Liberalism, the UN and colonialism: the Palestinian example

Foreign Affairs & Security
Sunday, August 12, 2018
Clement Julhia

The current events in Palestine in and around Gaza are a good opportunity to analyse the defence of the Palestinian case and why it has achieved so little in so long. It is possible to understand this as a local example of what is actually a general failing at the core of the UN’s constitution – and the “progressive left” in general.

Since it was finalised at the conference of San Francisco in 1945, the UN’s charter is mostly organised around two main doctrines: the right of peoples to govern themselves (anti-colonialism, or in other words, nationalism) and human rights, that is the protection of the individual’s body and personal life from the aggressive whims of others, especially government. While at first glance it might seem both ideas work well together, in fact, despite being drawn from the same basis (equality of all men and the value of freedom), geopolitically-speaking they are effectively in contradiction.

For one thing, the UN’s conception of human rights – call it “humanitarianism” – is what is called a universalist doctrine. This means in theory it is an invitation for all of humanity to join in its principles, even though they were developed in a specific region of the world. There are a few ideologies in history with such a universalist reach, and all of them have been the basis for large and intransigent empires: British and Dutch capitalism, French and German humanism, Soviet internationalism, Catholicism (meaning “universal” in Greek) through the Spanish and Portuguese empires, the Roman empire and Islam. All of these have conquered their surroundings in the name of their principles, usually with the result of completely extinguishing the cultures that had existed there previously. Modern humanitarianism is the latest on that list.

To be clear, universalism is not the main cause of Empire. As always, imperialism is mostly driven by greed and narrow political interests, but the leaders of a country governed by universal values will find it much easier to convince its people of the necessity of expansion than any other. Take for instance the wars triggered by the French government immediately after the Revolution. The main motivation behind it was financial, to make up for losses following the overthrow of the Old Regime, but it was successfully sold – to this day in fact – as a just war to spread the ideals of the Enlightenment.

As for the UN, when it was founded the trend was very much towards dismantling European colonial empires, which had been based on the “need to export civilisation” to the world. But for the UN to include as the second pillar of its philosophy the ideals of individual freedom (freedom of religion, freedom of speech, free trade, etc..) is an open door to the imperial expansion of the countries in which those ideals are most valued and hardly anywhere are they more sacralised than in the American Constitution. The results are predictable, and historically so. In the two hundred or so years of British rule in North America, Europeans came to occupy a strip of land along the Atlantic which came the form the original thirteen American colonies; it only took about a hundred years for the American Republic to completely conquer the Continent from coast to coast and remove short of every trace of the cultures that preceded their arrival. It is not surprising, therefore that since 1945, the US has been continuing this practice through “humanitarian interventions”, albeit never as brutally as during the Conquest of the West. The UN has mostly backed these interventions by the US and other Western armies.

More to the point of how it relates to the Palestinian issue, humanitarianism presents yet another problem to the defence of peoples’ rights, at least against Western colonialism (though not exclusively).

At its core, humanitarianism is what ethicists call a deontological doctrine: it assigns moral value – or demerit – to a given type of action as a matter of principle rather than based on consequences, or who carried it out. Whether an action is good or bad depends only on how it respects the rights of individuals (prohibition of murder, false imprisonment, or rape, freedom of speech, etc.). As such, it does not know any national or civilizational borders, since individually-speaking, all humans are similar and equal. All that matters, therefore, is for any given society how well those principles of human rights are applied, not by whom or in what historical context. Yet as much as some would like to ignore it, with very few exceptions, Western nations have always been more inclined towards human rights (which they theorised in the first place) than their victims. As much as historians condemn Columbus and others for killing and enslaving American Natives, this does not place him morally below the Aztecs who did the same and practiced human sacrifice; the same goes for the treatment of Africans by each other before Europeans simply added their names to the already long list of killers and slave-owners in Africa. The only thing the West invented was the abolition of those practices in application of its human rights beliefs as they slowly formed along the 18th, 19th and 20th century, and on the injunction of the Church.

For someone who believes in such a doctrine which is, as I have explained, without borders and focused on individual well-being, there is simply no reason to support those whom the West invades. Hence the ease with which Israel has obscured its crimes as conquerors with claims of humanitarian superiority (treatment of minorities like homosexuals and Christians, free press, virtually no death penalty…), and drawing attention to the moral backwardness in Palestine, and the Orient in general.

Lastly, the human rights doctrine is unhelpful to occupied peoples for more concrete reasons. As I mentioned before, human rights law condemns acts, whoever commits them. It goes without saying an act is always a means to accomplish a certain aim (in politics and elsewhere). Yet one can easily see, also, that once you begin to discuss the means of doing something, you have already accepted the principle of doing it (for the same reason people don’t ponder going on holiday by train or by plane if they’re not sure they want to go at all). So, complaining about the means of colonial repression (like we hear now with the protests near Gaza) rather than condemning the project it serves ultimately gives it legitimacy by default. Not to mention the fact that resisting colonisation often involves the same kind of action as imposing it (killing, destroying infrastructure…), so the UN’s criticism is just as much of a wheel clamp on the Palestinians than Israelis.

Despite appearances, Arabs in this case are suffering from goodwill. For years, the West has preached the world should be ruled by reason and law, not the law of the jungle and the old “might is right” doctrine. That those in distress at the hands of another should not fight back but seek justice in international courts, under the universal sign of human rights. While the West itself has been preaching one thing and doing the opposite, most Palestinians seem to have taken this seriously and pathetically been trying to fight tanks with lawyers and demand justice from those, Israel’s government, who only know privilege – their own, as the Chosen People. That is how UN principles can and should be applied and it has had in forty years about as much success as one might have expected (none).

In term of values, their cause is not dissimilar to that of the far-right in Europe, where the indigenous population is also afraid of losing control of its own country to a foreign influx, in this case from the Islamic world (though Palestine is in a much more critical state of cultural annihilation and military oppression). But instead of being defended by European nationalists and conservatives, it is defended by people who, on general principle, have nothing but contempt for the rights of peoples to protect their history, culture, tradition and existence as a nation. Having to choose between the incoherence of defending those things for the West but not others – as neoconservatives do – or defending them for others but not the West – as multiculturalist anti-colonialists do – we shouldn’t be surprised Western audiences go with the first.

This is the agony of a just cause defended by the wrong people.