Humanitarian Intervention

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

Modern humanitarian intervention begins with the Biafran war in 1968:

It is a fascinating moment because it is where the framework — the contemporary filter through which we now perceive all humanitarian tragedies — was first constructed.

The Eastern part of Nigeria had declared independence and called their new state Biafra. In response the Nigerian army attacked the rebel government. Things went very badly for the Biafrans, but no-one in the West cared. While the British government happily sold lots of arms to the Nigerians.

But then the Biafran government found a very odd Public Relations firm in Geneva, called MarkPress who set out to change the way people in Europe saw the war.

I have discovered a great documentary in the BBC archive which tells what then happened. It is shot inside the PR company’s offices and interviews the men running the campaign.

It shows how they turned a war that people saw simply as a political conflict in a faraway land into something heart-wrenching and dramatic.

It became a moral battle between evil politicians in Nigeria — aided by cynical and corrupt politicians in London who were selling the arms — and the innocent victims of the starvation caused by the war.

The British newspapers went for it in a big way. And a new movement grew up. It was driven by moral outrage, fuelled by a disgust with the old British political class who were prolonging the suffering through arms sales.

Celebrities joined in. They held a 48 hour fast in Piccadilly Circus over Christmas. Here are some frame grabs from the news report. The one that shows what was really happening is the placard that says BATTLE OF BRITAIN 1940 — BIAFRA ’69.

Biafran War Protests

The conflict was being fitted to the template that was going to define the whole movement. It was the Good War. A justified resistance against evil to protect the innocent wherever they were being threatened in the world.

Just like the struggle against fascism in the Second World War.

But Biafra also revealed the terrible dangers of this simplified view of wars — dangers that would always haunt the humanitarian movement.


[T]he aid that resulted from the wave of sympathy that these images created had a terrible unforeseen consequence. It prolonged a futile war for a further 18 months — and thus contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.


  1. Toddy Cat says:

    There’s no doubt that “humanitarian” intervention did indeed prolong the Biafran War, but it’s also too bad that Biafra didn’t become independent. The Ibo are some of the most capable and industrious people in Africa, sometimes called “the Jews of Africa” by the old Brit colonialists. And it would have been interesting to have seen what they could have done without the millstone of the rest of Nigeria hung around their necks. Who knows, it might have become just another Hell hole, but it would have been interesting to see what they could have done. I mean, things could hardly be worse.

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