Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Genealogies of Liberal Violence: Human Rights, State Violence, and the Police

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Genealogies of Liberal Violence: Human Rights, State Violence, and the Police

Article excerpt

Abstract. This paper presents a genealogical analysis of the relationship between liberal state violence and the contemporary liberal will-to-care by way of an exploration of what is sometimes referred to as 'humanitarian war'. I explore the historical convergence of contemporary human rights norms with military intervention in the post-Cold War context. I suggest that, far from representing a limit upon state violence in the present, human rights in fact move us closer to the 'emancipation' of state violence as an instrument of liberal police power. Further I take up the question of the law as it structures and shapes this emergent form of state violence more directly. Focusing on the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), I suggest that the form of power that is made possible by military humanitarian interventions, and in doctrines such as R2P in particular, is an international variant of what Michel Foucault termed the power of the 'police'. I suggest that thinking about this power as a form of distributional authority may be helpful in holding to account both liberal interventionism and its underlying will-to-order in favour of an international politics of care.

Keywords: human rights, military intervention, R2P, Protection of Civilians, humanitarianism, police power


"What does this non-intervention principle in real fact now mean? It means co-operation of despots against peoples, but no co-operation of peoples against despots."

Giuseppe Mazzini, "Non-Intervention" in Life and Writings of Joseph Mazzini (1)

"The discourse on rights emerged historically as a language that claimed to define limits of power. Its political ambition was to turn victims into agents of resistance. Today, the overwhelming tendency is for the language of rights to enable power."

Mahmood Mamdani, "Responsibility to protect or right to punish? Humanitarian intervention and its critics", in Africa Unbound


When and how does protection become power in the international system? In this paper I trace a history of military humanitarian intervention to try to answer this question. Humanitarian interventions take many forms, but I am interested here in those instances when state military power is deployed against the sovereign territory of other states in the name of humanity (or what within liberal discourse may be its earthly equivalent: human rights). Such interventions routinely present the upholding of such rights as an obligation: either to protect those rights against direct abuse (one thinks of Bosnia) or to secure the provision of aid and alleviate their indirect infringement (one thinks of Somalia). Of course, nobody imagines that military operations waged in the name of human rights should ever be entirely pure in their ends: the fact that the international community acted in Libya in 2011 but not in Syria the year after, told us many things, but it hardly came as a surprise. Yet neither can such interventions be written off as lacking any sense of ethical virtue or moral right. And it is the acute indeterminacy this results in that makes humanitarian interventions such illuminating sites for investigating the intermeshings of law, war, and space in the modern era.

There are various ways one might choose to think about this indeterminacy. If one interprets it as the result of a growing inability to draw a clear line between military means and humanitarian ends, or between states of war and peace more broadly (Keen, 2000), then one would want to see such interventions as sites of ethical recodification, where new concepts and principles (such as 'proportionality' or 'protection of civilians') are brought into existence and to some extent reformed against the imperatives of the day (Kennedy, 2006; Weizman, 2012). If, however, one interpreted such indeterminacy as a result of the way in which the Western will-to-care has come to be constructed as a modality of power itself, then one would instead want to ask questions about the nature of such power (cf Hopgood, 2013) and what its ends may be. …

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