Vijay Prashad is the executive director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is the author or editor of several books, including The Darker Nations: A Biography of the Short-Lived Third World (The New Press, 2007), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and Washington Bullets (LeftWord 2021), with a preface by Evo Morales Ayma.
His new book is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of US Power (The New Press, 2022), co-written with Noam Chomsky, and will be available for purchase by August.
He writes regularly for Frontline, The Hindu, Alternet and BirGun. He is chief editor at LeftWord Books and chief correspondent for Globetrotter, which provides his articles to Asia Times.
Adriel Kasonta: What are your thoughts on Ukraine’s attempt to recruit fighters from Africa to fight Russian soldiers on the ground? Do you believe that this call has a chance to succeed, and we will see these people fighting next to neo-Nazis, who otherwise feel rather profound hatred toward people of colour?
Vijay Prashad: Ukraine’s President [Volodymyr] Zelensky asked “citizens of the world” to come and fight in Ukraine. I was surprised to see that the UK’s foreign minister, Liz Truss, said, “If people want to support that struggle, I will support them doing that.” This surprised me because of the recent experience of Europeans going to Syria to fight in that war and then coming home deeply radicalized or disoriented.
Is it a good idea to allow civilians into a war zone? At least the French government advised against it. That’s as far as civilians from the West are concerned. Now, some of these people who are coming into Ukraine, including many of the 200 people who came from Croatia, are neo-Nazis who are entering the country to join the various Nazi-led battalions, including the Azov Battalion.
Ukrainian ambassadors in many countries – Algeria to Senegal – have been asking on social media for people to come to Ukraine and fight. This is a very disturbing development.
Mercenaries are being paid. News reports – such as in the London Times – suggest that professional mercenaries are being offered $2,000 per day to go to Ukraine. Even if a tenth of that is offered to people from Senegal, for instance, namely if $200 per day is on offer, that is more than the average pay per month ($161).
Unemployed Senegalese workers might see this as a great opportunity to make money and to migrate to Europe. This should alert the United Nations as a human-trafficking story. At least the Senegalese government pulled up the Ukrainian ambassador in Dakar and warned him that such recruitment is illegal by Senegalese law.
It is one thing for Zelensky and the Ukrainians to form a civilian militia inside Ukraine and another to use the international division of labor to recruit people from the poorer nations to do Ukraine’s fighting. Please be aware that we have a United Nations Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing, and Training of Mercenaries. Forty-six countries have ratified this convention. This includes both Senegal and Ukraine!
AK: We all have seen media reports and live streams from students from the Global South countries who have been trapped on the Ukraine-Poland border making claims that they’ve encountered unequal treatment during the process of evacuation, not to say that they’ve faced racism and direct segregation by being asked to go at the back of the queue. What may be the root cause of such behavior? Could it backfire in the future?
VP: Any civilian who wants to flee from a war is a war refugee, and is therefore to be afforded protections under international law. These students are also war refugees.
We know that Poland has had a deeply racist attitude towards the refugees coming from Asia (Afghanistan and Syria). Why should they suddenly withdraw their racist entry policy when it comes to Asian and African students from Ukraine?
There is a “Ukraine First” policy operating in the border countries. This has alerted governments around the world. African states were first to take umbrage, from Nigeria to South Africa. I must say, Asian governments have not been as forceful as they should have been.
This attitude must be taken note of and not forgotten once the war ends. We need to have a broader conversation about racism, but especially regarding warfare. Is there as much concern for the Iraqis or the Syrians as there has been for the Ukrainians?
This language of blue eyes and blond hair is very, very disturbing. Thus far, no comment from the most powerful countries, and none that I have seen from the United Nations.
AK: The Western media coverage of the situation in Ukraine leaves much to be desired, with distinctions made between those fleeing conflict in Ukraine as opposed to those fleeing conflicts in the Middle East or Africa, such as by CBS News correspondent Charlie D’Agata. What does that tell us about the so-called cumulative West? Can we say that the West is, to put it bluntly, morally bankrupt?
VP: I believe that there needs to be great introspection in Western countries. Liberalism is skin deep. Or not even. D’Agata apologizes and is forgiven. He remains on the air. I’m not saying he should be canceled, but perhaps he has shown that he is not the best judge of how to report this story.
That introspection is simply not happening. In the United States, the governments of various states have used political power to prevent the teaching of racism and discrimination, demonizing “critical race theory” and ethnic studies.
