend on or call for foreign intervention. In fact it was quite the opposite. The “foreign” role that they wanted to see was for the imperialist West to refrain from subverting popular movements by coming to the aid of its client States. But Syria was quite different. Like in Libya, mass protests in areas with historic opposition were quickly militarized and a chorus of calls for regime change was carefully orchestrated, despite attempts by the Assad government and other forces to address the situation through peaceful means. This is not to imply that all of the forces calling for fundamental change were dupes of the West and did not have legitimate concerns and grievances. But for the most part that opposition that coalesced around internal formations like the organizations that made up the National Coordination Committee for Democratic change and the Popular Front for Liberation and Change and rejected foreign intervention, were systematically marginalized by U.S. and Western forces.
But those opposition forces of ex-political prisoners, writers, poets who operated within a national Syria context is a nuanced reality much too complicated for U.S. propagandists to exploit. In the U.S. the playbook for manipulating public opinion has already been established. The opposition is presented as an undifferentiated mass whose aims are cast in terms easily digested by a people that many in the world consider the most gullible and uninformed on the planet. Representations of the people in the streets were that they had no history and no agenda except that they were in opposition and, therefore, had legitimacy as victims. Victims the white West had an obligation to protect
What are the real objectives in Syria? The government of Syria has been in the crosshairs of U.S. and Israeli destabilization efforts for decades. The political right’s articulation of a “new American Century” became the basis of the National Security Strategy under President G.W. Bush. However, both parties adopted and supported the central component of the strategy which was to prevent the rise of any regional power that could threaten U.S. hegemony. This was the basis for the trap that was prepared for Saddam Hussein in Kuwait. But with the imperialist overreach represented by the invasion of Iraq which had the unintentional consequence of enhancing the regional power of Iran, destabilization efforts in Syria as a counter to Iran became the new priority for U.S. policy when it became clear that the U.S. had been defeated and would have to pull back physically from Iraq.
A new priority, because some officials in the U.S. and in the West believed that Bashar Assad, who was educated in the West, and married to a Syrian who had been raised in Britain was someone they could do business with, especially since the regime was an active participate in the U.S.’s war on terror and eagerly embraced neo-liberal economic policies. So there was a partial “rapprochement” with the Syrian government, similar to what occurred with Libya once it disarmed itself by suspending its nuclear program, destroying its chemical arsenal and also opening up more to the global market. But with a shift in the geo-political realities and priorities for the U.S., it was determined that conditions were favorable to launch an intensified destabilization effort against Syria—Assad’s cooperation with the West in its war against “terrorism” and surrendering of his economy to the forces of global capitalism notwithstanding. And like in Libya, it was the contradictions created by neo-liberalism that expanded the social base for opposition that the West skillfully exploited.
Embracing neo-liberalism created severe dislocations in the Syria economy. While a small elite of Sunni and Alawite business people associated with the regime benefited, the urban working class and countryside suffered. In fact, this integration into the global economy required the Syrian government to reduce subsidies on basics like food and fuel, creating more hardships for the poor. So with these factors and the unresolved problems created in places like Homs and Hama due to the conflict between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s, largely non-violent protests erupted, inspired by events in Egypt and Tunisia. But as the Wikileaks documents indicated, when demonstrations did not result in significant moves toward regime change, armed opposition was encouraged by U.S. and NATO forces.
Working through the collection of U.S. client states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and enticing Turkey with the fantasy of some kind of neo-Ottoman possibilities, the U.S. and NATO transformed the Turkish border area into a militarized zone. The Turkish city of Adana has become the operational c ommand post where, according to the New York Times and other sources, the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies are steering arms and training members of the so-called Free Syrian Army to launch raids into the country. Lebanon is also being used to smuggle weapons into Syria.
The result has been a classic destabilization campaign with escalating violence and death on all sides. But the media, in particular in the U.S., spins the coverage as an ongoing series of outrageous atrocities on the part of the Syrian government. The international coverage around the killings in Houla in late May was illustrative of the propaganda efforts geared to generate support for intervention. CNN, Democracy Now and other liberal and right-wing media outlets told us how over 100 people were brutally slaughtered by elements of the Syrian army and associated militia. This account was largely as a result of a story run by the BBC that allegedly was based on interviews with survivors in the villages, who were now refugees. Again, like in Libya, where desperate pleas for intervention came from women with impeccable English accents over the backdrop of grainy videos of a dumpster on fire, a person identified as Rasha provided the definitive account of the “massacre.” As one critical account of this clumsy propaganda effort points out, “the BBC report did not say who Rasha was, or provide any evidence that she actually was there, or that if she was, she had any basis for saying that the killers were identifiable as to their affiliation. BBC quoted one other source, who did not provide a name. Despite the thinness of this material, the BBC story was picked up all over the world, and became perhaps the definitive account.”
In a more responsible account provided by the Frankfurter Allgemeine-Zeitung, the veracity of the reports was questioned, when it was revealed that 90 percent of the population of Houla is Sunni, yet “according to eyewitness accounts…those killed were almost exclusively from families belonging to Houla’s Alawi and Shia minorities.”
