Review 'From Kosovo to Kabul...'

Chandler, David  From Kosovo to Kabul. Human Rights and International Intervention, (London Pluto Press 2002)


In the 1990s the world order has undergone dramatic changes.  A new "ethical foreign policy" based on the challenge of the human rights discourse to the existing framework of international relations has led to a proliferation of Western military interventions from Iraq to Bosnia, to Kosovo and back to Iraq, all of them in the name of "human rights and democracy". This new order is increasingly replacing the post-World War Two order of the United Nations and has effectively undermined the principles of sovereignty and formal equality of nation states. The United Nations order, as imperfect as it might have been, nevertheless replaced the older Westphalian concept of international relations in which 'might became right', i.e. in which the Great Powers were free to intervene in weaker states or colonial territories, since sovereignty was based on power alone. The League of Nations began the process of legally restricting the sovereignty of the Great Powers, but only the UN system added the principle of non-interventionism and full sovereign equality and put the goal of securing peace at the core of its Charter.


Chandler's excellent book exposes the way in which human rights activists and NGOs have established the ideological framework of contemporary Western militarism, the 'human rights intervention', and describes the development of a new era of armed intervention for "ethical" ends (35).


The apologists for this new humanitarian interventionism both from the right and the left simply assume that the Great Powers who make up the "coalitions of the willing" will behave well and intervene on behalf of human rights and justice rather than in a strictly self-interested way. That this human rights rationale for interventionism is a genuine menace to both human rights and democracy is convincingly demonstrated in Chandler's book. The human rights activists have - mostly willingly - paved the way for NATO-forces in all corners of the world, and helped to achieve a situation in which humanitarian aid and cruise missiles are simultaneously dropped on Afghanistan.


Chandler gives no detailed legal discussion, since the breaches of international law are clear. In his view, "the extension of 'international justice' is, in fact, the abolition of international law." (p.137) Neither is he adding to the more traditional critique that reveals the double standards of human rights interventionism, or the anti-imperialist type of ideology-critique which holds human rights interventions as a cynical cover-up for the traditional realpolitik of major powers, although he covers both in a brief chapter. Instead, Chandler wants to expose the elitist assumptions behind the human rights movement, its attack on the principles of representative democracy and negotiated settlements. In his view, human rights activists have, contrary to their own demands, dis-empowered the subjects in conflict zones by defining them strictly as passive victims, helplessly suffering from the aggressions of undemocratic and unaccountable rulers. As Hannah Arendt noted, this relationship of external assistance for victims is the opposite of a right: it is a charitable act. Ever since the Biafra war, human rights activists like Bernard Kouchner or NGOs like Human Rights Watch, Médecins Sans Frontières and others have abandoned the principles of more traditional humanitarianism as represented by the ICRC which was based on strict impartiality and neutrality, and called for more invasive, committed, and positioned humanitarian action. By uniquely focussing on violence and torture, genocide and mass rape, the human rights discourse managed to abstract from a wider political context and to establish ethical principles in the foreign policies of leading Western governments. This gave new legitimacy to their actions abroad and to their standing in the domestic sphere. After all, who could be opposed to the British government helping Kosovan refugees or "liberating " the Iraqi people? Thus, "the attention to ethical foreign policy has been an important resource of authority and credibility for Western political leaders." (63). This new human rights principle, derived from the needs of the human rights victim, imposes a duty on outside bodies to act if the nation state fails, or is unable, to guarantee human rights. However, the duty to intervene can only ever fall on the most powerful states, whatever the utopian rhetoric of the 'cosmopolitan civil society' theorists. (133). Is this a shift back to the old Westphalian order of absolute sovereignty for the absolutely powerful? In any case, the human rights principle has pushed aside the efforts of UN Blue Helmet operations which sought to reach consensus among conflicting parties, to establish a cease fire achieved by political negotiations and to monitor a post-conflict process of democratisation and decision-making which tried to integrate all relevant factions. The new framework calls for external intervention in and regulation of conflicts following the advice of human rights elites who claim to "represent" the victims of human rights abuses against their own governments - be they elected or not.


Theoretically speaking, Chandler's book makes the case that the human rights discourse has legitimised a form of foreign policy, which is imposing external regulation on societies torn by complex conflicts, thus shoving aside the local actors, inhibiting a form of democratic decision- making in the regions concerned and ultimately establishing protectorates that hinder any democratic development. The human rights-based approach is thus following Plato's ideas of the rule of an 'enlightened' human rights elite that turns a blind eye to the consequences of Western military interventionism and failed post-intervention processes of democratisation. Democratic or civil rights, which have no ends but the legal codification, or expression, of a right to self-government and procedural guarantees of decision-making, are conflated with human rights, which are really ends, not means (97). Ethical policy departs from the traditional lines of accountability in a modern representative democracy: it replaces political accountability by universal morals by which we are all responsible but no one is really accountable, and undermines the notion of democratic accountability itself, "since there is no mechanism to make the actions of the world's most powerful states accountable to the citizens of the states they choose to intervene in. The claim to act on behalf of other people can create a dangerous blank cheque to justify the actions of Western governments." (72) In Chandler's liberal critique, the human rights discourse is in many ways a stunningly confident attack on the political sphere under the cover of ethics and morality. Unfortunately, he does not extend this point to a critique of the economic structures and asymmetrical power relations that represent the limits of bourgeois democracy in the first place.


