HUMANITARIAN IMPERIALISM, interview with Jean Bricmont

[ cette texte en francais: Droits de l'Homme ou droit du plus fort?
Interview de Jean Bricmont, auteur d'Impérialisme humanitaire


Interview with Jean Bricmont

By Joaquim Da Fonseca and Michel Collon

In his new book, Humanitarian Imperialism, Jean Bricmont denounces the
use of the human rights pretext to justify attacks against countries
in the South. He is a pacifist and a committed intellectual.

How is it that a professor of theoretical physics has just written a
book on imperialism?

J.B. I have always been interested in politics, if only passively. I
really became involved in 1999 during the war against Yugoslavia. The
humanitarian reasons invoked by the United States left me puzzled. I
was also shocked by the lack of opposition from the left, even some of
the extreme left, to this aggression.
I was asked to address conferences in all kinds of circles: Protestant
churches, Muslim movements, student groups, ATTAC, etc. My
humanitarian imperialism book is, among other things, a reaction to
the concerns and proposals put forward by individuals and groups
encountered during these conferences. The book is also a reaction to
the attitude of certain political militants claiming to be of the
left. In the name of human rights they legitimize aggression against
sovereign countries. Or they moderate their opposition so much that it
becomes only symbolic.

Human rights is for the rubbish bin, then?

J.B. I defend the aspirations in the Universal Declaration on Human
Rights of 1948. It contains a collection of economic, social,
political and individual rights. The problem arises when lack of
respect, real or presumed, serves to legitimize war, embargoes and
other sanctions against a country and when human rights becomes the
pretext for a violent assault on that country. Moreover it often
happens that only part of the Declaration is cited. When people talk
of human rights, economic and social rights are often considered
relatively unimportant compared with individual and political rights.
Take, for example, the quality of health care in Cuba. This is a
remarkable development of a socio-economic right. But it is totally
While it is true that Cuba conforms perfectly to the very critical
description given it by Reporters without Frontiers, this in no way
reduces the importance of the quality of its health care. When
speaking of Cuba, if you express reservations about lack of respect
for political and individual rights you must at least mention the
importance of economic and social rights from which the Cubans
benefit. What is more important, the rights of individuals or health
care? But no-one reasons like this. The right to housing, food,
existence and health: these are usually ignored by the defenders of
human rights.

In fact, your book shows that these rights are ignored in the media
campaigns against Socialist countries, like Cuba or China. You write
that four million lives could have been saved if India had adopted the
Chinese path.

J.B. The economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen estimate that,
departing from a similar base, China and India have followed different
development paths and that the difference between the social systems
of these two countries results in about 3.9 million extra deaths in
India every year. In Latin America 285,000 lives would be saved each
year if Cuban health and food policies were applied.
I am not saying that social and economic performance can justify
deficiencies in other fields of human rights. But no-one would
maintain that the contrary is true: respect for individual and
political rights does not justify flouting social and economic rights.
Why do the defenders of human rights never say so? Let us come back to
Cuba. Can the lack of individual freedoms be justified by effective
health care? That can be discussed. If, in Cuba, there was a
pro-Western regime, it is certain that health care would not be so
effective. This can be deduced from the state of people's health in
the "pro-Western" countries of Latin America. Hence, in practical
terms there is a choice between the different types of human rights:
what are most important, the social and economic ones, or the
political and individual ones?
It would of course be best to have both together. The Venezuelan
president Chávez, for example, is trying to reconcile them. But the US
interventionist policy makes this reconciliation difficult in the
Third World. What I would like to emphasize is that it is not for us,
in the West, who benefit from the two kinds of rights, to lay down
what choice is to be made. We should rather put our energies into
enabling the Third World countries to carry out their development
independently, in the hope that this will eventually help these rights
to emerge.

Is there not a great difference between how human rights and the duty
to intervene are perceived according to whether you come from the
North or the South of the planet?

J.B. In 2002, not long before the war against Iraq, I went to Damascus
in Syria and Beirut in Lebanon. I met quite a few people. To say that
they opposed the war against Iraq is putting it mildly. And that was
the case even at the American University of Beirut. Anti-Americanism
and fierce opposition against Israel was tremendous.
When I returned to Belgium I saw no evidence of this at all. Take the
question of the disarmament of Iraq. Certain members of the CNAPD
(Belgian anti-war coordinating body) told me that this disarmament had
to be imposed, although not of course by military, but through
peaceful means. If these proposals were advocated in the Middle East,
people would immediately reply: "And Israel, why should it not be
In Latin America, and in the Arab-Muslim world particularly, the
perception of international law is totally different from ours here,
even among the left and the extreme left. The latter do not appear to
be interested to know what the populations immediately concerned think
about our interventions.

Why is that? Is it a question of navel-gazing? Or of ethnocentricity?

