MSF's Rony Brauman speaks to MEE about what decades of aid work have taught him about the problems of humanitarian interventions
Rony Brauman is a French doctor who was the president of humanitarian organisation Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) from 1982 to 1994.
Now a research director at the MSF Foundation and a professor at the University of Manchester's Humanitarian Conflict Response Institute (HCRI), Brauman draws on decades of experience of relief work in his new book, Guerres humanitaires? Mensonges et intox (Humanitarian wars? Lies and Brainwashing), in which he explores and questions the notions of "humanitarian wars" and "just wars".
From Kosovo via Somalia, Iraq, Libya and Syria, Brauman reflects on the various crises that have prompted the so-called "international community" to intervene in the name of the moral imperative of "saving civilian populations" or other reasons branded as moral. Middle East Eye spoke to Brauman about his motivations for writing the book.
Middle East Eye: In this book, you explore the concept of a just, or humanitarian, war. Yet, in doing this, do you risk also "normalising" and "justifying" war?
Rony Brauman: That is indeed the risk. We can consider that all wars are bad, and that the only morally good position is pacifism. I am not an absolute pacifist; my position is different, although I admit the very strong risk of this "normalisation" of warfare.
A war can be legal without being legitimate or just, as commonly understood
I consider that unambiguous morality does not exist, but that moral conflicts do. Moral values can conflict with each other. On the one hand, there is the recognition that every war has unpredictable consequences, on the other, the wish to prevent mass killings. Two moral values that are equally defensible.
In a humanly appalling situation – a genocide, a massacre – and when there is a risk of continuation of such horrors, what can we do? It is precisely with these difficulties and questions that I wanted to confront myself in this book.
MEE: The UN legalises and legitimises these "just" wars, but the UN is an organisation subject to states and power games. Doesn't this already expose a contradiction in this notion of just war?
RB: The UN is one of the sources of international law. Its decisions on the use of force constitute therefore legality. The action decided by the UN under chapter 7 of its charter [regarding Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace and Acts of Aggression], in the event of a threat to international security, is legal by definition. The "Responsibility to Protect" document adopted in 2005 expands this notion of threat to mass crimes.
However, that does not mean that any action decided by the United Nations is legitimate. A war can be legal without being legitimate or just, as commonly understood. When the UN decides to authorise warfare, it simply means that its interpretation of the power struggle within the Security Council has allowed this decision of waging war.
MEE: You also show that the notion of a just, or humanitarian, war has its roots in the writings of Christian theologians, especially those of Thomas Aquinas. Which imprint have these Christian roots left on this principle of international law?
RB: I see two effects. The notion of just war indicates, in its very utterance, that there are unjust wars. Any war can therefore be discussed according to the criteria and values of a so-called just war. This is a way of limiting the power of a state in its ability to make a decision on warfare.
This desire for limitation has characterised the Catholic Church throughout its rivalry with secular power. It is at the origin of the six criteria established to define a just war: a legitimate authority, a just cause, an action proportionate to the existing violence, war as a last resort, and reasonable chances of success.
Smoke rises from a US-led coalition airstrike against IS in Mosul, Iraq, in July 2017 (AFP)
I have not retained the sixth criterion, ie the "right intention, namely, the fact of not having hidden motivations behind a laudable intention". A state always has its own interests to defend, beyond the just cause in question. In my opinion, the fact that there are several interests at stake, especially state interests, does not appear as a problem in itself.
The other five criteria make it possible to examine the hypothesis of a conflict in a reasoned, morally decent way. These criteria from the 13th century have been kept in the "responsibility to protect" document. At that time, the legitimate authority was the pope. Now, the legal authority that presents itself as legitimate – which is open to debate – is the Security Council.
In situations of armed conflict, lying is the rule. A rule that applies to both dictatorships and democracies
Back then, the just cause was the defence of Christendom. Now, it is rescue, ie the vital help provided to a population threatened with death. I view the stability of these 13th century criteria as the indicator of remarkable political strength and perspicacity.
MEE: Two of these criteria held your attention in particular: war as a last resort and reasonable chances of success. However, as you show by resorting to Clausewitz's theory, any war remains unpredictable once started. How do you articulate this Clausewitzian observation with those two criteria?
RB: Indeed, any war decision entails necessarily unpredictable consequences. In any political act – war being the most serious of these acts – there is this gambling dimension. Having said that, in light of recent experiences, I think that two imperatives that are necessary, but not sufficient, condition the chances of success. On the one hand, a limited territory that allows the effective control of violence. On the other, specific war goals, as opposed to vague objectives such as "protecting the population," "establishing democracy," "upholding the rule of law" or "protecting human rights".
The most telling example is Kosovo, which I believe met these criteria. A political force, the KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army], was able to ensure the reality of power on the ground. Then the geographical situation of Kosovo, a small territory, meant that European tutelage could very well have taken over from the local authorities if the latter had been deficient.
Because of this small territory, which corresponds to the possibilities of force projection, and because of favourable political conditions, the chances of success back then seemed to me reasonable enough to intervene militarily.
More broadly, the assessment of the success of an armed intervention claiming to aim at rescuing people or restoring security seems relatively simple to me: is the situation after the war better than before the war? This does not mean that the situation is good, but that it is less violent. It seems to me that this was the case in Kosovo.
US soldiers on patrol in Dora, Iraq, in 2007 (Wikicommons)
Yet, the "last resort" criterion was missing for this war. To trigger the war, all possibilities of diplomatic or economic pressure should have been exhausted. However, the United States wanted this war for a variety of reasons, including the establishment of a NATO base in the country. Therefore, for the USA, negotiations were not the right path to follow because it could have resulted in a compromise including the maintenance of Belgrade's sovereignty – which Washington did not want.
