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The Anti-Colonial Origins of Humanitarian Intervention: NGOs, Human Rights

[ ["Abdullah Abdullah Treating Mujahed" © Börje Almqvist CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

The decade-long Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-1989) does not usually figure into conventional narratives of precedents for humanitarian interventions. When the Kremlin opted to dispatch a “limited contingent” of tens of thousands of soldiers to liquidate the erratic leadership of one wing of the ruling People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan and replace it with another wing, it was to protect the prospects for socialism within what Moscow understood as its sphere of influence, not to halt a genocide. This makes the Soviets’ intervention look much more like a repeat of Budapest in 1956 or Prague in 1968: the Soviet Union retained the right to intervene in socialist countries, which Afghanistan had officially become following an earlier April 1978 revolution. (This made it the second Marxist-Leninist country in the Islamic world–South Yemen, consolidated in 1970, was the first.)

Of course, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan led to anything but a consolidation of socialism in the region. Irish academic Fred Halliday described the war in Afghanistan as a “kitchen in which the contradictions of the contemporary world, and many of the violent evils of the century, were cooked and then spread out.” Halliday was referring, of course, to transnational Sunni jihadism. Journalists like Steve Coll and Lawrence Wright have told the story of how Arab jihadists like Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden made their way to Peshawar to fight alongside the Pashtun and Tajik Afghan mujahidin brigades who opposed the USSR and Afghan communists. 

Less well known about the conflict, however, is that it was also the threshold for a different form of internationalism that continues to leave a mark on the world, namely, transnational humanitarianism, and more specifically, visions of humanitarianism that disregarded the doctrine of state sovereignty. In order to justify such interventions, transnational humanitarian NGOs claimed that the need to save human lives authorized the suspension of foundational political conceptions about sovereignty and legitimacy. As a result of this shift, by the late 1980s, Peshawar, the city in northwestern Pakistan that served as the hub for humanitarian operations into occupied Afghanistan, hosted sixty-six NGOs, the densest such concentration anywhere in the Third World. And by the early 1990s, NGO governance inside of Afghanistan was so entrenched that ministries of the shambolic Islamic State of Afghanistan, the post-1992 mujahidin-led government, subcontracted their services to NGOs—rather than the other way around.

Yet what makes the story of the humanitarian intervention into Afghanistan more than just a story of the rise of NGOs onto the international stage is that the leading NGOs behind these operations—groups like France’s Médecins sans Frontières and the Stockholm-based Swedish Committee for Afghanistan—came out of anti-imperialist, anti-colonial backgrounds. However, more than just tending to Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Afghan populations inside of Afghanistan, however, these NGOs were coöpted into a campaign of regime change against the socialist Afghan government, which seized power independent of the Soviet Union. What started as a humanitarian intervention to aid Afghans soon turned into a “humanitarian invasion.” This makes this story of humanitarian NGOs important beyond just its own terms, since it shows how humanitarian concepts can be coöpted into campaigns for regime change. It also makes the story of Afghanistan in the 1980s look less like the last of many Cold War proxy wars in the Third World, and more like the beginning of a new era in which “the magnitude of human tragedies” permitted the internationalization of conflicts throughout the same space.

This story prompts two questions: firstly, what prompted groups that identified with the anti-colonial cause to work within a US- and Saudi-backed campaign to topple a socialist government in the Third World? And secondly, might this story of internationalization have any relevance for activists and practitioners engaged in issues of occupation, intervention, and humanitarianism today?

From Anti-Colonialism to “Humanitarian Invasion”

Part of the recipe behind what became a “humanitarian invasion” of Afghanistan had to do with intellectual shifts that took place during the 1970s. At the beginning of that decade, European Social Democratic politicians like Sweden’s Olof Palme could casually compare the American bombing of North Vietnam to Nazi extermination camps and the Sharpesville massacre. Seeking to outflank a well-organized anti-Vietnam War Left within his own country, Palme allowed North Vietnamese, South African, and African national liberation movements to open up organizing offices in Stockholm.

