Invoking Humanity: War, Law and Global Order (Chi Dice Umanita)

By Gupta, Suman | Capital & Class, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Invoking Humanity: War, Law and Global Order (Chi Dice Umanita)


Gupta, Suman, Capital & Class


Danilo Zolo. Invoking Humanity: War, Law and Global Order (Chi dice umanita). Continuum, London and New York, 2000. ISBN 0826456561 (pbk) L19.99

Professor Zolo's views deserve to be discussed and debated as widely as possible, especially in the West. Those who are inclined to accept the role of the United States and Western Europe (embodied primarily in NATO) as international policemen for universal human rights and democracy would find these to be disquieting. But only self-imposed blinkers can explain any unwillingness to confront Zolo's carefully researched arguments in this lucidly written book. The arguments are developed with particular reference to the war waged by us-led NATO against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999, but they clearly have broader application. Indeed the issues addressed here are growing ever more pressing as political events unravel in the aftermath of 11 September 2001. However successfully concealed it might be, and however convinced a few political ideologues and media experts might appear, there is widespread unease about the militaristic humanitarian (strange oxymoron) claims of the United States, Britain and other Western European states. The time is ripe for arguments such as those presented in this book to be taken and discussed seriously. However, I fear, Zolo's book may not receive the attention it deserves.

It is, after all, comfortable not to have to confront and clarify doubts that many hazily apprehend about Western military intervention on ostensibly humanitarian grounds. That, for instance, the timing (2 December 2002) of the British Government's release of Iraq's human rights record (and lack of attention to other instances of human rights violations, not least by the United States) is a purely cynical political manoeuvre has probably not escaped many. But it is less trouble not to delve too deeply into the assumptions and political realities that underlie this little episode. Besides, Zolo's book would get categorised, with typically superficial media and market facility, in that familiar collection of liberal critiques of the post-Cold War (and increasingly post-11 September) Global Order-those by Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, William Blum, Michael Parenti and others. Such categorisation is another way of not engaging with the particularities of matters that cause unease.

Invoking Humanity provides nevertheless an unusual opportunity to confront unease about current political events that, I am convinced, is widely prevalent. And this is so especially because Zolo's book is, in fact, somewhat different from the usual liberal critiques that it is apt to be categorized amongst. While being as careful about documentation and as driven by a desire for fairness and justice as Chomsky and company have been, it has the advantages of (a) having a far more clearly enunciated and studiedly neutral ideological position, and (b) being theoretically more sophisticated and consequently less obviously rhetorical and propagandist than is usual.

The ideological position is that of a political realist who is sceptical of claims of humanitarian motivation and benevolence (a la Carl Schmitt's maxim that 'Whoever invokes humanity is trying to cheat'), and who therefore gives more credence to evidence of material and strategic interests being served than simple assertions of intent. The ideological position is also coherently that of a non-partisan rationalist: one who can see the danger, for instance, of making judicial processes partisan, or of putting any individual or alignment outside legal jurisdiction, or of defining certain acts as crimes without recourse to laws that allow such definitions to be applied. Finally, the position in question is one that is open to alternative possibilities, and accepts that different cultural and political perspectives can and do co-exist, but without thereby diluting the primacy of rationality and political realism.

From this position Zolo conducts a careful examination of the following: the causes of NATO intervention in Yugoslavia, the conduct of that intervention, and the results of that intervention (especially in relation to the setting up of the Hague tribunal to prosecute 'crimes against humanity'). …

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