A New Interventionism

by David Moberg

In These Times, February 2000


Corporate globalization called into question the _ sovereignty of national governments, as global capital outvotes citizens. But there is another globalization, a growing recognition that individual human rights and the right of people to democratic self-government transcend national sovereignty. Indeed, more than ever, a government's legitimacy rests on its recognition of individual rights and some system of democratic accountability.

The elevation of human rights as a principle in international affairs is one of the great accomplishments of the late 20th century. A priority of this new century should be expanding protection of human rights, along with heading off deadly conflicts and reducing inequality. How those rights should be enforced is not obvious, but clearly the left must go beyond its traditional defense of self-determination and establish a definition of principles for international intervention in the affairs of other countries.

Ideally, human rights could be defended equally everywhere in the world. But popular struggles within countries, however uneven, are the best guarantee of rights. A multinational outside force faces severe limits in protecting human rights. Such enforcement ultimately depends on the most powerful nations, especially the United States, which have a checkered record of defending those rights. A U.N. report recently condemned both the United Nations and the United States for failing to act decisively to stop genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The killing was ignored because black Africans are of marginal interest to the major world powers.

Old-fashioned realpolitik is unavoidable: Despite abuse of civilians, the United States and Europe won't intervene in Chechnya against Russia, as they did in Kosovo against Serbia, in part because it would risk a major conflict. While acting through the United Nations may make interventions less fickle and inequitable, the imbalance of power there still warps international relations. The United States, as the most powerful nation, has a responsibility to create a more uniform and accountable system, not to abuse its power.

As the use of economic sanctions has increased, so has the debate on when they are justified. Though American business prefers a world with no sanctions to interfere with commerce, sanctions can be deployed as a weapon that targets elites (seizing foreign assets, cutting off military supplies) and minimizes harm to innocent civilians. They can work-as they did in South Africa-with careful political and diplomatic groundwork. But sanctions must be judged on their effectiveness, not their political appeal. In Cuba the United States has been driven by hostility to Castro's socialism, not his human rights offenses. While sanctions against Iraq and Serbia are losing whatever legitimacy they had, ordinary people suffer without much hope of long-term gain.

Beyond military intervention or sanctions, the United States could do more for global human rights by taking a few positive steps: promoting human and labor rights through global economic institutions; ratifying key International Labor Organization conventions on workers rights; curbing the international arms trade (where the United States is the main profiteer); expanding our extremely niggardly foreign aid budget to reward countries that make progress on human rights; ratifying international conventions on the rights of women and children, the International Criminal Court and prohibition of land mines; and paying our U.N. dues in full.

If the United States wants human rights respected around the worId , then it must start respecting them at home. When the interests of American corporations conflict with human rights around the world-in Burmese pipeline projects or Chinese sweatshops- the United States must be willing to stand up to protect those rights.

Human Rights, Justice, Reform