This was in keeping with the mood of the times, characterized by national liberation movements and anti-colonial struggles. The entry of so many post-colonial nation-states into the General Assembly nearly led to the expulsion of Pretoria from the UN, and UN General Assembly Resolution 3379 famously declared “Zionism a form of racism.” While the anti-colonial Left of the day held sovereignty sacrosanct, it made exceptions to this rule vis-à-vis apartheid, colonialism, and Zionism, declaring certain forms of political organization outside of legitimate international order altogether. Neither democracy, racial non-discrimination, nor decolonization had been criteria for membership in the United Nations, but the entry of so many Third World countries into the organization allowed for the transformation of the de facto terms of membership in international society. Put another way, not long after “civilization” was dropped as a criterion for entry into the United Nations (1960), racism, colonialism, and Zionism became criteria for marginalization within or even expulsion from the same organization.

Among the many other internal characters of polities that might serve as grounds for delegitimization in international society, socialism was not one of them. Indeed, support from the Soviet Union lent this movement geopolitical heft. Moscow provided political and military support to both the North Vietnamese as well as Southern African liberation movements throughout the Cold War. Moscow supported both the PLO as well as Marxist-Leninist Palestinian groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and thousands of Soviet military advisors in Egypt, Syria added military heft to the Arab cause. More than these material and financial ties, Moscow and its Eastern European satellites supported the internationalization of the Palestinian question at the United Nations through the aforementioned forums. Socialist states themselves indulged in massive repressions against their own populations, but the triad of Third World ascendancy at the UN, Soviet power, and the European Left’s tolerance of the USSR as a necessary evil meant that these socialist states were rarely if ever submitted to the same logics of internationalization applied to Israel, South Africa, or Portuguese Africa. Nor—as long as the grounds for intervention were restricted to cases of colonialism or racism—did they have any grounds to fear this.

The entry of humanitarian NGOs into Afghanistan (riding on the backs of the mujahidin) was significant for how it took this logic of “colonized against colonizer,” “black against white” or “Palestinian against Israeli,” and applied it to socialist states. Part of the context was a broad backlash against not only Soviet socialism but also Third World socialism in many of its post-1970s iterations. This had begun as early as the 1960s, when many a European Trotskyist or Maoist distanced themselves from Moscow as a deformed workers’ state out of touch with the anti-colonial cause. The Soviets, as noted, had pushed back with their own charm offensive in the Third World, but the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the publication of Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in 1973-1974 discredited the carefully cultivated vision of the USSR as an anti-imperialist and humane alternative to American hegemony or North Atlantic capitalism. Further, by the time the Afghan Communists had their revolution in 1978, revelations about the brutality of Vietnamese Communist rule against ethnic Chinese minorities, not to mention the butchery of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge rendered visions of peasant revolution to be just as blood-soaked as their Stalinist cousins.

True, texts like Solzhenitsyn’s and images of the violence in Southeast Asia did not circulate purely on their own accord; and one can note that US support for the overthrow of Pinochet or the Indonesian invasion of East Timor did not suddenly discredit American capitalism tout court. One must also be careful not to over-generalize about the shifting priorities of the Left vis-à-vis the Third World on the basis of just the Afghan drama. Socialist parties like the Sandinistas attracted support from Western intellectuals and humanitarian groups throughout the 1980s, and in the Horn of Africa, it was left-wing peasants’ movements and Eritrean socialists (not Islamist militias, as in Afghanistan) that received succor and support against a Soviet- and Cuban-backed governing representing “real existing socialism.” Future studies of the intersections of the global anti-imperialist Left and the Cold War will only enrich a nuanced understanding of the shifts of the 1980s.

In the theater of the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands, however, many of the intellectuals who became humanitarian organizers could operate against an ideological formation of “socialism” that was increasingly seen as not only worthy of opprobium but also grounds for exclusion from the rules of international society altogether. Some of the first humanitarian organizers on the scene in Pakistan articulated this shift themselves. One former head to UNICEF’s India office, a Swedish diplomat, explicitly compared Afghan Communists’ murder of ethnic Shi’i minority to Guernica, Lidice, and Oradour-sur-Glane—all classic sites of “progressive” mourning of Nazi violence within Europe. “Socialism,” he wrote, “is betrayed: is this the drama that will have to be repeated again and again? Will it be accompanied by the same applause and clapping from a clueless audience?”  By the mid-1970s, in other words, Europeans had learned to exceptionalize Nazi violence as the barometer of “crimes against humanity” or “genocide” (even though most post-World War II international jurisprudence focused on aggressive warfare, not genocide, as the Nazis’ crime par excellence). Burdened by this sin—and having reinterpreted it in terms of a failure to intervene—Europeans could then expiate it by intervening in Third World contexts, ideally those where the violation of sovereignty could be justified in terms of overthrowing totalitarian Stalinist regimes.

