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The Broken Kolo and Humanitarian Intervention

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The Kolo, a folk dance practised among the Southern Slavs, involves several individuals engaging in synchronised steps whilst holding each other around the waist. Once upon a time, it may have served as an appropriate political metaphor of Yugoslavia for the people who practised it; Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Slovenes. Long forgotten was Tito's desire for Bulgaria to join with Yugoslavia to form a complete federation of the southern slavic people, a position strongly opposed by Stalin - and pivotal in the breakup in relations between the U.S.S.R. and Yugoslavia. Now, instead, the dead are many, and the degree of distrust between these different but similar nationalities will take more than a generation to repair.

The period of "Brotherhood and Unity", the slogan used by the Yugoslav Communist Party, came to a crashing end when Milošević's sought to centralise power in the federal system at a time when leaders of other republics were seeking more autonomy. On 23 December 1990, Slovenia held a referendum, which passed with 95% votes in favor of independence, with a turnout of 93.2%. On May 19, 1991 an referendum on independence for Croatia was held which received a 93.24% vote from an 80% turnout (many local Serbs - who constituted 12.2% of the total population of Croatia - boycotted the referendum). The prevention of Croatian Stjepan Mesić for taking the role of the rotating presidency in 1991 also proved to be a turning point. Shortly after this, on June 25, Croatia and Slovenia declared independence and the breakup of Yugoslavia began.

These wars were the most bloody that Europe has witnessed in decades and there were numerous breaches of international law, of which only a handful can be cited here. The murder, torture and forcible expulsion of civilian Serbs from the self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina by Croatia during Operation Storm, the expulsion of over eight hundred and fifty thousand ethnic Albanians from Kosova, and the killing of ten thousand civilians of varied ethnicities during the seige of Sarajevo by Serb forces.

Of particular interest here is the execution of some eight thousand Bosniak male civilians by Serbs under the command of the recently captured Ratko Mladić. In April 1993 the United Nations declared Srebrenica a "safe area" under UN protection. In July 1995, the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) with 400 Dutch peacekeepers were unable to protect the thousands of refugees from advancing forces of the Army of Republika Srpska. On July 12, Serb forces seperated adolescent and adult males from the refugee population. Over the next several days these men were executed en masse.

In a recent article Adam Curtis includes harrowing footage of these events extracted from the BBC series Panorama. Curtis' argument is that the contemporary idea of "humanitarian intervention" - an argument that was used during the contemporary military intervention in Libya, in Iraq, in East Timor, and in the former Yugoslavia, owes its origins in the Biafran War of 1967 to 1970. Witnessing the genocide practised by the Nigerian forces against the Biafrans, one Bernard Kouchner, a doctor with the Red Cross, decided that one could not simply remain neutral and formed Medecins Sans Frontieres, and organisation that would speak out on the conditions that it saw on the ground. Ultimately this would lead to arguing for armed intervention to protect victims. From Curtis;

One of the UN's special envoys in Bosnia, Jose Maria Mendiluce realised that [French social theorist] Glucksmann was right:

"You don't reply to fascism with relief supplies. Only if we stop being neutral between murderers and victims, if we decide to back Bosnia's fight for life against the fascist horror of ethnic cleansing, shall we be able to contribute to the survival of the remnants of that country and of our own dignity."

And then a few months later American air power - under the command of NATO - was used to force the Serbs to negotiate a peace. Almost no-one disagreed. It was a Good War in which the left-wing humanitarians were now allied with their old imperialist enemy - America.

Out of Srebrenica came a strange new hybrid - a humanitarian militarism. And in the 1990s it rose up to capture the imagination of a generation on the left in Europe.

Curtis notes that it was Tony Blair who persuaded President Clinton to intervene in Kosovo as part of NATO in 1999 on the grounds of preventing the ethnic cleansing of of Albanians from that region was a just and humanitarian mission. In the same year an Australian-led force intervened in East Timor to secure that country from destruction by pro-Indonesian militia, following the results of the East Timor Special Autonomy Referendum. Four years later, the United States and the United Kingdom joined together in the invasion of Iraq, obstensibly to prevent the Saddam Hussein regime from developing weapons of mass destruction.

One can note that Bernard Kouchner became the head of the interim government in Kosovo (Head of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo) and opposed the invasion of Iraq. Likewise one can also be attentive to how Samantha Power, a former journalist in Bosnia who wrote "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide", Professor of Human Rights Practice at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and Special Assistant to President Obama has been most influential in advocating military intervention by NATO in Libya for humanitarian reasons.

Curtis argues that "Some see it [humanitarian intervention] as a noble, disinterested use of Western power. Others see it as a smokescreen for a latter-day liberal imperialism". Between these two extreme and obviously incorrect positions a more nuanced assessment is required, which really gives priority to the lives of individuals, to the self-determination of nations and adherence to international law. The excuse that nation-states somehow have special rights to engage in the most gross abuses of human rights is a doctrine that cannot be supported and, since the development of the "Responsibility to Protect" from the 2005 United Nations World Summit, is one which no longer has international legal protection either.

