Humanitarian imperialism

Johannes Schneider Johannes.Schneider at
Tue Jun 19 16:27:06 MDT 2001

An intersting piece on the double standards of humanitarian imperialism from
the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung ( )

Colonizing Morality

By Dirk Schümer

BRUSSELS. Doesn't the Belgian judiciary already have enough to do? The whole
country is still waiting for the trial of the alleged pedophile murderer
Marc Dutroux, who has been held in investigative detention for almost five
years. Did not the incompetence and corruption of the Belgian judicial
authorities in that case almost lead to a popular uprising?

But judge and jury have just spent months on a case from Africa in which
four Rwandans living in Belgium were charged with war crimes related to the
1994 genocide in their native country. The Belgian government was especially
assiduous in pursuing the European sanctions against the right-leaning
Freedom Party's participation in the Austrian government. Belgian
authorities apparently would also like to subject the new Italian government
of Silvio Berlusconi and his radical right coalition to the scrutiny of
their democratic correctness.

It looks as though this small country, traumatized by its own mistakes and
scandals in the recent past, now prefers to teach lessons to half the world
instead of cleaning things up at home. Still, many Belgians are
uncomfortable with the idea of their country as a self-designated national
torchbearer in international law.

Brussels' crusade for human rights and democracy is not simply the
overreaction of a caste of politicians and judges plagued by a bad
conscience. Belgian law was amended to cover crimes against humanity
committed in other countries already in 1993, under a Christian Democratic
government. Universal humanism is supposed to take precedence over
international law. Belgium's self-proclaimed new jurisdiction did nothing to
prevent the massacre of at least half a million people in the former Belgian
colony of Rwanda in the spring of 1994. But when a few suspects in those
crimes were discovered in Europe in the late 1990s, a trial was held in
which a jury at the Palace of Justice in Brussels was given global authority
for the first time.

The transcripts leave no doubt that the intent was to put on trial the
entire genocide, and not just the four especially merciless Hutus who stood
before the court. The efficiency of the mass murder was repeatedly compared
to that of the Nazis in World War II. One prosecutor in his summation
invoked "universal conscience and universal justice." In this impassioned
spirit, two nuns, a professor and a match manufacturer were sentenced on
June 8 to prison terms ranging from 12 to 20 years. Without the United
Nations and without an international mandate, the Belgians delivered at
least a symbolic verdict on the worst genocide in recent history.

By sending in just a few thousand soldiers, the civilized world and the old
colonial power of Belgium (with its excellent connections) could have saved
the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. That is now one of the
standard lessons of the new global domestic policy. Without the devastating
experience of Rwanda, there would have been no Kosovo war in 1999.

The Don Quixote of the Global Conscience

Despite its moral appeal, the Belgian law is burdened with serious
drawbacks. Just a few days ago, two Belgian citizens of Palestinian descent
brought charges for crimes against humanity against Israeli Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon. This complaint will have to make its way through the country's
judicial bureaucracy, which is dealing with various other charges against
deposed dictators from Chad, Chile and Cambodia. To prevent a judicial
system that hardly manages to process domestic cases from being overwhelmed
in an avalanche of human rights trials, Belgian legal experts now advocate a
procedure for winnowing the charges in advance.

Aside from the pragmatic and procedural problems, there is the danger of
moral overkill, as arose already in the British-Spanish-Chilean tug-of-war
around General Augusto Pinochet. Will every country in the world soon be
able to pull the whole globe into a kind of moral monopoly? Is
discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia actionable? What about the
death penalty in the United States, or whale hunting in Japan? Belgium is
about to turn itself into the Don Quixote of the global conscience. And how
easily the tables could be turned! The most recent Amnesty International
report rebukes the Belgian police for racist excesses and again criticizes
the country's use of violent deportation procedures against asylum-seekers,
allegedly responsible for an African woman's death by suffocation two years

A Moral Revolt Against Degeneration

In truth, the Belgian universal human rights statutes are not just directed
at a new form of criminal offense. They also express the morality of a
political generation that came of age after 1968. In the last election, the
moral revolt against the degeneration of Belgium benefited both the Greens
and the Liberals and brought down the country's accustomed party cronyism.
Now, the new politicians want to show that they have understood the lessons
taught by human rights petitions and Third World groups.

Especially the new foreign minister, Louis Michel, a Liberal and a member of
the country's Flemish-speaking minority, supports the increased significance
that human rights have acquired in the country's renewed politics, most of
all thanks to Catholic and socialist groups at the grass roots. Michel, who
is advised by legal experts at the Catholic University of Leuven, practices
a form of worldwide and surely well-meaning activism that has made him
unpopular, and not only with Austria's Jörg Haider. But he has successfully
converted his moralism into political capital. A survey published in the
Brussels newspaper Le Soir elevated him into "the best advocate of human
rights," and the weekly European Voice called him the "conscience of

Such flattering descriptions have the desired side effect of deflecting
attention from the country's own political guilt. Who doubts that Belgium,
with its horrific colonial past, ranks as a defendant in the imaginary
criminal court of history? Yet curiously the only ones to go to jail so far
are four Africans.

On the same day as the verdict in the Rwanda case, a commission of
historians appointed by the Belgian parliament presented their findings of
further evidence that Belgian politicians and secret service agents were
responsible for the 1960 death of Patrice Lumumba, Congolese independence
fighter and president. Historian Ludo de Witte already shook up the country
with claims to that effect in 1999, implicating the Christian Democratic
government of Gaston Eyskens and the saintly King Baudouin in the crimes of
the early 1960s. The historical commission even arranged for police to
search the palace of the aged queen mother.

Belgium granted independence to its colony, the Congo, in 1960. In the
ensuing chaos, Lumumba was killed and the brutal dictator Joseph Mobuto came
to power for several decades. His fall, in 1997, initiated a horrific war of
succession that is being pursued without any notable intervention from
Europe -- except perhaps in a few years, after the exhumation of mass
graves, which could certainly provide evidence for a tribunal in Brussels.
Even as Belgium colonizes morality with its commissions and juries, the
murders continue in the former Belgian colonies. Even the ethnic division
into Tutsi and Hutu, the cause of ample tears of grief and incomprehension
at the Brussels Rwanda trials, was itself once a tool of Belgian colonial

The United Nations has for some time reported that European corporations are
profiting from the systematic plundering of the Congo now being carried out
by Rwandan and Burundian "government troops" and by assorted Hutu and Tutsi
militias. In the course of these conflicts, additional hundreds of thousands
of people have been massacred. The murderers sell valuable raw materials,
like the rare columbite-tantalite ore needed to make advanced mobile phones,
jet engines and computer chips, at low prices to European companies. There
are no statutes outlawing this kind of crime against humanity.

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