'Non-government organisations': So-called 'independence' in the service of war

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Last year, the humanitarian organisation ‘Medecins sans Frontiers’ (MSF) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Twenty years before, the illustrious pioneer of ‘non-governmental organisations’ (NGOs), Amnesty International, had already received this supreme distinction. When it hands out such rewards, the world bourgeoisie always recognises its most faithful servants, as can be seen from the long list of warmongers who have been converted into doves of peace, such as Begin and Sadat.

The NGOs were originally an ideological response of the western bloc to the eastern bloc, around the theme of the ‘rights of man’ which took off under the Carter presidency. Although some of them were set up before the 1970s, their success and expansion coincided with the beginning of the decline of the Stalinist bloc. They thus served as an ideological pillar of the western bloc against its eastern rival, and thus an essential pillar of imperialist war.

The first NGO to find a place in the strategy of the western bloc was Amnesty International (AI), an organisation founded in 1961. Paradion founded in 1961. Paradoxically it was built from the remains of the pacifist movements that had been animated, financed, and used throughout the 1960s by the different Stalinist parties, and in the service of the propaganda of the Russian bloc. AI was to become the model for other NGOs created in the ensuing decades: it claimed to be independent, it worked against arbitrary arrest and torture, it worked on behalf of political prisoners. It launched campaigns against torture and no doubt saved a few unfortunate people. But above all, in the 1980s, AI was to become an extremely important tool in President Reagan’s arms race, in the campaigns against the ‘Evil Empire’ in the east. Of course, AI also denounced the excesses of the western bloc and its annual reports would always be a slight irritant for the big western powers.

But this was only the necessary background to ensure the effectiveness of its main job, which was to point the finger at the eastern bloc (through the condemnation of repression and prison camps in the USSR, Poland, and Czechoslovakia). What came out of AI’s reports was always the idea that there are such things as countries where the law is respected, even though they are not perfect. Along with others, AI played the role of spreading the notion that the horrors of the on that the horrors of the world are the fault of ‘dictators’ of various kinds, and never of a decadent system whose mode of operation resides principally in the development of militarism and war.

An example of AI’s way of operating: the Bokassa affair. In the 1970s, as in other countries of its sphere of influence, France was directly implicated in the rise to power of Bokassa in the Central African Republic. Giscard’s France even paid for the farce of Bokassa’s coronation as ‘Emperor’. But Bokassa had too much of a tendency to mix up his personal interests with those of his sponsoring power. And he made an error in the way he dealt with the rebellious schoolchildren in his country. The repression of the revolt was bloody, as was his reign in general. France denied it, but its secret services organised the fall of the Emperor with the aid of the Central African Republic’s ambassador in France, who in turn informed AI. The campaign by this ‘non-governmental’ organisation justified an intervention by France, which sent in the paras to install a new president. AI’s campaign consisted in claiming that, thanks to its work, Africa had rid itself of a bloody dictator. In fact France had rid itself of one embarrassing clown and replaced him with another. The populaced him with another. The population, of course, gained nothing.

Denouncing repression, expressing solidarity with the oppressed, is a basic task for revolutionaries. And at the time we indeed denounced this African bourgeoisie which had ably imitated the brutality of its protectors. But the denunciations voiced by AI had a different aim: to enable France to get a grip in a strategic country, to deal with the dangers posed by a monster of its own making. AI cannot work in any other way. It reports on and exposes many of the world’s horrors. But even though this work is often done by people who are genuinely indignant about it, its net result is to provide an ideological cover for the ‘democratic’ powers, to justify their armed interventions.

From the so-called ‘humanisation’ of war to openly calling for war

While Amnesty International was mainly effective during the cold war, other NGOs, also posing as ‘independent’, have developed over the last couple of decades with the same aims. This is particularly the case with the NGOs which go by the label ‘sans frontiers’ (without frontiers).

The objective of these NGOs is, first of all, of these NGOs is, first of all, to ‘humanise’ war. The Red Cross already existed last century; its aim was to establish norms that would supposedly put limits to barbarism. Since its creation, the Red Cross always laid claim to ‘neutrality’. In fact, never in human history have so many ‘humanitarian’ conventions been signed and never has there been so much barbarism.

