Liberia: The myth of humanitarian intervention


Every so often the newspapers fill with stories of a crisis in some third world country. We see pictures on our screens of gunmen, starvation and suffering; inevitably we hear calls for humanitarian intervention. Over the summer, we were told of a crisis in Liberia. A brutal civil war, a corrupt leader, child soldiers, starving civilians: it seemed that the whole world was crying out for intervention by the US or UN.

The cries did not fall on deaf ears. 3 US warships carrying 2,300 marines anchored off the coast and the UN authorised a peacekeeping force to intervene to stabilise the country and enforce a ceasefire. On August 11, Liberia's president Charles Taylor stepped down, under pressure from the US. A peace deal was signed and West African peacekeeping troops arrived. Liberia has since disappeared from our TV screens. It would appear that the crisis is over and the foreign intervention has worked.

At least that is what you would think if you only knew about Liberia from newspapers and television. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is entirely different. Unbeknownst to most of those who were appealing to the US to intervene, the US government has been actively intervening in Liberia for a long time and were directly responsible for the most recent humanitarian crisis.

Liberia, founded by freed slaves from the US in the 19th century, has always been a client state of the US. They have intervened covertly to replace Liberian government's that they didn't like on a number of occasions [1]. President Taylor, whom they initially supported, incurred their displeasure in the late 1990's when he backed rebel groups in neighbouring Guinea and Sierra Leone, in a bid to seize some of the extensive diamond deposits of these neighbouring countries. The US then began a long campaign to oust Taylor.

They funnelled money through their regional ally Guinea, to create a proxy army, the LURD, which invaded Liberia. The LURD campaign was based on terror, reminiscent of previous US proxy armies in Africa and Latin America. Human rights reports have documented how the LURD press-ganged children into their army, kept their troops high on drugs, shelled civilian areas, massacred villagers and requisitioned their food, thereby ensuring a mass exodus into the capital.

The US aggression against Liberia was hardly much of a secret for those who cared to look. Ed Royce, the chairman of the US house sub-committee on Africa, warned Taylor as far back as 1999 that "[Taylor] should be made to realize that the US has the ability and the will to undermine his rule." The Liberian government themselves referred to "a policy of 'regime change' in the form of a proxy war."[2] After deliberately creating the humanitarian crisis, the US cynically used it to justify the final intervention to replace Taylor. The Liberian crisis was suddenly bathed in the full glare of the global media spotlight. We heard liberal media commentators appealing to the US to intervene on humanitarian grounds. This media focus allowed the US to complete the Liberian regime change, as the UN authorised an intervention force and Taylor was forced into exile. The world's media went home as soon as the US had achieved their objective, regardless of the fact that the crisis hadn't been solved at all. A week after the 'peace deal' up to a thousand villagers were massacred by rebel troops in Nimba county [3].

The story is horrific, but sadly typical. This is what intervention and peacekeeping always means. Peacekeepers can't be deployed against the wishes of the permanent members of the UN security council, who also happen to be the big imperialist powers. In general, they are only employed to maintain the status quo once it has reached a balance favourable to these big powers. Humanitarian catastrophes are a favourite ploy, not only to justify intervention to the world, but to depose an unwanted ruler without actually having to fight against him and to decimate the society to such a point that not only will there be no resistance, but they will be welcomed with open arms.

When such intervention is being talked about in the media, you have to ask, "why this? why now?" The answer is almost always because it is in the interests of one of the big powers to intervene, and they want to enlist the liberal humanitarians as cheerleaders for their invasion. Western media is pervaded by a deep-seated racism which means that they don't even bother to try to investigate the background of conflicts in Africa, they just adopt an implicit assumption that this is the type of things that Africans always do. At the same time as the Liberia crisis was in the headlines, the world's media had been steadfastly ignoring the much bigger, bloodier and strategically important war in Congo-Zaire, which has caused an estimated 3-5 million deaths in the last 5 years - so much for humanitarianism.

We live in a world where there is no international force that is capable of intervening to prevent humanitarian crises. Western governments are continually intervening in the third world, but power and greed are their motivations - humanitarianism is simply not a factor. The most important thing that ordinary people in the West can do to help Africa is to prevent our governments from intervening in any way; their interventions are always selfish.

If we think of Africa as a drowning woman, we can best help her by making our governments take their foot off her head.

Chekov Feeney

1.eg Tubman 1971, Tolbert 1980
2.http://allafrica.com/stories/200307230997.html
3.http://www.vanguardngr.com/articles/2002/cover/f226082003.html


See also
Anarchism and the fight against Imperialism


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This edition is No77 published in September 2003

Workers Solidarity 77 cover