Under the stated criteria, international intervention was certainly justified in 1995 in Bosnia following United Nations Security Council Resolution 836 and, indeed, as the events in Sarajevo and Srebenica showed that the The United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in Bosnia and Croatia was completely ineffective and insufficient. In contrast the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia ostensibly to protect Kosovars from genocide was a false claim, and never had UN approval (although it is noted that after the withdrawl of Yugoslav forces, Kosovo fell under the administration of the UN). Kosovo has twice declared independence, in 1991 and 2008, with the latter declaration has receiving strong international recognition. In the former case a 1991 referendum was held with a 90% turnout, where nearly 98% voted for independence.

Standing as two extreme examples, the international intervention in East Timor was clearly justifiable as the invasion of Iraq was not. The referendum result in that country left no doubt whatsoever of the will of the people and the behaviour of the pro-Indonesian militia and the Indonesian army constituted a real threat to the lives of the East Timorese and was supported by UN Security Council Resolution 1264. As for Iraq, that was certainly an example of the most miserable imperialism by its advocates; the weapons of mass destruction were never found, the United Nations never authorised any actions, and the death and suffering that directly resulted from the invasion far exceeded whatever the Hussein dictatorship would have carried out.

Which brings the issue to the contemporary intervention in Libya. Following pro-democracy protests in that country a systematic campaign of repression was carried out by the Gaddafi regime against civilians. This developed into a civil war whereupon the Gaddafi regime launched military assaults in civilian areas, causing thousands of casualties is Misrata alone. Under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, NATO forces have engaged in an non-occupational assault on regime military positions. Do they have ulterior motives? Probably. Is that probability more important than the lives and self-determination of the Libyan people? Certainly not. Opposing the Libyan intervention would be opening the door to the systematic extermination by the Gaddafi regime against pro-democracy Libyans. Whilst obviously it is preferable for a civilian population to be able to control its own government through the force of its own arms, sometimes this is not possible; sometimes revolutionaries call for aid, and sometimes, with a grimace and faced with a life or death decision, it must be accepted. That is the real politics of humanitarian intervention.

Commenting on this Story will be automatically closed on August 5, 2011.


The International Commission for Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) Report suggests the minimum requirements for "humanitarian intervention" under the "Responsibility to Protect". In summary the report argues that military intervention must be motivated for the protection of civilian lives, should be an action of last resort, must act with the right authority, must have a reasonable chance of success, must act with proportionality, and must engage in the rebuilding process.

See also:

How can Isocracy support "humanitarian intervention" and also support the abolition of armies and the state?

Very good question, and it strikes at a core issue - the distinction between a principle ideal and specific situation. Often this is phrased in a manner that suggests that the ideal is temporarily suspended for practical purposes - but not so. A more appropriate approach is to implement as much of the ideal that which is possible within the particular situation.

Humanitarian intervention only makes sense when a lack of intervention would result in more suffering and immediate suffering. It was this criteria that Catholic Bishops in the United States with the beginning of the Iraq war. It has, of course, being elaborated as specified by the links above.

Usually a justification would end there. But not here; from the perspective here, in the implementation of humanitarian intervention (with all the requirements specified) effort must also be made to ensure that it is not required in the future. The protection of civil rights through constitutional protections against reactionary popularism, the protection of political rights through freedom of association etc also become requirements to ensure that those countries that have gone through the horror of civil war are granted genuine self-determination.

BEIRUT: A U.N. investigation has concluded that Syrian forces committed crimes against humanity by killing and torturing hundreds of children, including a 2-year-old girl reportedly shot to death so she wouldn't grow up to be a demonstrator.

So does anyone still support an absolute right to the activities of the State within their own borders?

There are no electricity bills in Libya; electricity is free for all its citizens.Categorically untrue. Despite poor electricity infrastructure and poor coverage of electricity lines, even in the Capital, Libyan home owners pay monthly/quarterly (area dependant) electricity bills based on meter readings. Electricity is cut off in instances of unpaid bills. Reconnection upon payment is not instant. The electric infrastructure is week and some areas of Libya do not have electricity available at all.

There is no interest on loans, banks in Libya are state-owned and loans given to all its citizens at 0% interest by law.Categorically untrue. Banks all over Libya have been giving out loans for years and years. There is a percentage rate charge on all loans, which is comparable to an interest rate, but in the spirit of ‘islamic ethics’ it is not called interest, it is called an ‘Administrative Expense’ – Masareef Edareeya.

