Kazakhstan, Libya, and the Double Standards of Western "Humanitarian" Intervention


In the past two weeks, an uprising and strike by workers in Kazakhstan's profitable oil industry has been violently suppressed by the police forces of the country's dictatorial President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The Kazakh government claims that 15 people died, while protestors say the number has reached at least 70. Hundreds more have been injured and arrested.

If this is surprising news to you, don't be embarrassed. The events in Kazakhstan have received relatively little coverage in Western media. No one is calling for an intervention to protect the Kazakh protestors. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has not written on the need to bomb Astana into rubble. This disinterest stands in stark contrast to the barrage of pro-war media that was produced in the run-up to the NATO intervention in Libya.

The reason for that inconsistency is not clear, but examination of when and where the West has intervened (or not intervened) provides the answer: Interventions take place when they will further Western economic and strategic interests, not for altruistic reasons, and the claims of the West that their interventions are "humanitarian" in nature are grotesque hypocrisy.

So what were the interests that brought NATO into Libya but have earned only calls for calm and restraint in Kazakhstan? In a word, oil. Libya and Kazakhstan both have it, but Libya, despite some opening and liberalization in recent years, still placed restraints on foreign companies that were deemed onerous by Washington. The State Department's Investment Climate Statement for 2010 on Libya noted that it "requires that at least 35% of non-Libyan businesses be controlled by Libyan individuals or companies" and complained of Libyan laws that ordered foreign oil companies working in Libya to hire Libyan Branch Managers and Finance Managers, among other things. Similarly, Wikileaks highlighted American concern over the Libyan government's "resource nationalism.”

The oil wealth of Libya was, by and large, kept in Libya. Some of it disappeared into the pockets of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his cronies, but a good deal of it was invested in public works projects, infrastructure, and social services, with the result that Libya was one of the most developed countries in Africa and the Middle East, with social indicators like literacy, nutrition, and life expectancy considerably higher than its neighbors. It is also worth noting that much of the assets of the Libyan state will probably be privatized and sold to foreign investors now that NATO has won.

Kazakhstan, on the other hand, has encouraged foreign investment (not to mention that it has also played host to American military bases) and received praise and support for its efforts. The previous American administration considered it an important strategic ally. As recently as two months before long simmering unrest exploded into conflict on the 16th of this month, Forbes magazine was exulting that increased development of Kazakhstan's oil fields was driving up the price of shares in Chevron.

The coverage of the crises and dissent both regimes have experienced has also been markedly different. During the Libyan uprising, it was reported by sources as different as the New York Times, BBC, and Al-Jazeera that the pro-Gaddafi forces had, variously, used aircraft or heavy machine guns against crowds of protestors, been equipped with Viagra pills to facilitate the use of repeated rapes as a weapon against rebel towns, and hired African mercenaries to repress the rebels. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch did not find any evidence to support these claims. Concerns over the Nazarbayev government's long history of abuses and repression — including torture — by human rights groups have been largely ignored by the media and government. The violence, repression, and murder inflicted upon the protesting workers during their months-long strike by the police before the uprising has been absent from the coverage of the past two weeks. The New York Times in particular has printed more quotes from regime figures than from protestors, and, except for the occasional comment on the dictatorial nature of the Kazakh government, has largely left out the historical context of the uprising and of Kazakhstan in general.

This is by no means an isolated or unique example. The history of Egypt, Yugoslavia, Indonesia, Chile, and many other countries testifies to the moral flexibility of the West when it comes to dealing with and supporting human rights abusers. While each instance has its own sordid history, the thread that runs through them all is this: Economic expediency, not human rights, is the guiding factor in the West's foreign policy. The next time we hear the drum of humanitarian war sounded, we might do worse than to think back on the track record of the interventionists.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons