[Marxism] Liberal Defence of Murder review

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Mar 20 10:20:38 MDT 2009

The Liberal Defence of Murder, By Richard Seymour
Reviewed by David Mepham
Friday, 20 March 2009

This book provides a powerful critique of "humanitarian intervention" 
and of those liberal intellectuals who support it. The term has become a 
buzzword, a subject of mainstream media debate. There are few 
contemporary crises where it is not proposed that the answer is to 
dispatch Western troops. Richard Seymour argues that Western military 
intervention in what we today call the developing world has a long 
history. While the public justification for these interventions has 
often been "humanitarian", he suggests that the reality has been 
anything but.

He highlights some important issues that challenge conventional wisdom. 
Seymour reveals that many great "liberals" of previous centuries were 
strong supporters of colonialism and empire, apparently untroubled by 
the violence that made it possible. John Locke, who devised the 
principles underpinning the British political system following the 
Glorious Revolution of 1688, also developed principles justifying the 
Empire and supported colonial slavery. Similarly, John Stuart Mill 
believed that some societies were "backward" and should be considered 
exempt from the doctrine of liberty, and that "despotism was a 
legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians".

We are also reminded of the sheer scale of Western violence and 
brutality during the colonial period. From India to Indochina, north 
Africa to Central America, the colonial powers were responsible for 
widespread repression and exploitation that contributed to the deaths of 
millions. While Seymour is wrong to suggest that today's liberal 
supporters of international intervention are driven by neo-colonial 
motives or attitudes of racial superiority, in many parts of the 
developing world the colonial legacy still resonates.

Fast-forwarding to the present day, Seymour highlights the way in which 
advocates of military intervention have often distorted the facts to 
present a simple media narrative of a clash between good and evil, and 
therefore to increase the moral pressure on key governments to act. He 
is correct to say that the reality in Bosnia, Kosovo and Darfur was and 
is more complex. He is also right to chastise those liberal 
intellectuals who appeared to lose all sense of judgement in their 
enthusiasm for the intervention in Iraq, and who became frighteningly 
blasé about the gruesome humanitarian consequences of the war.

But if the book is insightful and instructive in these respects, it is 
much weaker in others. In the years since the Rwandan genocide of 1994, 
in which 800,000 people were killed in three months, and shamed by the 
world's passivity in response to this crisis, a growing number of 
governments and individuals have grappled with a core question. What is 
an appropriate response on the part of outsiders to mass atrocities or 
large-scale suffering within a nation state? The Liberal Defence of 
Murder simply does not address this question.

Some of the best thinking around this issue remains the work of the 
International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (2001), 
set up at the instigation of Kofi Annan. Yet Seymour makes only one 
fleeting reference to this highly influential work. The Commission 
argued that where sovereign states were unable or unwilling to protect 
their people from massive and avoidable suffering, the responsibility 
passed to the international community. This principle was endorsed by 
world leaders at a meeting of the UN General Assembly in 2005.

The concept of a "responsibility to protect" is seen to embrace three 
distinct, but related, responsibilities. First, there is a 
responsibility to prevent: to address the root and direct causes of 
internal conflict and human suffering. Second, there is a responsibility 
to react: "to respond to situations of compelling human need with 
appropriate measures, including, in exceptional cases, military 
intervention". Third, there is a responsibility to help rebuild 
following a conflict or humanitarian crisis.

While the Commission argued that intervention should be viewed across a 
spectrum of policy actions, debate around humanitarian intervention has 
focused disproportionately on coercive military action (without the 
consent of the host government). While in some circumstances, such 
action may be the only means left for preventing or ending abuses, these 
instances are actually very rare. Even in these cases, before any action 
is undertaken, we should be sure of its legality and have considered 
carefully whether it might make the humanitarian situation worse, not 

In the majority of cases, other policy instruments make more sense, not 
least support for equitable and sustainable development. This may be 
less headline-grabbing than military intervention, but in most instances 
likely to be more effective. The risks of large-scale political violence 
are significantly higher in poorer countries than in better-off ones. 
Poor countries are more vulnerable to financial and environmental 
shocks, which can be a powerful trigger for conflict.

Environmental pressures, including water and land scarcity, will be 
further exacerbated by high population growth. And rapid urbanisation 
can be a source of profound social unrest. These wider issues have not 
attracted the attention they deserve from either supporters or critics 
of "humanitarian intervention", although investment in combating poverty 
and promoting effective, accountable institutions can help prevent, 
contain or resolve large-scale violence and suffering.

The Liberal Defence of Murder does not address these broader development 
issues either. But this timely, provocative and thought-provoking book 
should encourage supporters to reflect much more self-critically on the 
mixed history of international intervention, both in the colonial period 
and today.

David Mepham, writing in a personal capacity, is director of policy at 
Save the Children

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