The veracity of these accounts is really irrelevant once the simplistic binary of “good versus evil” has been established in the minds of the intended targets. Playing on the arrogant assumption that the white West has the right and responsibility to intervene anywhere to shape events and the world to their liking, popular support is growing for direct intervention by the West through the structure they use when they are blocked from using the UN Security Council – NATO. And again, it is not necessary to refer to Wikileaks documents to determine the real objectives in Syria. In their arrogance, administrative officials and their liberal and right-wing supporters say very clearly what the real objectives are, even when the UN had to give the impression that it was attempting to resolve the situation peacefully with the “Annan plan” devised by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was brought in under the auspices that a peaceful resolution was possible. But in order to make sure that Annan’s plan would be doomed from the beginning, U.S. officials did not express any confidence in a peaceful resolution. In fact, before the Annan scenario could be completely played out, Susan Rice (no relation to Condoleezza Rice, but just as right-wing), declared that “the Annan plan is dead and members of this Council and members of the international community are left with the option only of having to consider whether they’re prepared to take actions outside of the Annan plan and the authority of this Council.”
The Zionist warmonger, Clifford D. May, exploded the humanitarian charade completely when he declared that “the humanitarian concern is not the primary objective but rather as a ‘means to an end’: If the Arab League is unmoved by the massacres of Syrian women and children (their angry eyes fixed as ever on Israel), and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation doesn’t give a fig about Muslims slaughtering Muslims, why should we Americans expend an ounce of energy?..[the answer] because Syria, under the Ass ad dictatorship, is Iran’s most important ally and asset. And Iran is the single most important strategic threat facing the U.S.—hands down.”
It does not seem to bother U.S.-based “progressives” who support the Obama Administration’s moves in Syria when those progressives find themselves on the same side as the National Review. And apparently it does not matter to liberal human rights activists in the West that NATO’s assertion that it has the right to use force to protect human rights, “the right to protect” (R2P), was rejected at the UN World Summit in 2005. What is significant about this issue beyond the obvious is that this is the very summit that the proponents of the R2P claim provided the legitimacy for aggressive intervention to protect human rights. A claim that, even if it were true, could still not get around the fact that an endorsement would not have superseded the authority of the UN Charter, which gives only the Security Council the mandate to use coercive action to maintain and secure international peace and security. And that in fact, outside of Security Council authorization any other resort to force is a war crime, which means, of course, that all of the actions taken over the last few decades by NATO and the U.S. under a series of U.S. administrations, including the Obama Administration, are in fact war crimes.
Mainstream human rights activists and theorists know that these actions over the last few decades are in fact crimes and represent the ultimate human right abuse—violating one’s right to life. But they demur from stating the obvious, claiming that to do so would compromise their “credibility.” So they don’t take a position on war but instead beg the combatants (meaning the attacking Western powers) to adhere to the rules of war. And if they are visibly issuing reports in the run up to war detailing the human rights crisis in the country currently in the cross-hairs of U.S. and Western imperialism, well they claim that is just a coincidence and only reflects the seriousness of the situation within the country.
Syria is just the latest in a long line of international crimes perpetrated by Western powers. But what makes the crimes in Syria, as those in Libya, even more offensive, is the cynical use of human rights to advance the diabolical interests of Western imperialism. When the National Coordination Committee for D emocratic Change of Syria was calling for talks with the Syrian government and rejecting calls for foreign intervention in order to avoid bloodshed, before they were pushed aside by the Western-created Syrian National Council, who the Syria Human Rights Network characterized as group of exiles funded by the foreign sources “who work on destroying the homeland instead of building it,” Western human rights groups had the “credibility” to support a peaceful internal resolution and to remind those forces pushing for military action and interventions that they would be just as responsible for the loss of life, or even more so, as any actions taken by the Syrian state in response to armed attacks in its territories. Some individuals took a principled position, but most international human rights organizations instead joined in a steady beating the drums for war.
Human rights on the side of human liberation: The decolonial imperative
Despite the opportunism of mainstream human rights organizations and the reactionary uses of the human rights idea by states in the West, many of us believe in the transformative power of human rights once liberated from its ideological and political subordination to Eurocentric male-centered liberalism and the Western imperialist project. This may seem like a contradictory proposition based on the popular understanding of the genesis of the “modern” human rights idea which developed at the end of the second imperialist war in 1945. A popular notion that centers the role of the U.S. in the personality of Eleanor Roosevelt and the subsequent creation of the compromise document – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But in contrast to the popular notion that the U.S. emerged as the champions of human rights is the reality that the U.S. started backpedaling on issue of human rights even before the end of the war. And even more importantly, it was the agitation on the part of African Americans who saw the newly formed UN as a site of struggle to raise the issues of racism and anti-colonialism that had the most impact on U.S. human rights position between 1945 and 1951. The agitation on the part of African American was informed by a perspective that saw human rights as an arena of struggle. It also saw this agitation as being in line with the internationalist traditions and responsibilities that African American radicals had taken up for decades.