Pre-capitalist societies saw cruelty and bestiality in human relations as an ordeal to which the gods subjected mankind. The bourgeoisie see it as a fact of human nature, a fact of war. However, bourgeois law does establish this separation: war is a professional, political matter. The ‘punishment’ of the enemy must be separated from the act of war. The enemy must be treated with humanity. In fact, the more this separation has been made, the more barbarism and humanitarianism have complemented each other. This ‘complementary separation’ has reached the level of caricature with the NGOs, which, as their name suggests, claim not to be attached to any particular camp.

In order to prove their ‘independence’ these ‘humanitarian’ NGOs, like Medecins sans Frontiers have gone through their own ‘split’. It’s no accident that t146;. It’s no accident that the MSF originated in a split with the ‘neutral’ style of the Red Cross in the Biafran war in 1968. This was a very bloody war which set the federal Nigerian government against the Biafran separatists. This conflict did not correspond directly to the confrontation between the two blocs, since both America and Russia supported the unity of Nigeria. In fact it expressed an attempt by second rank powers to escape their protector’s grip. Biafra was firmly supported by Gaullist France, which was trying to establish its ‘independence’ from NATO, while at the same time putting a spanner in the works of its British ally. Biafra was also supported by China which was trying to play an ‘independent’ role in Africa. The MSF no doubt brought some aid to the suffering in Biafra, but they were there above all as an ideological expression of the French bourgeoisie in Africa. The population of Nigeria were dragged down into a real hell, and out of this misery we saw the birth of a new form of ‘humanitarianism’. Under the cover of autonomy and of emergency aid, this was a new ideological spearhead for imperialist war. Its gospel was ‘the right to intervene’, and the TV was the witness to its exploits.

At the end of the 1970s MSF made it quite clear that itSF made it quite clear that it was an instrument of the western bloc when it carried out the heavily symbolic operations around the Vietnamese refugees. In the same ‘boat for Vietnam’ there was the pro-western Aron and the Stalinist intellectual, recycled into a Maoist and re-recycled into a ‘humanitarian’, Jean Paul Sartre. In the 1980s, these ‘humanitarians without frontiers’ (a whole pack of organisations with similar names appeared during this time) provided precious ideological assistance to the American action against the Russians in Afghanistan. The brutes who now govern this country, the Taliban, have not been very grateful because they have kicked MSF out of the country.

‘Humanitarians’ in the service of militarism

The ideology of the ‘rights of man’ developed by the western bloc, and the more recent doctrine of ‘the right to humanitarian intervention’, which has been elaborated, among others by one of the most cynical of all bourgeois politicians, Francois Mitterand, were to become the pretext for all the imperialist interventions of the great powers after the fall of the Stalinist bloc. Whether with the UN or with NATO, with the USA on its own or with alliances (at least the facade of als (at least the facade of alliances), the great powers have based all their murderous interventions on the ideology of humanitarianism. Who better to support these actions than the NGOs who had already won their humanitarian spurs and demonstrated their ‘autonomy’?

The operations in Iraq carried out by the USA around the Kurds are a good example of this combination of humanitarianism and militarism. Operation ‘Provide Comfort’ in Kurdistan in 1991 reached the very summit of hypocrisy. Saddam Hussein had brutally repressed the Kurdish opposition, which had been led to believe at the end of the Gulf war that it would be supported by the great powers. The USA did a remake of the coup it had carried off the year before, reinforcing the ‘safety’ zones in the north of Iraq; the other powers followed in their footsteps; the humanitarian NGOs came out with their propaganda against the evil Saddam; and all this on the back of the Kurdish poor, who were forced to flee into the mountains. It was tragically symbolic: Saddam killed them by bombing them as they fled; the ‘humanitarian-military’ forces killed them by dropping aid packages on their heads.

Since then a regular feature of preparations for military intervention has been themilitary intervention has been the pressing demands placed on ‘democratic governments’ by the various humanitarian organisations. In this stage-show, the democratic powers, defenders of the ‘rights of man’, too slow in their reactions, intervene under the media pressure exerted by the NGOs, which are now the model of everything that is best in humanity. In reality, the NGOs, acting on behalf of the most aggressive militarism, are the petrels that announce the storms of war. This can even involve masquerades like operation ‘Restore Hope’ in Somalia, with the huge media coverage of the American intervention, with the sacks of rice donated by French schoolchildren, with the inevitable Kouchner (later to become administrator general of Kosovo) transporting these sacks in front of the cameras. All this ended up in a fiasco. Somalia is now forgotten.

