Intern Blog

The Selectivity of the Humanitarian Narrative

By Ishita Madan

The United States has a long and unfortunate track record of tacitly or overtly propping up despots in other nations. Yet, the United States continues to hold its status as the world’s policeman, initiating interventions in various governments while maintaining a steady indifference to crises in nations with which it remains on diplomatic terms. Military or governmental intervention is justified under the cloak of humanitarianism, with the frequently cited “responsibility to protect”. However, not only is intervention selective, its aftermath is often destructive and involves the decimation of entire societies, with Iraq and Libya being two recent examples.

The selectivity of the humanitarian narrative emerges once again in the official statements on Brazil and Venezuela. On May 12, 2016, lawmakers voted to suspend elected government and  open impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff, in a clear violation of the democratic process. A recent poll, reported in the New York Times, found that less than 2% of Brazilians wanted Vice President Michel Temer at the helm, yet he is currently President. Other issues arose with Brazil’s cabinet, which is currently comprised entirely of men. Much of the right wing fervor in Brazil appears to be rooted in backlash to Rousseff, the nation’s first ever female leader, who also happened to be a champion of the poor. The United States had very little commentary on this, however, as Brazil is the nation’s ally and is a firmly capitalist nation.


On the other hand, Venezuela has been declared a “an extraordinary threat to national security” despite Hugo Chavez having been a democratically elected President. The media supported this narrative, with the New York Times even reporting the 2002 rightwing coup attempt against Chavez as a “victory for democracy”. Most protests under Chavez stemmed from right wing opposition, and comprises a vocal minority of the Venezuelan population. Additionally, Venezuela had not suffered socially or economically as a result of Chavez’s election. In June 2016, department spokesperson Mark Toner gave an extensive statement on the circumstances in Venezuela, but evaded questions on the open impeachment proceedings on Dilma Rousseff. When questioned further on his stance, he professed faith in Brazil’s institutions. Venezuela was not markedly worse off than Brazil in terms of human rights, and in many ways had a more successful functioning democracy than Brazil. However, it was singled out for criticism.


The fallacy in the humanitarian narrative is that the selectivity often undercuts the values the government claims to stand for. If the well-being of other nations was the concern, effective democracies would not be smeared by the government and American media in favor of nations in the midst of active coups, oftentimes solely because they do not align with American capitalist interests. It is necessary to demand transparency when the government deems a nation a threat to national security, even if it done under the justification of humanitarian concern.

Categories: Intern Blog

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