A History of the Doctrine of Intervention

Source: Al Jazeera

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.

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.