Sometimes – and this is going to happen more and more often – the NGOs come into direct conflict with each other depending on the imperialist powers they serve. This was the case in Rwanda, where we could see the French bourgeoisie, which was directly responsible for the genocide, using the NGO humanitarians to ‘protect’ the populations from the war – in fact, to protect their own proteges, in other words, those who had orga other words, those who had organised the massacres. This operation was a caricature of ‘humanitarian militarism’, with the French legionnaires and the MSF standing side by side. Obviously the new masters of Rwanda, who are pro-American, weren’t duped about France’s intentions. Thus the US has launched a parallel humanitarian operation ‘Support Hope’. Humanitarianism has become an indispensable weapon of war.

It was in the war in ex-Yugoslavia that this complicity between the NGOs and the military forces was most evident.

The NGOs were directly involved in setting up all the military actions by the western powers in ex-Yugoslavia, as for example when the USA entered into the Bosnian conflict in 1993, which was preceded by a demand by the NGOs for the parachuting of food and medicine into eastern Bosnia. The NGOs were the ones who called loudest for the intervention of the great powers to help the two-and-a-half million people who had been displaced by the war; they provided the pretext for the deployment of the Franco-British Rapid Reaction Force in the spring of 1995, then of SFOR under the aegis of the UN. But it was above all in Kosovo that we saw an intense agitation by the NGOs, campaigning against Milosevic’s treatment of the Albanic’s treatment of the Albanian population. It was they in particular who drew the media’s attention to massacres like the one at Racak in January 1999, which was a key moment in the preparation of the NATO bombing of Serbia. The NGOs therefore actively participated in the lead-up to the NATO intervention in March 1999. The exodus of the Kosovo Albanians, which was the fault both of Milosevic’s soldiers and of the western powers and their allies in the KLA, was exploited to the hilt to justify the NATO action. This conflict was the most hideous expression of the way that ‘humanitarian’ sentiments are used to justify war. Did the action of the NGOs, and of the military powers, improve the lot of the refugees? What we can be sure of is that the sufferings of the Kosovo populations was used as an excuse for militarism.

To understand the role of the NGOs in the ideological campaigns of the bourgeoisie, the best thing is to let them speak for themselves. The report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on the NATO actions in ex-Yugoslavia is revealing: it says that the allies "violated the rights of war" (by killing civilians), but "they didn’t commit any war crimes" (Le Monde, 10.2.2000). All the Jesuitical cynicism of the humanitarians is in this report. An NGO s is in this report. An NGO like HRW can’t say "The allies did a really good job in killing 500 civilians". No, they "violated the rights of war". But, "they didn’t commit any war crimes".

It’s with this kind of reasoning that the NGOs attract honest people, people who pose questions. After all the NGOs denounce all abuses, wherever they come from, but, there are some abuses which are ‘understandable’, which fall into the category of ‘inevitable collateral damage’, which violate the rights of war; and then there are the ‘real war criminals’, genocidal tyrants like Milosevic. All the justifications for military action by the great powers in the last ten years have followed this kind of reasoning. The NGOs denounce injustice, come to the aid of the unfortunate, are vigilant against all abuses – the better to play their role of drumming up support for war. The current war in Chechnya is the latest episode in this devil’s dance. Here again we are hearing the NGOs and the humanitarians denouncing the crimes of the Russian army. But it’s not at the same volume as in Kosovo. Then the tone was triumphalist; now its an ‘impotent’ denunciation, because they know quite well that the western powers are lettin the western powers are letting Russia do its work; because the NGOs also have the role of dissipating energy in dead-end protests, in powerless despair.

Our aim here isn’t to point the finger at those who get drawn into these humanitarian adventures, often at considerable risk to themselves. Our aim is to denounce the real function of these organisations, which lead many people to say: ‘OK, they have their faults, but at least they’re doing something’. To which we say: what they do serves the interests of imperialism perfectly.

Kouchner wrote somewhere that "the great adventure of the 20th century was called marxism. The great adventure of the 21st century is beginning and it’s called the humanitarian movement". We say that if marxism ceases to be the great adventure of humanity in the 21st century, this will be the century of the triumph of humanitarian militarism – of the destruction of humanity.


General and theoretical questions: