Humanitarian intervention, like the NATO war in Libya, is a modern concept with a genealogy, according to British documentarian Adam Curtis.
Curtis locates the beginning in the 1960s, with the Biafran war. That’s when media mechanisms connecting human suffering to Western nations, aimed at getting the latter to act upon the former, first appear. Médecins Sans Frontières emerges from the Nigerian horrors.
Curtis’ backstory continues through the Vietnamese boat people, the French New Philosophers, and the Bosnian war… then the Iraq war, starting in 2003. There the idea received a powerful check, not least from the Hotel Canal bombing which directly targeted humanitarian efforts.
He argues that humanitatian intervention can be alluring to political leaders for many reasons, and civilian proponents used by nations for their own purposes.
Some astonishing film clips are these, as we would expect from Curtis’ extraordinary archival practice.
Here’s a mindbending passage, worthy of a Charles Cameron Doublequote, where Libya’s leader describes his own doctrine of humanitarian intervention, in 1976:
Gadaffi launches into an explanation that countries like Libya have a duty to intervene in other nations where the ordinary people are being oppressed by autocrats or oppressive governments – and help free them. That includes helping to liberate Egypt and Tunisia.
But it also means, he says, that politicians like him are justified in intervening in Northern Ireland to help the Provisional IRA. Because they are oppressed by the British government
They too are victims.
What Gadaffi was arguing was a strange mirror image of the theory that Kouchner and the other ex-leftists in Europe were developing.
For they too were heading towards the idea of “armed intervention”.