Yet if the route to legitimizing the suspension of Afghan sovereignty went not only through the Holocaust, practically it went through the institutions and legal forms formerly reserved for black South Africans, Portuguese colonial subjects, and Palestinians. The funding forms that Swedish humanitarian organizers used to secure the disbursal of funds to enter Afghanistan were direct copies of those formerly used for South African dissidents. This was the first indication that tactics of internationalization once formerly reserved for very specific kinds of polities–namely, colonial regimes, apartheid, or Zionism–could be extended to Soviet occupation or simply socialist regimes themselves.

Parallel to this tactic, the French group Médecins sans Frontières  followed their own logic, sending teams into the scantily-occupied Hazarajat and Badakhshan regions of central and northeastern Afghanistan, respectively. There, they identified populations as needing comprehensive medical treatment, justifying further missions. Not all of the populations the French engaged, particularly in these Afghan hinterlands, suffered from war wounds; more, archival documents show, suffered from malnutrition or what would be later diagnosed as fibromyalgia. Of course, Afghans had suffered from a lack of medical care long before socialist revolution or Soviet occupation, but new registers of social justice and medical emergency justified the suspension of Afghan sovereignty while French medical teams, embedded in the jihad, treated these remote populations. Leaving aside the question of whether the mujahidin groups that ferried the MSF teams in legitimately represented Afghans, MSF scarcely considered the question of whether a world in which state sovereignty hung upon individual medical diagnoses would be more stable or less violent than one that did.

The Rise of Special Rapporteurs 

Skeptics might object that this only amounted to one or two instances of internationalization, rather than a more structural shift worthy of attention. And they would be right if the humanitarian mobilization against the Afghan socialist state and the Soviet occupation were limited to actions like the Permanent International People’s Tribunal, held in Stockholm in 1981, or Russell Tribunals held in Paris in 1981-82. Such informal groups, like protests against the occupation at CSCE meetings throughout the 1980s, dealt reputational damage to the USSR and the Afghan regime. But even as American and Saudi funding for the jihad eroded the Soviets’ military footing in Afghanistan, more would be needed to delegitimize the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan. (The Soviets’ argument for their presence in the Hindu Kush was grounded on the UN-recognized right of collective self-defense, since Kabul was unable to halt the undeclared war being fought against it from Pakistan. Moscow relies on the same doctrine today in its war with the Syrian regime against opposition groups and ISIS.)

Soon, the campaign to consign Afghanistan to the black hole in international society reserved for apartheid, Zionism, and Portuguese colonialism acquired a further dimension. The answer came through the Swedish-sponsored and French teams inside of Afghanistan, who, by the early 1980s, had collected reams of medical and eyewitness data about the situation inside of Afghanistan (whose borders they had obviously breached to obtain said data). The humanitarian information collected by Swedish-sponsored and French teams inside of Afghanistan was forwarded to Oslo, whose Foreign Ministry spearheaded a Special Rapporteurship on human rights in Afghanistan, the first time such a procedure had been initiated against a socialist country.

Less well known than many other UN institutions, the Special Rapporteurship was of very recent provenance. It dated back to a 1967 United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) resolution that authorized investigations by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights into racial discrimination and apartheid. But it also left open “the question of the violation of human rights in every country.” This made the Special Rapporteurship an attractive institution for takeover by socialist, Third World, and Arab delegations, especially since alternative means of internationalizing colonial questions, like the International Court of Justice had failed to condemn apartheid in 1967.

From that point onward, the aforementioned delegations used their numerical supremacy at the United Nations to use UN institutions to claim moral territory for themselves. Once again, however, the principle was maximum sovereignty for the socialist camp, Arab states, and post-colonial Third World countries; maximum internationalization of the Palestinian question, apartheid, and Portuguese colonialism. These issues occupied significant attention on the international stage compared to other national liberation causes like those of Kurds, Baloch, or Pashtuns, and they were taken to be synonymous with “human rights” per se rather than as expressions of some more general human rights imagination. “Human rights” meant freedom from colonialism, apartheid, or Israeli occupation, and did not refer to the rights of individuals in any particular country. Hence, these three causes (colonialism, apartheid, and Zionism) formed the only subject of Special Rapporteur investigations for several years while the United Nations Commission on Human Rights conducted more investigations into Israel than all other countries combined.

