Thursday, March 5, 2009

The ICC & Sudan

The International Criminal Court ordered the arrest of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan yesterday. The New York Times has an article up today about the reaction in Sudan, that illustrates the pointless nature of the ICC's action. The ICC declared him a criminal and ordered his arrest, even though they have no power to arrest anyone. In response, Bashir gets to posture and whine about "new colonialism," calling the ICC action "a conspiracy designed to recolonize his country." That statement is both funny and sad. It's funny, because the ICC has no power to do anything, let alone "recolonize" a country. It's sad, because the unfortunate truth is that most people in Sudan would be far better off as a colony of any western power. For Sudan, freedom and independence mean the freedom to slaughter each other in large numbers.

The ICC's action is a prime example of the type of meaningless feel-good political activity that is at best useless, and at worst counterproductive. Is Bashir a worthless human being who is responsible for various atrocities? Yes. But what good will come of this action? It allows him to claim he's being persecuted by foreigners, helps generate support from certain elements in Sudan, and complicates ongoing relief efforts. And for what? 


  1. I can't think of a single country which has been improved by colonization - even Singapore fared better under Lee Kuan Yew than under the British crown. India was systematically ruralized and deindustrialized to promote British colonial interests. West Africa became the leading source of slaves for American plantations. The Belgian Congo was literally raped. Sri Lanka and Palestine were subjected to divide and rule policies, which led to the current wars.

    Amartya Sen's research shows that no independent democracy with a free press has ever had a famine. Even very poor countries, like India, managed to completely avoid famine subject to the above conditions.

  2. "I can't think of a single country which has been improved by colonization"

    Aztec Mexico comes to mind, and I could probably come up with others. But it's really impossible to say either way in most cases, and improvement is highly subjective. If countries had not been colonized we don't know where they'd be today. Many wouldn't exist in their current state. Some would have been conquered and absorbed by neighbors, and most would be vastly different in various ways.

    But I don't think I'm going out on a limb by saying that Sudan -- as it is today -- would be far better off under the rule of a western country.

  3. Economic research is very good about being able to tell when correlation implies causation and when it doesn't. For instance, we can check similar countries, of which only one was colonized and one was not. A good case study is Japan vs. China in the 19th century.

    A corollary of this is that even colonization motivated by human rights hurts. The Belgian colonization of the Congo is an example: Leopold wanted to reduce poverty, so he established orphanages in the cities. The problem was, the extended family and village structures were so good at taking care of orphans that the concept of "orphans" didn't even exist. So Christian missionaries took to kidnapping children whose parents died and throwing them into orphanages. On a smaller scale, it still happens - a few years ago, Sarkozy had to personally intervene to free a bunch of French citizens who kidnapped children in (I think) Libya for the same reason.

    The theoretical explanation goes like this: a colonizer has no incentive to treat the colony right. The colonial subjects can't vote for the home government. On the contrary, when the national interests of the colonizer and colonized clash, the colonized country will always get shortchanged. When colonialism ends, things can improve very rapidly. The main reason the US developed so quickly in the early 19th century is that New York was free to industrialize and export its goods to its own country's hinterland; the main reason India stagnated is that Calcutta was not free to do the same.

  4. You are missing my main point, which maybe I didn't explain very well. We can argue various metrics about whether a particular well-defined area was somehow improved by colonization, vs. the harm that was inflicted. There are different measuring sticks, and that question is or was hotly debated among historians. I remember having to write essays on aspects of that topic in some of my doctoral courses on imperialism.

    But many countries would not exist in anything like their present form were it not for past colonialism. It is impossible to make any sweeping judgements without knowing what would be there had colonialism never taken place. Just look at the Western Hemisphere. There is no U.S. without colonialism. Would there be something better than the U.S.? Who knows? There's no Canadian state without colonialism. Most of the countries in Central and South America would not exist, or would exist in radically different form, with fundamentally different racial composition, different languages and religions, etc. An obvious example, there's no Brazil without Portugese colonization -- not just as a defined territory, but as fusion of native American, European and African. Would there be something better or worse there without Portugal? There's no way to know. That same calculus applies to numerous areas of the world.

  5. The New World is somewhat of a special case. The people in it largely died of European plagues. For example, Mexico took until about 1900 to recover to its pre-Columbian population; by then, it was almost completely Hispanic. So you really do get countries like Australia, the US, and Brazil, which wouldn't exist without colonialism.

    Nothing of that sort happened in Africa and Asia. Britain did try to develop settler colonies in Africa on the model of Australia and Canada, but in all of them, whites were never more than a small minority. Sometimes, as in South Africa, maintaining a white government entailed wholesale exploitation of most people, who weren't white. But in all cases, the native majority was kept down, used either as a source of cheap labor and natural resources (as in Africa) or as a captive market for home goods (as in India).

    Another point: some countries in the world have managed to achieve 10% growth per year, given the right conditions: Japan, Israel, South Korea, Botswana, Thailand, China, Cambodia. Many were authoritarian and mismanaged, but none was colonized.

  6. "Nothing of that sort happened in Africa and Asia"

    Sure it did. In fact, it happened in most of the world if you go back far enough. What is France if Gaul wasn't colonized by Rome? Would the idea of France as a state have ever taken hold? It took long enough to create a unified state of France as it was.

    Almost every country in Africa is what it is today because of imperialism. There is simply no way to tell what would be in their place today had they not been colonized. Their very borders were formed during the colonial period. What would be in South Africa had the Dutch never landed there? It would be entirely different. And that's true of almost every African country.

    It's also true of Asia. Just one example: India. The only reason the India of today even exists is because of the British Empire. India was a mere geographic area comprised of many different states when Europeans started establishing outposts. What would be there today had they never came? We just don't know.