The potentially “subversive” character of human rights was captured by a number of our activists from the National Negro Congress, which submitted the first petition to the newly-formed United Nations in 1946 through the Dubois and the NAACP that submitted a petition in 1947 and the Civil Rights Congress petition “We Charge Genocide” in 1951. All of these efforts generated dramatic responses from the U.S. and created tremendous problems for U.S. policymakers, who wanted to advance U.S. interests through the U.N. and did not need controversy being created with the suggestion that the U.N. might be used to address the U.S. apartheid system. It was this approach that centered anti-racism, anti-colonialism and self-determination that distinguished African American human rights practice and captured Malcolm’s attention and led to his admonition before he was assassinated that Africans in the U.S. should redefine our struggle as a human rights struggle, in order to align ourselves with all of those forces fighting for self-determination.
But like all processes, ideas and structures, the human rights idea has its contradictory aspects. While it contains elements that can be defined as progressive, its opaque and open-ended formulations has also been used as a reactionary tool against humanity and human liberation. One of the reasons for this is that the human rights idea is firmly grounded in the assumptions, needs and world view of classical liberalism. That is why, in order for the human rights idea to have contemporary relevance, it is imperative that we go beyond Malcolm’s call for international agitation, as important as that still is for issues like the plight of political prisoners and prisoners of war, and affect a clear and radical break with the theoretical and philosophical tenets of liberalism and the conservative political practices that flow from it. Petitioning the UN is important as an aspect of ideological struggle and building transnational political support for movement building processes, but the UN is not going affect the shift in power toward the people that is needed in order to dismantle the U.S. Settler State and construct new relations of being. This has to be the task of a people-centered human rights movement.
The privileging of legalism and the elite change model upheld by mainstream U.S.-based human rights organizations, along with their support for U.S. and Western imperialism under the guise of humanitarian intervention, has proven that for an authentic human rights movement to develop, it has to be independent from both capitalist parties, truly democratic, and grounded in the struggles of the oppressed. But even more importantly, it has to be committed to radical transformation, the shifting of power from the human rights abusers (the oppressors) to the oppressed—globally. The victims of the white nationalist project, in the form of the U.S. settler state and European colonial capitalism, cannot afford the fiction of a human rights that is “non-political.” The objective contradictions of global capitalism and its national expression for our people in the U.S. links our fate fundamentally with the peoples’ of the world, as Malcolm understood. But if human rights are to have any relevancy for the historic task at hand, it must be decolonized and injected with new life and definition by the people in the process of struggle.
Humanitarian intervention is not new. It is no more than an updated version of the “white man’s burden,” and as such is just the latest ideological device used to justify the violent usurpation of the historical process and productive forces of the “other.” The forces of reaction are targeting Syria with the main objective being to break the resistance to Israeli colonialism. We should not expect much from most white “progressive” forces in the U.S.—and nothing from the white-controlled mainstream human rights movement. Neither of these elements is able to see through the charade of using human rights to advance U.S. interests. But for those of us who operate from our own independent human rights traditions and understand the importance of international solidarity and the international balance of forces between the people and retrograde historical forces represented by the hegemony of Western states, it is imperative that authentic anti-imperialists in the U.S. expose the human rights charade before imperialism moves on to consolidate AFRICOM on the continent and its next two major targets – Iran and Venezuela!
“The price to make others respect your human rights is death. You have to be ready to die or you have to be ready to take the lives of others…Respect me, or put me to death. But when you start to put me to death, we’re both going to die together. You have to say that. This is not violence. This is intelligence.”
El-Hajj Malik El Shabazz ( Malcolm X)
For those who might say that as human rights defenders we must stand with the people of Syria, I say that many of us stood with those who were attempting to struggle within the context of their own realities in Syria, calling for social and economic change, but rejecting outside intervention. And there were many who did so, from the National Coordinating Council for Democratic Change (NCC), to the Popular Front for Liberation and Change (PFCL). But that principled stand does not mean that we will allow ourselves to be used by the West to mystify imperialism. Today thousands have lost their lives in Syria with the possibility that there will be even more loss of life. This monstrous crime must be placed at the foot of U.S. and Western imperialism and all who allowed themselves to become collaborators in the name of humanitarianism . For us, we grieve for the people of Syria who have lost their lives. But grieving is not enough. Documenting abuses is not enough. Calling for restraint and the rule of law is not enough, especially when they make the laws. For those of us who believe in the liberating possibilities of human rights centered and controlled by the oppressed and not by States, we must sharpen our knives for struggle against all those who create and perpetuate crimes against humanity, genocide, ethnic cleansing and the crimes of war. This is the task of a revolutionary human rights project. Opposing imperialism and standing against aggressive State-initiated wars is a cornerstone of the new “people-centered” human rights agenda. And for taking that stand, we have no apologies.
Ajamu Baraka was the founding Director of the US Human Rights Network until June 2011. A long-time human rights activist and veteran of the Black Liberation, anti-war, anti-apartheid and central American solidarity movements in the U.S., Baraka has been in the forefront of efforts to develop a radical “people-centered” perspective on human rights and to apply that framework to social justice struggles in the U.S. and abroad. He is currently a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he is editing a book on human rights entitled “The Fight Must be for Human Rights: Voices from the Frontline.” The book is due to be published in 2013.