Of course, one reason why allies of the Palestinian, South African, and Southern African cause had to take these issues to the international stage (rather than seeking political solutions through great power diplomacy) was that they had nowhere else to go.The Nixon Administration’s quest for détente with the USSR and unwillingness to allow another Middle Eastern proxy war to spoil peace with Moscow led Washington to suspend the UN Commission designed to find a political solution to the conflict and to exclude the PLO from the Geneva Peace Conference and subsequent forums. Internationalizing strategies of boycotts, divestment campaigns, and calls for sanctions toward apartheid South Africa were necessary precisely because of the Nixon Administration’s “tar baby” policy toward white-ruled Pretoria, Salisbury, and Lisbon. 

Yet this strategy of internationalization had unexpected consequences. Gradually, the option of investigating “the question of the violation of human rights in every country” was explored and expanded to refer not just to colonialism, apartheid, or Zionism. Here, again, power politics dictated from Washington had unexpected consequences. Following US-backed coups in Chile (1973), Uruguay (1973) and Argentina (1975) and the transnational destruction of the Left and opposition groups across South America, the UN’s Commission on Human Rights began investigating rights abuses in Latin American dictatorships in 1975. But by doing so, it indirectly reclassified the situation in South Africa or the Palestinian Territories from sui generis problems that blighted the entire planet to mere instances of a phenomenon that could occur anywhere in the world–even in Third World or socialist states. The subject of “human rights” shifted from the sovereignty of a Palestinian or South African state to an anonymous, tortured body that could be found in Chile, Argentina, or the Soviet Union. 

This individualization of human rights and decoupling from the anti-Zionist, anti-apartheid, and anti-colonial causes meant that states like Afghanistan–at once part of the Third World and the socialist world–could be placed in the docket and judged internationally. This was why the move to have a Special Rapporteurship against Afghanistan was so significant. A decade earlier, few raised an eyebrow when South Yemenese or North Vietnamese Communists jailed and tortured their opponents. It was a sovereign postcolonial country and hence by definition stood outside of the concept of “human rights” prevalent at the UN since the early 1960s, namely, one in which “human rights” meant decolonization and post-colonial sovereignty. Point 1 of the UN’s 1960 Declaration of the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples made this clear, noting that “the subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights.” Oppressed nations, not tortured individuals, were the subject of “human rights.”

By the late 1970s and 1980s, however, that concept had shifted from referring primarily to post-colonial liberation and opposition to racism and colonialism in international affairs. Instead, “human rights” now referred to persecution of individuals, rather than the fundamental character or disposition of the state itself. This meant that states like the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, which enshrined anti-Zionism and opposition to apartheid in their Constitution, could be turned into outlaws in the same way Argentina or Uruguay could, even if neither were colonial or racist entities. Once the UN announced the launching of a Special Rapporteurship–spearheaded by Austrian human rights lawyer Felix Ermacora–Kabul and Moscow did everything they could to block its fulfillment. The Afghan regime prevented Ermacora from obtaining a visa, forcing the Austrian to restrict his fieldwork to Pakistan and a library devoted to Afghanistan Studies in Switzerland. Once Ermacora completed his report, Moscow even managed to prevent the publication of it into English. But the broader point was clear: logics of internationalization once used by the Second and Third World against Israel and South Africa had been inverted to apply to socialist states, in spite of their Third World credentials. 

The Humanitarianization of Politics

By the late 1980s, the combination of military offensives on the ground by Sunni Islamist militias and the inversion of anti-colonial forms and tools against Third World socialist states forced the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan. (The Soviet occupation also prompted the emergence of an anti-socialist Afghan Shi’a jihad, but such Shi’a groups were unwelcome in the refugee camps of Zia ul-Haq’s Pakistan, nor were they seriously engaged by any regional power or international body in the way the “Peshawar Seven” Sunni Afghan parties were.) Efforts to oversee the transition saw the application of yet another UN institution to Afghanistan—peacekeepers, in small numbers but present for the first time on any large scale in decades. However, the Soviet withdrawal and collapse of Soviet funding for the regime in Kabul meant that the mujahidin and the humanitarian networks that sustained them overran the capital in the spring of 1992.

