‘Civilising Missions’ of the Past are ‘Humanitarian Interventions’ of the Present

By Saheli Chowdhury  –  Sep 5, 2021

Over the past weeks we have witnessed crocodile tears for Afghanistan, as the United States started evacuating in haste, and the Taliban retook power. In the last two weeks,  “Afghanistan” has been mentioned more times than during the last twenty years of US and allied occupation of the country. Despite international “concern” for Afghan women and their rights under a “violent theocratic regime”—with even individuals like former US President George W. Bush and Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the destroyers of Afghanistan, jumping on the bandwagon—the genocide of the Afghan people carried out by the US-led Northern Alliance has been entirely invisibilised, and the imperialist occupation has been portrayed as a righteous mission to bring “Western civilization,” human rights, women’s rights, and democracy to a “backward country” of “barbaric” people.

Only two days before images of a helicopter flying over the US embassy in Kabul were flashed on television screens across the world, the President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, condemned the arguments of those who try to justify military invasions and colonisation “in the name of liberty, faith, racial superiority, or civilisation, as has always happened in events of this nature, in all parts of the world.” He did not make these comments regarding the situation in Afghanistan, which was yet to become newsworthy, but for a different incident in the history of imperialism—one that occurred on the other side of the world 500 years ago.

On August 13, 1521, the Aztec world fell as the capital Tenochtitlán—present day Mexico City—was violently taken by the invading forces of Hernán Cortés, starting, in the words of López Obrador, “an era of violence, exploitation, slavery, depression and sorrow for the indigenous peoples.” He made these remarks on August 13 this year, at an event commemorating 500 years since that day of horror and disaster  as well as celebrating five centuries of indigenous resistance.

Civilising missions – devastation, plunder, and “a complete failure”
Just as the most advertised motive of the US and its allies for invading multiple countries of the Middle-East in this century was bringing “democracy,” “human rights,” and “women’s rights” to “backward peoples,” the most trumpeted aim of the Spanish invaders in Tenochtitlán five centuries ago—something that has been repeated in all records of history written by the victors—was the noble mission of bringing “civilisation” to “savages,” of bringing the word of God and the Church to barbaric pagans who practised human sacrifice, just as it can be attested in the Valladolid Debates. This was not unique to Mexico or the Americas in general, but common to all so-called civilising missions across Africa and Asia, where European colonisers tried to “civilise” inheritors of the oldest human civilisations on earth.

The “civilising mission” propaganda only served as a cover-up for the real reason, which was nothing else than “the lust for wealth,” as decried López Obrador. The most obscene of all ambitions—the desire for possessing resources, without a thought for the people who live in the lands of those resources.

The results were death and destruction, in every part of those continents. One only has to go through the first pages of Open Veins of Latin America to realise it, as Eduardo Galeano writes: “The Indians of the Americas totalled no less than 70 million when the foreign conquerors appeared on the horizon; a century and a half later they had been reduced to 3.5 million,” killed by genocides, slavery, poverty, poor living conditions, and diseases brought from abroad. The latter led to terrible epidemics all over the American continent, as thousands succumbed to diseases unknown to them, against which their bodies could not produce resistance. As for Mexico, President López Obrador gave some concrete figures. Citing historian Enrique Semo, he stated that in the year 1518, about 11 million people lived in what is today Mexico and Central America; 87 years later, in 1605, the population was reduced to hardly a million; and in 1821, when Mexico won its independence from Spain, only 6 million people inhabited the country.

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All this is reminiscent of the epidemics and the famines that decimated entire populations throughout Asia and Africa during three centuries of colonial domination by the same European powers that brought misery and destruction to the Americas. The same has been the result of the US and allied wars of aggression in the Middle-East and North Africa. Considering the example of Afghanistan only, over 240,000 people have died from war and related violence and the breakdown of infrastructure, public health, and security apparatuses in one of the poorest countries in the world.

