The doctrine of intervention

Today’s political ethics are surprisingly similar to the doctrine of discovery set by the Vatican back in 1452.

Native Brazilians from the Amazon basin demonstrate against the construction of the planned Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, in Brasilia
Indigenous populations in Brazil were completely bypassed by the construction of the Belo Monte dam [REUTERS]

New York, NY – One does not think of archaic papal bulls when witnessing democratic states like Brazil or the United States building dams on Amazon rivers or drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean. Yet today’s political ethics are surprisingly similar to the doctrine of discovery set by the Vatican back in 1452.

Fifteenth-century papal bulls that declared war against all non-Christian peoples also encouraged the conquest and exploitation of enemy territories throughout the world. European explorers like Columbus took possession of newly “discovered” non-Christian lands with the express authorisation of the Catholic Church.

This internationally recognised doctrine allowed claims to be made on “empty” invaded lands outlasted European absolute monarchies and has become enshrined in secular nation-states. In the US, for instance, Chief Justice John Marshall used the right of discovery in 1823 to invalidate native claims over their land and to assert the authority of the US government over land titles.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) recently disowned the doctrine of discovery, perhaps in light of its centrality at the 11th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues this coming May in New York. Better late than never.

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Yet from the Amazon to Iraq, policies still attempt to save the barbarians from themselves, export the truth of democracy or teach natives how to best preserve their own habitat. The problem is that the doctrine justifying the conquest and exploitation of certain states survived colonial times to evolve into a broader – and more resilient – self-arrogated right of intervention.

Rejecting the doctrine of discovery

In February, the WCC issued a statement denouncing the doctrine used to colonise the Americas and enslave native populations as a violation of human rights. Affirming the rights of indigenous peoples to live in and retain their traditional lands as well as enrich their ancestral cultures, the WCC now urges governments to dismantle the legal structures and policies based on the doctrine of discovery and dominance so as to enable indigenous peoples to identify their own aspirations and pursue their own concerns.

The WCC specifically identifies the role of the Catholic Church in establishing a doctrine that justified the conquest and acquisition of indigenous territories, repelling documents such as Dum Diversas (1452) that called for the enslavement of non-Christian peoples, the seizure of their possessions and the occupation of their lands.

At last, churches have formally spurned any moral or legal right to seize indigenous land or dominate indigenous peoples. Identifying its historical significance, they framed the doctrine of discovery as the legal precedent that permitted continuous appropriation and resulted in the current extent of indigenous exploitation. 

The WCC statement is relevant because it explicitly recognises that the concepts that emerged five centuries ago forged a paradigm of domination that is still deployed against indigenous peoples today.

Whose right to intervene?

The doctrine of discovery remains a contemporary political challenge because it paved the way for the principle of intervention. Peoples and territories that were not Christian were treated as empty, un-modern spaces, up for grabs and improvement.

Since the Americas were conceptualised as terra nullis to justify colonisation, conquest became embedded in a discourse of civilising universalism, in which those claiming to hold the truth self-righteously bestow upon themselves the right to intervene against the barbarians.

Immanuel Wallerstein traces this rhetoric of power all the way back to the 16th century Valladolid Debate between Bartolome de Las Casas and Juan Gines de Sepulveda on the status of natives. Sepulveda derived the right of European monarchies to dominion from the inherent barbarity of the Amerindians. He defended intervention to protect natives from themselves, from their own harmful practices.

De Las Casas, in contrast, maintained that evil occurred everywhere and was not unique to Amerindians, denying justification for their subjugation, which could cause far more harm than good. The debate, which was left unresolved, continues in modified form today, for instance in controversies about Iraq, where the violence of war was trivialised by supporters of a military intervention destined to bring democracy.

The doctrine of intervention has a long, enduring history, one in which universalism is prone to colonialising tactics and modernisation all too frequently overlaps with westernisation. The “barbarians” may be Amerindians in 1551 or Muslims in 2001.

From Valladolid to Iraq, the same discourse seeks to justify appropriation in the name of universal truths. The doctrine of discovery faded only to give way to a doctrine of intervention, determining who intervenes, for what cause and with what legitimacy. The justificatory rationale changes – from Christianity to development and human rights – leaving the right to intervene unaltered.

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The discourse that rationalised the colonisation of the Americas in the sake of Christianity is the same that justifies protecting human rights in Iraq or privatising water supplies for the sake of development.

Indigenous tutelage

Intervention remains particularly strong when it comes to indigenous peoples and territories. Large-scale mining continues to engender human abuse and resource appropriation by multinational corporations across the Andes and Central America, perpetuating the pillage Spanish colonisers started centuries ago in Potosi. In the Amazon, governments and corporations alike take possession of “empty” lands to drill for oil in the name of development and national interest.

Latin American governments rhetorically insist on a foreign policy of non-intervention, yet are quick to intervene on indigenous territories to modernise the state. From the TIPNIS highway in Bolivia to the Belo Monte dam in Brazil, governments continue to bypass indigenous consultation and autonomies for the sake of national development.

The priorities of indigenous peoples are silenced in Chile, while their agency is dismissed in Ecuador, where massive indigenous mobilisations are dismissed as being manipulated by international interests. In Brazil, the government’s self-congratulatory tone for bringing a woman to direct the National Foundation of the Indian (FUNAI) seems to ignore its failure to appoint an indigenous person.

The idea that natives are un-modern, almost part of nature, and therefore unable to manage their own land continues to lead to “well-intentioned” intervention as well. When indigenous territories in the Arctic or the Amazon are not conceptualised as empty spaces to be exploited for national development, it is the turn of conservationists to intervene in the name of nature.

When parks such as Yellowstone were founded, conservationists like John Muir promoted the idea that the land had not been previously trodden upon, pushing out people who actively lived and fed on those lands to “protect” nature. Today, it is the turn of powerful conservationists groups in the global north to intervene by buying big chunks of land and pushing populations out.

The UN system itself may perpetuate forms of tutelage. On February 21, the Indigenous Forum at the World Intellectual Property Organisation unanimously decided to withdraw from discussions on the draft treaty relating to genetic resources in response to consistent efforts to undermine indigenous inclusion within the process. 

How equitable can a treaty be that ostensibly holds indigenous interests as central but actually operates without significant indigenous decision-making? This unprecedented move calls into question the entire UN practice of incorporating indigenous voices in its deliberating process.

Dominant cultures continue to intervene in the autonomy of indigenous peoples. This continuum is proof that the doctrine of intervention did not die with formal processes of decolonisation, adapting to new zeitgeists like a chameleon.

The practice of conquest, more diverse than often assumed, needs to be reconceived as a global political challenge that concerns us all rather than as a mere cultural concern discussed in indigenous forums. It is the international system that is at stake. Universalism cannot be exported, much less imposed. It is a collective practice.

Manuela Picq has just completed a position as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College. She is currently writing a book on indigenous peoples’ rights in the Amazon.