A House is considered a human right in Libya ¬ Gaddafi vowed that his parents would not get a house until everyone in Libya had a home. Gaddafi¹s father has died while he, his wife and his mother are still living in a tent.Well Gaddafi abused this human right as much as he did other basic rights. It is well known in Libya that political opponents, or just successful business men/women, had their homes confiscated and handed over to regime members, usually rewards for Free Officers – Dubat A7rar. Many farms and homes and businesses were confiscated during three infamous phases of Libyas dictatorial history:1969 – The dreaded Green Revolution. Free Officers were rewarded land, homes, and farms that sometimes belonged to other people and the original owners were not compensated or asked if this was ok. Late 70’s - The introduction of the law Albayt le Sakinehee – The Home Belongs to its Dwellers. As this law was passed overnight, thousands of homeowners instantly lost their homes, as tenants (those renting the homes) claimed ownership on account of being the ‘dwellers’. The law applied to homes, farms, shops, etc.90’s - The introduction of Purification Committees (Lejnat al Tatheer). This committee ran by the widely know slogan, ‘Min ayna laka hada?’ – “From where did you obtain this?”, a form of ultra-socialism where people’s possessions, including homes and businesses, were confiscated if seen to be ‘surplus to requirement’ or contributing to a ‘monopoly’.Regarding Gaddafis ‘vow’: While Gaddafi waited for ‘everyone in Libya’ to be housed, he himself lived in a sprawling 6km square compound in the centre of the capital which was home to state of the art security and an underground network of rooms and ultramodern bunkers. He also had a vast and well known farm on Airport Road in Tripoli. This, just in the capital.

All newlyweds in Libya receive $60,000 Dinar (US$ 50,000 ) by the government to buy their first apartment so to help start up the family.This is a well known rumour and a common joke in Libya. Whilst it may have been passed as official legislation, I know of not a single family who has been given this grant. The backbreaking bureaucracy associated with such grants and loans make them more or less impossible to obtain.

Education and medical treatments are free in Libya. Before Gaddafi only 25% of Libyans are literate. Today the figure is 83%.Education and Health Care – Free does not mean adequate. It is well known that Libya’s standard of health care is nothing short of appalling. It is widely known that the majority of Libyans seeking medical care leave for neighbouring countries for treatment. Our Education system is no better. It is outdated, teachers are underpaid and under-trained and libraries are largely non-existent. The syllabus was constantly being revised and reviewed under direct instruction from the former regime e.g. banning English, changing Quranic verses, etc.It is commonly said that Libyans would be happy to forfeit their ‘free health care’ and pay for a National Health Service if it was up to the required standard.

Should Libyans want to take up farming career, they would receive farming land, a farming house, equipments, seeds and Livestock to kick- start their farms all for free.This has never happened, in addition to this many farms and homes have been confiscated by the government to build railroads, The Great Man Made River and civil roads.The owners of the land were only compensated if there was a covered structure on the land as the Gaddafi regime legally owned any land and the people were only allowed to build on it. When there was compensation offered it was nowhere near the actual value of the property and many waited years to receive anything if at all. This system was also rife with corruption many residents told they had to pay a bribe to receive what little they were given.

If Libyans cannot find the education or medical facilities they need in Libya, the government funds them to go abroad for it not only free but they get $2, 300/month accommodation and car allowance.Categorically untrue. If this was the case, the former regime would have been in receipt of 6 million application forms – one for every man, women and child who ‘cannot find education or medical facilities they need’. This grant does not exist for the mainstream public. There is anectdotal evidence of some medical grants being given but again, the system was corrupt and opaque.

In Libyan [sic], if a Libyan buys a car, the government pays 50% of the price. ?The price of petrol in Libya is $0.14 per liter.There is no truth to the former Gaddafi regime paying 50% of the value of a new car. Whilst the price of fuel is indeed cheap, the quality of roads, the accuracy and availability of road signs, the presence of road traffic police, and all other transport infrastructure is of abysmal standard.The absence of an integrated and functional public transport system means that people are reliant on their cars for all movement and might end up paying more on fuel than our neighbours around the Mediterranean basin.

Libya has no external debt and its reserves amount to $150 billion now frozen globally.Whilst our sovereign wealth is undeniable, none of it was spent on the people of Libya nor the infrastructure of the country. Basic amenities, services, and state infrastructure are either absent or of appalling standard.The availability of money is not tantamount to wealth or prosperity. The Arabs have a saying about Libya – “A rich nation of poor inhabitants”

If a Libyan is unable to get employment after graduation the state would pay the average salary of the profession as if he or she is employed until employment is found.Categorically untrue. Even basic wages are sometimes unpaid for months, for those lucky enough to be employed. Welfare for the unemployed is non-existent.

A portion of Libyan oil sale is credited directly to the bank accounts of all Libyan citizens.No basis to this claim as no such case can be found. A mother who gave birth to a child receive US $5 ,000Categorically untrue. There is a Child Benefit welfare payment in Libya – it is roughly 15-20 Libyan Dinars a month per child. No Libyan citizen was given foreign currency as compensation.

40 loaves of bread in Libya costs $ 0.15Bread was subsidized by the state. Whilst the price varies (marginally) from shop to shop, bread usually costs ¼ dinars for 10 baguettes (small) or roughly 500grams per dinar.

25% of Libyans have a university degreeThe absence of a comprehensive selection process and a corrupt entry protocol means that universities in Libya are grossly over populated and over subscribed, despite limited facilities. This results in an over inflated number of graduates, but not necessarily an adequate level of employability. There are thousands of students studying foundation year medicine in Tripoli alone.