This is how the president of Mexico assessed the “Conquest”: “So many deaths, so many villages razed, looted and burned, so many women raped, so many atrocities ordered by Cortés and recounted in his letters to the king—was all this worthwhile?… For three centuries of colonial domination, the indigenous people had only two options—to survive in poverty in areas where they had taken refuge—in the mountains, the marshes, the forests, for they had been thrown out of their better lands, or to be indentured to work in mines or farms as slaves.”

“This disaster, cataclysm, catastrophe, whatever you wish to call it, makes us realise that it was a complete failure,” he continued. “What civilisation can one talk about if it causes the loss of millions of human lives?… The occupation and colonisation were centuries of backwardness, not of civilisation, and even less of justice.”

 López Obrador said this in relation to the colonisation of Mexico centuries ago, but he could very well have been talking about the ongoing destruction of the Middle-East.

Present day genocides – in the guise of “human rights” and “liberation”
When George W. Bush launched the War on Terror with the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the initial narrative was to combat “Islamic terrorism” in order to protect “freedom and democracy” in the West. The declared objective for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was similar. However, anti-war protests of unexpected nature in both the US and its war partner UK taught the imperialists that other excuses were necessary, which led to the discourse of “humanitarian intervention” and “responsibility to protect.”

In 2011, the US and NATO invaded Libya with the lie of protecting civilians from “Gaddafi’s dictatorship,” and imperialist “feminists” of the West lauded the bombardment of an African country as the means to “liberate women” in a “backward” nation, when earlier in that very year the United Nations Human Rights Council had praised Libya’s women’s rights record, and considered it the only African country on the way to fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals. The war on Syria was launched—to huge fanfare—under the pretext of protecting “pro-democracy protesters” from the “dictatorial Assad regime.” Women’s rights and rights of the Kurdish minority were weaponised too, despite the fact that women in independent Syria have enjoyed equal rights as men, and most Kurds in Syria are Syrian citizens since the 1970s, with the same constitutionally-recognised rights and responsibilities as the Arab majority and other minorities (who do not exist in the pro-war narrative) in the secular nation. Unsurprisingly, said “pro-democracy protesters” turned out to be Islamic State and its multiple offshoots including the infamous Jabhat al-Nusra, with records in women’s rights and human rights worse than Saudi Arabia, all brutal terrorist organisations funded, armed and trained by the US and its allies.

The “human rights” that these military invasions brought to the people of the Middle-East were the same as the “civilisation” brought to Mexico by the Spanish colonisers. In Iraq, there is no certainty over the number of casualties from war and associated social and infrastructure breakdown, although most analysts consider a million to be an underestimation. In addition, priceless relics of the famed “cradle of human civilisation” have been stolen or destroyed by the invading forces and their protégé, the Islamic State—which will go down in history as one of the vilest acts of cultural genocide and erasure. Also, the invading US-NATO powers imposed a series of corrupt puppet governments in the country, similar to what they did in Afghanistan, and have militarised the entire region to be used as a threat to Iran and Syria. “Iraq is totally destroyed; it is nothing but a giant military base now,” asserts Syrian-British journalist Richard Medhurst. Similarly, in neighbouring Syria, the exact number of civilian deaths is unknown but is considered to be tens of thousands, and although the legitimate government has been able to keep most parts of the country free from foreign or terrorist control, unilateral coercive measures called the “Caesar Act” sanctions, imposed by the invaders defeated on the battlefield, are starving a war-torn people. 

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Like Iraq, Syria—another country of ancient and culturally, racially and religiously diverse civilisations—has suffered bombardment, shelling, and destruction of many of its renowned historical sites, including Palmyra, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and a UNESCO Heritage. Moreover, according to estimates by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, the West’s wars of aggression and proxy wars in the Middle-East and North Africa have displaced at least 38 million people, which “exceeds the total displaced by every war since 1900, except World War II.” All this suffering has resulted from the colonisers’ desire for natural resources and control of those resources—in this case that resource being oil, the gold of modern times. Yet, anti-war sentiments in the West, especially from an anti-imperialist point of view, remain less widespread than in 2003, thanks to the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention.”

