Tracing Origins Of Humanitarian Interventions
JACKI LYDEN, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Guy Raz is on a very special assignment today, which we'll fill you in on a little later in the program.
But first, this news: A Libyan government envoy is in Greece for talks with the Greek prime minister and a message from Gadhafi. That message: Gadhafi wants to discuss the terms of a ceasefire.
Meanwhile, Moammar Gadhafi's forces are once again battling rebels for control of the strategic western town of Misrata. The Turkish government announced that it has negotiated safe passage of a ship bringing medical supplies to the besieged city. It will also transport the wounded away for treatment.
Many of the biggest backers of NATO action in Libya are so-called humanitarian interventionists. Among them, Samantha Power, one of President Obama's top foreign policy advisers.
Adam Curtis is a documentary filmmaker who writes a blog for the BBC, and he recently traced the history of the humanitarian intervention movement. He told Guy that it began with the civil war in Africa.
Mr. ADAM CURTIS (Documentary Filmmaker, BBC): What you see today as described as humanitarian intervention or interventionism actually goes back to the Biafran War in 1968, which is where a part of the newly liberate, freed country of Nigeria, the eastern part, wanted to break away and become its own nation called Biafra. And a vicious, very bloody civil war resulted.
And rather ruthlessly, the Biafran government went and found a Western public relations agency called MarkPress, who transformed the way people in the West saw the war.
Up to that point, really we in the West looked at something like Biafra as, oh, it's just another far away war with a group of people we don't understand fighting each other.
MarkPress took that war and turned it into, well, really, a heart-wrenching story of bad people, the Nigerian government, and good people, who were the starving victims because of the blockade that was being imposed.
It's out of that that a generation really locks on and says, look, this is an example of how traditional politics is corrupt. I mean, the British government were selling the Nigerian government arms. We're going to do something different. We're going to go and actually help the victims. We don't care about left or right governments or nationalism. We just care about the victims. And it began at that point in Biafra.
GUY RAZ, host:
One of the people who was in Biafra was Bernard Kouchner, who is sort of -thought of as kind of the godfather of humanitarian interventionism. He went on to become the French foreign minister and recently wrote an op-ed backing the Libyan intervention.
He was in the Red Cross at the time of that war. He leaves Biafra to go and help found Doctors Without Borders: Medecins Sans Frontieres, and you in your blog have a clip of Kouchner talking about why he did this in the '70s. Let's hear this for a moment.
Mr. BERNARD KOUCHNER (Founder, Medecins Sans Frontieres): We don't care on leftist and rightist countries. There is no leftist and rightist suffering. We are just sending doctors to take care of the people. For us, human being is one.
RAZ: Now most of the people who supported or backed Kouchner's world view were actually leftist or had come from a leftist background, right?
Mr. CURTIS: That is absolutely right. But what they're really saying is, we are going to not look at these struggles and our relationship to it in terms of power politics. We're going to look at it from a moral point of view, and we are going to go in there and rescue the people who are being oppressed by the bad.
RAZ: When does this movement begin to embrace the idea of military intervention to stop what they see as a humanitarian crisis?
Mr. CURTIS: The point at which they really begin to move towards the idea really begins in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Many of what was called the doctors' movement, not just Doctors Without Borders, but other groups, had grown up in the wake of Kouchner. They went in to Afghanistan and helped the victims of the Soviet bombing, shelling.
But they also began to help the people who were fighting against the Soviet Union, the mujahedeen, who were also being backed, as we now know, by the Americans, by the CIA, money, all sorts of weapons. It was a dilemma for them.
But then, French philosophers came up with a theory, which said, actually, power exercised by the strong is not always oppression. And that was the big break they made from their old fellows on the left. It was this idea that you could use American power for good.
RAZ: One of the people who has been influenced by this group of interventionists is somebody who we've been hearing about in the news lately. Her name is Samantha Power.
She's on the National Security Council, an adviser to President Obama and a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and political theorist. A lot of speculation that she really pushed the administration to intervene in Libya. How does she figure into this world of humanitarian interventionists?
Mr. CURTIS: Samantha Power is very important in this. I mean, she comes into this story in the early 1990s. She's a reporter in Bosnia. She sees all the tragedies. She sees the horror, the massacres in Srebrenica, and she writes a very powerful book arguing that one of the great failings of the Western governments is the way they have consistently turned their eyes away from genocides. And she cites Rwanda as another example.
She's also a great friend of one of the humanitarian interventionists called Sergio Vieira de Mello, who after the invasion of Iraq becomes the head of the U.N. mission there. And he dies in a horrible bombing attack.
And I think it fuels her - both her despair, but also her determination to carry on with it. And I think, by all accounts, she is one of the main people who has persuaded President Obama to back the Libyan intervention. But she's been through it. She's seen all the problems and the unforeseen consequences. But she still believes that our job in the West is to rescue victims.
It's a completely noble and wonderful thing to do, but you simplify them, and you simplify the world, and sometimes the world isn't simple. We can see that in Afghanistan. We can see that in Iraq. And I think we may see that in Libya. I don't know.
I mean, I think we should keep a completely open mind on Libya.
RAZ: That's Adam Curtis. He's a documentary filmmaker and blogger. You can find his blog, The Medium and the Message, at the BBC website.
Adam Curtis, thanks so much.
Mr. CURTIS: Pleasure. Thank you.
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