J.B. During decolonization and the Vietnam War, the left adopted a new
attitude. It defended an anti-imperialist policy in economic, military
and social affairs. Since then this attitude has been undermined by
intervention in the name of human rights. The opposition to
neo-colonialism has been replaced by the desire to help the peoples of
the South to fight against their dictatorial, inefficient and corrupt
governments...Those who support this position are not aware of the
chasm that separates them from the peoples of the Third World, who do
not generally accept the intervention of the Western governments into
their internal affairs.
Of course many of them desire more democratic and more honest
governments. But why? Because such rulers would manage their natural
resources more rationally, obtain better prices for their primary
commodities, protect them from control by the multinationals and even
build up powerful armies.
When certain people here speak about more democratic governments, they
do not mean any of these things. Truly democratic governments in the
South would be more like that of Chávez than that of the current Iraqi

Is there not a background of colonial ideology in all this?

J.B. Perhaps, but it is presented in a post-colonial language.
Everyone condemns colonialism. Those who defend the current wars
insist that humanitarian intervention is "totally different" from
colonialism. However, one can only remark the continuity in this
change. Intervention was first legitimized by Christianity, then by a
civilizing mission - also by anti-Communism. Our claim to superiority
has always authorized us to commit a series of monstrous actions.

What is the role of the media in propagating this "humanitarian

J.B. It is fundamental. In the case of the Yugoslav war, the media was
used to prepare public opinion for such attacks. As with Iraq, the
journalists are constantly repeating "all the same, it is a good thing
that Saddam Hussein has been overthrown." But to what extent is it
legitimate for the United States to overthrow Saddam Hussein? This
question is never posed in the newspapers. Do the Iraqis consider that
this intervention benefits them? If this is the case, why do more than
80 per cent of them desire the departure of the United States? The
press criticizes the United States, but its criticism is mostly about
the methods used during the war and the occupation, not about the very
principle of intervention.

Would the United States be less likely to make war under a Democratic

J.B. That largely depends on the way in which the occupation of Iraq
winds up. There are many voices in the United States that call for the
withdrawal of the troops and there is a climate of panic in many
sectors of the society. If, as in Vietnam, the Iraq war concludes with
a catastrophe, there could be a considerable interlude from such
policies for a while. If the retreat goes smoothly, if there is not
too much damage, they could then rapidly go off to war again. But it
is a widespread illusion that the Democrats are less aggressive and
that they do not support military interventions.

Why is the reaction to the war by progressive Europeans so weak?

J.B. The ecologists, the Socialist left, the traditional Communist
parties, the Trotskyites and most of the NGOs have opposed the war
very feebly. Their positions have been undermined by the ideology of
humanitarian intervention and all serious references to socialism in
their programme have been abandoned. Part of this left has substituted
the struggle for human rights for its initial aims of social
improvements or revolution.
As it is difficult for these movements to defend the war of the USA
against Yugoslavia and Iraq, they adopt the rather convenient position
of "Neither, nor". "Neither Bush nor Saddam": this enables them to
avoid any criticism. Of course I can understand why Saddam Hussein is
not liked. But the implications of the "Neither, nor" position go well
beyond this.
First, it does not recognize the legitimacy of international law. It
does not distinguish between the aggressors and the aggressed. Just to
make a comparison: it would have been difficult, during the Second
World War, to affirm "Neither Hitler, nor Stalin" without being
considered a collaborator.
Second, this approach underestimates the extent of the damage caused
by the United States since 1945. Since the end of the Second World
War, they have been intervening everywhere in the world to support or
install conservative and reactionary forces, from Guatemala to the
Congo, from Indonesia to Chile. They have been busy killing the hope
of the poor for social change everywhere. It is they, and not Saddam
Hussein, who want to overthrow Hugo Chávez. The Vietnam War was
nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. Even if it is admitted that
Milosevic and Saddam Hussein have been demonized, putting them in the
same category as the USA at the world level is, for them, totally
unjust and false.
Finally, what upsets me most with this "Neither, nor" attitude is the
position that we assume, by adopting such slogans, towards our own
When we see policies that don't like in the Third World, we must begin
by discussing them with the people who live there, and do this with
organizations that represent large sections of the population, not
with little groups or isolated individuals. We must try to see if
their priorities are the same as ours. I hope that the alternative
world movement will create channels of communication that promote a
better understanding of the viewpoints of the South. For the time
being, the Western left tends to stay in its corner, having very
little influence in its own home base and indirectly playing the game
of imperialism by demonizing the Arabs, the Russians, the Chinese - in
the name of democracy and human rights.
What we are mainly responsible for is the imperialism of our own
countries. Let us start by tackling that - and effectively!

Thanks to Victoria Bawtree for the translation!

Jean Bricmont. Impéralisme humanitaire. Droits de l'Homme, droit
d'ingérence, droit du plus fort?, Ed. Aden, 2005, 253 pages, 18 euros.
Can be ordered from éditions Aden :

See also (in French) : Biography of Jean Bricmont

Jean Bricmont - Quelques remarques sur la violence, la démocratie et

Jean Bricmont - Européens, encore un effort si vous voulez vous
joindre au genre humain!

Jean Bricmont and Diana Johnstone - Les deux faces de la politique

On the war on Iraq and its causes, see also the new book:
"Bush, le cyclone" :