This is exactly what the Mexican president denounced as he concluded his August 13 speech. “The great lesson of the so-called Conquest,” emphasized López Obrador, “is that nothing justifies the imposition by force on other nations or cultures a political, economic, social or religious model for the sake of the well-being of the conquered or with the excuse of civilisation. Let us put an end to these anachronisms, these atrocities, and let us say never again an invasion, an occupation or a Conquest, be it undertaken in the name of faith, peace, civilisation, democracy, freedom or, what is even more grotesque, in the name of human rights.”

On the same day, Vox, a neo-Nazi party of Spain, the land of the former colonisers of Mexico, made a very different assessment of the fall of Tenochtitlán, rebranding a genocidal event as an act of “liberation.” “On this day 500 years ago,” posted the Francoist party on its social media pages, “a troop of Spaniards led by Hernán Cortés and native allies made Tenochtitlán surrender. Spain succeeded in liberating millions of people from the bloodthirsty and terrifying Aztec regime.” The post ended with Vox’s trademark jingoist slogan: “Proud of our history.”

Vox’s evaluation was very similar to that of RTVE’s José Antonio Sánchez, who commented that “to ask for pardon for liberating Mexicans from the Aztecs is like asking for pardon for having defeated the Nazis,” referring to President López Obrador’s 2019 letter to the Spanish Crown, urging the monarchy to ask for pardon from the indigenous peoples of Mexico for the abuses committed during the colonial period. In 2019, well-known Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Reverte had questioned López Obrador’s right to write such a letter because “he has Spanish surnames.” On this occasion, specifically on August 14, a Spanish newspaper, no less reactionary than Vox, pointed out with undisguised malice that the Mexican president “had Spanish ancestors.” Pérez-Reverte’s comment on surnames, ridiculous on many levels, does not deserve a response, but the other one—that of one’s origins—is more sinister, as it raises the question of who has the legitimate right to resist imperialism, to ask for pardon or reparations, or to even remember history.

To respond to this, we may turn to Cuba—in the frontlines in resistance against imperialism, including the longest-running economic blockade in history—and particularly to one of Cuba’s greatest children, José Martí. A direct descendant of Spaniards, Cuba’s independence hero had proudly proclaimed the side he was on, and on which side of history one has to be: “We must be with Guaicaipuro, with Paramaconi, with Anacaona, with Hatuey, and not with the flames that burned them, nor with the ropes that bound them, nor with the steel that cut their throats, nor with the dogs that mauled them.” We may also look towards the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, another nation standing tall against imperialism, where since 2002, under the leadership of then president Hugo Chávez, October 12—formerly the racist Day of the Race or Columbus Day—is celebrated as the Day of Indigenous Resistance, as tribute to the country’s indigenous heritage and identity against colonial attempts of erasure of history and memory.

Imperialism has not ended; it has only rebranded itself, changing some words in its discourse, like replacing “civilising mission” with “humanitarian intervention.” Imperialism is global; the resistance to it should be global too, in its broadest meaning possible, irrespective of one’s origins, and depending only on one’s will to fight atrocities, massacres and deaths.


Featured image: A Christopher Columbus statue torn down in Venezuela in 2004 as a protest against the colonial genocide. Photo courtesy of AP.


Saheli Chowdhury
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Saheli Chowdhury is from West Bengal, India, studying physics for a profession, but with a passion for writing. She is interested in history and popular movements around the world, especially in the Global South. She is a contributor  and works for Orinoco Tribune.

Saheli Chowdhury

Saheli Chowdhury is from West Bengal, India, studying physics for a profession, but with a passion for writing. She is interested in history and popular movements around the world, especially in the Global South. She is a contributor  and works for Orinoco Tribune.