In the UK and France, there is simply no introspection regarding their histories of imperialism. Both countries deny it and refuse to accept the powerful moral arguments made by the anti-racist movements in these countries. Moral bankruptcy of the elite is clear, but of course there are mass movements in the Western countries that are trying to put these things firmly on the agenda.
AK: I’ve never come across such outrage and collective action when the US and its allies were invading and illegally bombing countries in the Middle East or Africa. As a matter of fact, during the Russian military campaign in Ukraine, Saudi Arabia bombed Yemen, and the US/AFRICOM bombed Somalia last month. Does this mean that European lives and suffering are more important than others? Are we not equal?
VP: I believe that there is an international division of humanity. I started to think of this concept when I first read the words of a representative from American Cyanamid, a major chemical corporation, after the Union Carbide explosion in Bhopal, India, which killed thousands of people.
Michael Utidjian, the medical director for American Cyanamid, who used to work for Union Carbide, said that the blamed the local managers who did not share the “North American philosophy of the importance of human life.” In other words, they just don’t care whether they live or die in those parts of the world. And if they don’t care, then you don’t need to pay them much, so you can suppress wages. And you can reduce safety standards. And you can bomb them.
A Yemeni dies, well, Yemenis die; but if a European dies, that’s terrible. This is the international division of humanity. It is morally abhorrent, but also a violation of international law.
OK. It is a violation of the law, but it is routinely violated. The government of Haiti tried to increase the minimum wage in 2009, but the US government intervened to suffocate this attempt; they wanted to raise the wage to $1.75 per day (which would still have been below the $2 per day poverty line). That’s the international division of humanity: some humans must have sub-human lives.
We have to be outraged by this, but also build the forces to change this system.
AK: This brings me to the question about the “international community” concept. What is the so-called “international community” today, and has this concept changed since the 19th century?
VP: I believe that the term “international community” has been much abused. It is basically a retooled version of the old colonial powers that met in Berlin to divide up Africa in 1885.
When the term “international community” is used, it does not include – for instance – the government of Nepal or the government of Barbados. Mostly it refers to the NATO countries, if not the permanent members of the UN Security Council.
We need a more democratic world order, one that is premised on the hopes and dreams of all the peoples of the world, these dreams brought to the table by the governments who are members of the UN General Assembly.
AK: I’ve asked this question since the US has been considering sanctioning India for abstaining from voting on Russia at the UN and expressed its outrage with countries like China, Pakistan, Indonesia, Brazil and Pakistan – calling them “international pariahs.” Can we argue that developments in Ukraine have drawn a clear demarcation line between the Global North and Global South, and if so, what may be the possible consequences?
VP: The United States has an enormous advantage and has had this advantage for decades: It is able to shape a great deal of economic activity through its dollar-Wall Street-US Treasury-IMF complex.
Most world trade is denominated by the dollar, and most financial activity runs through the US Treasury-enforced Wall Street banking system and the IMF. It is, therefore, very easy for the US government to place sanctions on countries.
These sanctions are possible not because of international agreement, since the UN Charter (in Article 41) says that such economic sanctions can only be placed with a UN Security Council resolution. That is why we call these sanctions illegal and unilateral. These sanctions are possible only because of the immense power that the US has over trade, financial, and development systems.
To de-dollarize and to create alternative financial systems is easier imagined than put into practice. Countries need to adopt these alternative systems, but habits of [using] the dollar crowd out any attempt to create alternative denomination of trade or new financial wire systems. It would require a large number of countries to start using other forms of denomination and not fear sanction from the US for an alternative to be born.
It is one thing to alienate people and anger them and another to come up with an alternative. China and Russia have alternative wire systems, but not many countries or banks use them. It would have been far easier to develop alternatives through the BRICS bloc, but this has not been as successful. There needs to be a robust debate about the possibilities of moving away from the dollar-Wall Street-US Treasury-IMF system.
AK: As we know, the new International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim A A Khan has begun an investigation into possible war crimes in Ukraine, since they may concern Russia, but entirely ignored the grave allegations against US forces and the CIA regarding crimes allegedly committed in Afghanistan. Can we call it a double standard, knowing the ICC’s track record of prosecuting solely African dictators, but giving a free pass to such figures as Tony Blair or George W Bush?
VP: It is of course a double standard. These institutions – such as the ICC – remain beholden to the main Western powers. This is a pity. The US has not even ratified the Treaty of Rome that set up the ICC, and yet it calls the shots because it has so much diplomatic power and financial power. The ICC needs to think hard about its own credibility.