The history of humanitarianism, occupation, and intervention in Afghanistan might be interesting on its own terms, but the history outlined above has implications for scholars and activists engaged in debates about international humanitarian law in contexts more familiar to followers of the Middle Eastern scene. For instance, the “humanitarian invasion” of Afghanistan reveals how certain legal forms and arguments generated by the internationalization of the Palestinian cause went global. True, this process has had limits. The 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, for example, enshrined the PLO’s campaign as a national liberation struggle, covered, like those against apartheid, South African occupation, or Rhodesian white rule, by international humanitarian law. The Afghan mujahidin, in contrast, never enjoyed such protections, even as they were more successful than the Palestinians in overrunning a Communist Afghan state that, ironically, provided shelter to a small number of PLO members.

However, the same 1977 Protocols also laid the framework for an International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission that allows humanitarian NGOs to claim coverage under international humanitarian law themselves. Indeed, following the October 2015 US Air Force bombing of an MSF trauma center in Taliban-occupied Kunduz, MSF has demanded that the IHFFC begin a case against the United States. In short, even as champions of the Palestinian cause have themselves faced numerous challenges in implementing international humanitarian legal protections in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the decades-long quest to have national liberation movements and non-state organizations recognized by IHL has had far-ranging consequences.

As recent accounts of the history of human rights and humanitarianism remind us, however, it would be blinkered to view this merely as a history of growing enlightenment and expanded social justice. The turn of European activists away from socialism and toward humanitarian aid as their desideratum made sense at a time when images of Vietnamese “Boat People” and the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago exposed Third World socialist regimes and Soviet “real existing socialism” as morally vacuous. While less historicized and beyond the bounds of this piece, MSF’s flirtation with anti-totalitarian interventionism (in the form of a sister NGO, Liberty Without Borders) was also understandable, given that so many of the countries in which the organization intervened were single-party Marxist-Leninist dictatorships like Ethiopia and Cambodia.

But in the case of Afghanistan (where the mujahidin not only booted the Soviets out of the country but eventually sacked Kabul) the humanitarian license to suspend Afghan sovereignty eventually supplied an alibi for US- and Saudi-backed regime change. Revolutionary regimes in Kabul, post-1979 Phnom Penh or Addis Ababa had nothing to do with the Holocaust or the construction of Cold War European ideological formations of “Stalinism,” but their sovereignty became the price on Europeans were willing to pay to expiate own their failure to intervene against Nazism or for having flirted with Stalinism. The comparative lack of ideological energy invested into internationalization of the Suharto regime’s occupation of East Timor, or opposition to the Western-backed coups against left-wing regimes in Grenada (1983) or Burkina Faso (1987) was a fundamentally political choice that had more to do with the ideological formations of “the free world,” “socialism,” and “the Third World” as they were contested and marketed to European and North American audiences in the 1980s. 

More than this, however, the shift away from the democratization of the means of production toward the recognition and healing of somatic and psychic violence also narrowed activists’ field of vision. Scholars of humanitarianism and human rights in Palestine have shown how this turn generated a novel discourse “in which trauma appears less as a clinical category than as a political argument.” Getting two distinct nationalist narratives to reconcile themselves to one another was already a challenge tall enough. Achieving a shared view of reality—much less reconciliation—is especially difficult from the standpoint of “objective,” because medical, victimhood.

In the case of Afghanistan, NGOs’ focus on the humanitarian needs of Afghans and getting the Soviets and Afghan Communists out of Kabul—regardless who replaced them—led them to overlook the question of what kind of country an Afghanistan with no economy and led by a fractious coalition of Sunni Islamist parties would be. More recently, post-1970s discourses of empowerment and human rights arguably led to a lack of engagement with the structural economic factors, not to mention foreign interventions and civil war, that have turned Afghans into one of the world’s largest refugee diasporas. 

Ironically–and tragically–if Europeans deployed medicalized humanitarian rhetoric about wounded and tortured Afghan bodies to legitimize their entry onto Afghan soil forty years ago, today, more and more Afghans use similar humanitarian rhetoric to secure their presence in Europe as refugees and asylum seekers. If, earlier, the failure of Afghan socialists and the Soviet Union to protect human rights inside Afghanistan allowed for the submission of Afghanistan to international supervision, today Afghan claims to remain inside of European states revolves around their ability to claim Afghanistan as an “unsafe country of origin.”

In both cases, Afghans might cite not only their own wounds and trauma but also the inability of the Afghan state to provide a modicum of security for its own citizens or to protect its own borders—both factors that date back at least to the war of the 1980s. As the history of the “humanitarian invasion” of Afghanistan reminds us, humanitarian impulses and moves to internationalize human rights abuses stand as much in tension as in support with postcolonial sovereignty.

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