MEE: Regarding another war, Libya, you say: "Libya was our own Iraq," referring to France. What do you mean by that?
RB: In situations of armed conflict, lying is the rule. A rule that applies to both dictatorships and democracies. During this war, I was struck by the fact that not only the French government lied, but that the entire society virtually refused to see the truth. Intellectuals and the media were enthusiastic, while public opinion, according to polls of the time, bought into this martial movement. In this unanimity, few voices opposed the war.
Iraq and Libya share the fact that they started with fearmongering lies meant to justify the war, a total absence of evidence, and a disaster as a result
Yet, it was triggered by reasons other than those alleged. To justify it, "events" had to be fabricated. Nobody made sure that the veracity of what was being said to justify the war was verified.
The result is a disaster. Iraq and Libya share the fact that they started with fearmongering lies meant to justify the war, a total absence of evidence, and a disaster as a result. Weapons of mass destruction for Iraq, attacks on populations and mass graves for Libya.
The enthusiasm of the American media for Iraq, the enthusiasm of the French media for Libya, and a common result, with two countries now open to the most radicals.
Just like Iraq, in Libya any attempt at mediation was mercilessly rejected because it meant "yielding to a dictator," it meant "Munich facing Hitler" [a reference to the Munich agreements of 1938 between France, the UK and Nazi Germany which involved handing Czechoslovakia over to Hitler to avoid a wider war. The agreements are seen as a symbol of the capitulation of democracies to dictatorships].
MEE: But later, the United States and Britain were able to look back apologetically on the war against Libya. Barack Obama, in a noteworthy interview, described it as a "shit show". The report of the British parliament details the motives put forward for the war and deems it "based on erroneous assumptions" and poorly prepared. In France, the media and politicians did not make this salutary review. Why?
RB: My first answer would be to say that we should ask them ... and blame them. Because this is not just a theoretical question, it is a fundamental political and ethical issue.
My interpretation is that the Socialist Party (PS) was unanimously behind [the then president, Nicolas] Sarkozy when this war was started. When Francois Hollande came to power, he did not change direction. No political reorientation that could have led to a media reorientation took place. I noticed that Emmanuel Macron said that Libya was a mistake. A media mea culpa may follow.
I observe, however, that other international crises, such as the first Gulf War and the Romanian revolution, have given rise to feedback on experiences, to thoughts on the role of the media. This has not been the case for Libya.
One can also question the role of French MPs who, unlike their British counterparts, did not deem it useful to question the war. The British parliamentary report was also received in a very distant way by the French media, and was debunked as "French bashing".
Nevertheless, legitimate questions remain: Libya's funding of French politicians, as brought to light by the journalists Fabrice Arfi and Karl Laske [Avec les compliments du Guide]; the death of Gaddafi, who was on the run when he was killed, in an ordered execution. All these facts point to a cynical calculation. Yet, this cynical calculation does not exclude the fact that other motives, for instance a form of idealism, may have also played a role.
We find this murky mix of calculation of interests and idealistic visions during the second Gulf War, in 2003. I think that [US president] George W Bush sincerely thought to trigger a virtuous cycle of democratisation in the Middle East by defeating the regime of [Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein. Obviously, all this unfolded against a background characterised by oil ambitions and power games.
MEE: You also say, "I can't form a clear idea about Syria". Why?
RB: I say so in my book after describing the situation as I see and understand it.
This civilizational war is endless; it is obviously doomed to failure. Is the military-industrial lobby behind this war? It seems likely to me
On the one hand, there is a detestable regime that is the enemy of a large part of its people. On the other, a rebellion whose main forces are no less despicable and which a large part of the people do not want either.
Faced with this alternative, I declare myself incompetent. I don't know. Yet, I know what I hope: that eventually, the country gets out of this situation not by crushing one of the parties but through a political arrangement.
People walk through buildings damaged by fighting in al-Kalasa neighbourhood, in the northern city of Aleppo, on 19 July 2015 (AFP)
I therefore consider that the efforts made by Russia are worthy of interest – even if Russia has its own agenda and is trying to ensure the defence of the regime in Damascus with appalling means. Visibly, Europe and the United States do not know what to do and have nothing better to offer.
MEE: You point at an interesting shift when you write: "We are perhaps moving from a notion of just war to a concept of civilizational warfare". What do you mean by that?
RB: In Afghanistan and Iraq in particular, we have long stopped knowing which war we are waging. Let's take a look at the case of Afghanistan. There have been two phases in this war. First, the military riposte to the 9/11 attacks. Nobody could reasonably challenge it. The response was a counter-attack targeting al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan. However, once this police mission was accomplished, it was essential to leave the country. That did not happen.
The second part of this war is totally different: it is about creating a state of law, democratic institutions, and about imposing them via a military occupation. This civilizational war is endless; it is obviously doomed to failure. Is the military-industrial lobby behind this war? It seems likely to me.
MEE: We have questioned so far the term "just". Regarding the term "war," don't we observe a blurring? We talk about military operations when it comes to bombing Syria or Iraq, while we talk about "war on terror" domestically, right after the attacks in France.
RB: It is possible to justify the martial rhetoric that a head of state deems appropriate to use when confronted with events as destabilising as those attacks. However, this rhetoric becomes worrying when it persists. If we fail to change our vocabulary, we blur the situation.
A war cannot be waged against terrorism. Terrorism is a means, a notion, not a state. Military actions can be taken against terrorist groups, but these operations come under police objectives – unlike neutralising an army, conquering a territory, which are precisely the goals that characterise war.
Speaking of a war against terrorism also means introducing a nationwide state of exception, as shown by the normalisation of the provisions of the state of emergency.
This story was originally published on Middle East Eye's French website.