Thinking About Human Rights Interventionism

Thinking About Human Rights Interventionism

A New Generation Draws the Line: Kosovo, East Timor and the Standards of the West
by Noam Chomsky
Verso, 2000, 145 pp., $23.00

Powerless By Design: The Age of the International Community
by Michel Feher
Duke University Press, 2000, 167 pp., $14.95 paper


On March 24, 1999, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization undertook the first war in its history. For seventy-eight days, its military forces—led by the United States—bombed Serbia and Serbian forces in Kosovo to put an end to Slobodan Milosevic’s brutal reign of terror in that province, to force the withdrawal of Serb troops from Kosovo, and to restore Kosovo’s autonomy within the Yugoslavian Federation. The war was unprecedented, the first time that a major military campaign was undertaken against a sovereign state in order to stop crimes against humanity within the territory of that state. NATO leaders—Tony Blair, Madeleine Albright, and Bill Clinton himself—extolled the virtues of this unprecedented intervention. Blair—in a speech that furnishes the title of Noam Chomsky’s book—declared that “the new generation draws the line” in defense of human rights. At the same time, the war generated sharp disagreements within the Western left—as did the Gulf War—between those who supported it as a form of opposition to a brutal dictatorship and defense of human rights and those who opposed it as another instance of American arrogance and imperialism.

For the latter group, the writings of Noam Chomsky served as a touchstone. In A New Generation Draws the Line, as in his 1999 The New Military Humanism, Chomsky offers a strident critique of the Kosovo War and of the idea of human rights interventionism that served as its principal rationale. The book’s basic purpose is to repudiate the idea that Kosovo signified the dawning of a new era of human rights. The launching point of Chomsky’s critique is the self-serving rhetoric of Clinton, Blair, & Co. Chomsky effectively demonstrates that this rhetoric was overblown and that its proponents cannot be seen as the consistent and virtuous partisans of human rights they claimed to be. In the book’s first chapter, Chomsky makes this point by invoking the examples of Turkey, Colombia, Israel, and other places where the United States and NATO have not pursued a policy of human rights interventionism but have been complacent about or even supportive of human rights abuse. In the book’s second and driving chapter, he makes the point with reference to East Timor, where for more than thirty years the U.S.-supported Indonesian government occupied East Timor and brutalized and destroyed the East Timorese people. And in the book’s third and final chapter he makes the point in connection with the Kosovo War itself. Chomsky argues that no aspect of NATO policy—the ...

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