Chandler is challenging the human rights-based approach of western interventionism on multiple grounds. Taking the Bosnian experience, he shows that human rights intervention has been incapable of creating stable democratic institutions in the area, but has rather increased ethnic hostility and territorial segregation - establishing a Federal Bosnian state which exists merely on paper. Similarly in Kosovo, where the intervention was not so much based on the situation on the ground, nor on public support for Kosovo Albanians who received little sympathy once they tried to take refuge in the West as asylum seekers, but on the fact that it provided Western governments with an aura of moral authority and a sense of mission particularly supported by liberal news commentators and academics. After waging war for ethnic Albanian rights to autonomy and self-government, however, Nato and UN officials felt that the ethnic-Albanians could not be trusted to rule in their own name, let alone taking over the administration. This form of policy failure is then turned against the former "victims". 'We' tried, but 'they' failed. In Afghanistan, finally, a bombing campaign that saw for the first time the simultaneous dropping of humanitarian aid and cruise missiles has proven unable to bring democratic structures and human rights protection to the people on the ground, in whose name the bombings were carried out. Chandler shows that there is little evidence that condemnation and coercion is a more effective policy option than co-operation, citing the many examples of failed sanctions, which have punished the populations at best, but left the political situation unchanged.


In fact, military human rights interventions provide little room for any compromise or negotiation nor for a democratic say in the outcome for the people of the region. (178) The interventionist conflict regulation in East Timor, Bosnia and Kosovo has displaced the agency of the local players and made them passive objects of international proposals, thus colonising the political sphere by external regulation with negative consequences for any self-sustaining solution (p. 203). Under the human rights protectorates there is still little democracy and no mechanisms through which public administrations can rebuild fragmented societies in a manner accountable to the citizens.


Moreover, what was lost in the promulgation of human rights theory in the 1990s was the connection between rights and subjects who can exercise these rights, which was at the core of democratic political accountability (114). The separation of human rights defined by moral ends from democratic rights without moral ends leads to a redefinition of both rights and subjects, and poses a serious problem of agency. Whereas representative government works to realise the derivation of the state from the will of the people, human rights theorists seek to subordinate the will of people to ethical or moral ends established by a less accountable elite, thus dis-empowering individuals as political subjects. The preference for elite activism over democratic involvement has been central to the anti-politics of the normative human rights revival, and it is no coincidence that this development was premised on poststructuralist and postmodernist dismissal of the political subject. Agency is then taken over by an external international regulatory body, most commonly in the form of Western military power.  This is more than Western paternalism in the cause of human rights. According to Chandler, this lack of attention to political rights and the view of ordinary people as incapable of democracy legitimises the elitist view that external institutions are better suited to making policy decisions than non-western societies can by themselves. An elegantly camouflaged return not only of the Westphalian ideas of Great Power regulation based on the legitimacy of economic and military power, but also a return of the policies of classical imperialism, now carried out in form of so-called "protectorate solutions". The human rights advocates have thus facilitated the power of nation states while attempting to recast politics as non-political ethics. In fact, the retreat from politics can only be destructive of the political sphere and will be unable to provide political solutions to what are fundamentally social and economic conflicts.


The methods used in international interventions and the final outcomes are thus no longer relevant once an ethical human rights framework is established, since it is always better to intervene than "to do nothing", a hypothetical post facto excuse that is difficult to disprove. In any case, the privileging of human rights concerns "creates an international order, in which conflict is more likely and in which peace negotiations may be undermined." (p.158)


In addition, there is a strain of inherent racism in the habit of some human rights groups who have focused on the abusive practices of what they see as repressive 'backward' foreign countries and cultures, while they remained silent about Western human rights abuses and support for oppressive regimes. In popular culture this attitude has turned into the assumption that human rights problems did not apply to 'people like us' but to societies which are 'different'. "The redefinition of war and military intervention has made one kind of conflict irrational, 'degenerate' and uncivilised and another moral and ethical. War is equated with human rights abuses when the conflict occurs between or within non-western states." (p.169).  This leads to greater inequalities between powerful Western states for which it becomes easier to intervene militarily and less powerful states for which it becomes more difficult to challenge the legality of military intervention. After all, war that is moral can know no legal bounds.


In conclusion, Chandler is basically providing a liberal critique of the destructive dynamic of human rights interventionism when affirming that it is neither some hidden Great Power agenda, nor an incomplete application of human rights agendas, but precisely the human rights discourse itself that is deeply corrosive of the political process. In this way, he is affirming Malik's view, that "the degraded vision of the social world, provided by the ethical discourse of human rights, serves, like any elite theory, to sustain the self-belief of the governing class" (Malik 1996:105).


He exposes the dangers of human rights based interventionism: the negative view of human beings as political subjects, the negative outlook on social agency and deep distrust of governments and people of non-western societies, the hollow universality of human rights discourse and its dis-empowering effects on the political sphere. Instead he calls for a "new humanism" to take back the issue of human rights from the moral high ground to the centre of the political arena.


The reviewer, Sven Engel, is an adviser to the United Left Group (GUE-NGL) at the European Parliament, specialising in civil liberties, justice and home affairs.