WikiLeaks: The Third Revolt

This is not my own work and I disagree with certain points of view, but I find the analysis insightful. This is by Jean-Christophe Rufin. Translated with the help of Google Translate from the original “WikiLeaks ou la troisième revolte” at Le Monde. Original date: (20.12.10 | 14h18  •  Mis à jour le 23.12.10 | 15h24)


Doctors Without Borders / WikiLeaks: same methods, same fight? The idea of a link between the two movements may be shocking. The first is a recognized and respectable association, hailed as useful to humanity; the other is a quasi-clandestine website considered, following its recent revelations, irresponsible.

If we look closer, there is nevertheless a relationship, indeed a direct line of descent, between the two approaches. Both are the expression of citizens refusing the national interest [the logic of the State – la raison d’Etat]. Both are for enemies of war and for its victims, because WikiLeaks, beyond the sensationalism of its latest productions, is primarily an activist site that aims to end U.S. military engagements. Both were after all established on the idea that justice is a superior imperative than the law, so much so that a just cause makes any means of action, even illegal ones, legitimate. This relationship is not a coincidence.

It is the result of a history – ours – from the libertarian start of May 68 and the end of great ideologies that placed the interests of the state above those of individuals. The age of human rights is the age of the revenge of the citizens, standing against the State and defending their freedoms and rights from it. This citizens’ movement has known three successive stages since the early 1970s. Each proceeds from the failure of the previous stage, failure real or perceived, but which feeds the belief that something new must be invented and tried.


It was built on a radical critique of the charitable system in force since the nineteenth century and symbolized by the Red Cross. The movement founded by Henry Dunant is characterized by its respect for the States, its desire to establish and secure an interest in the war, and finally, strict neutrality. This method yielded great successes at its start. However, it was put in check throughout the twentieth century. Totalitarian states are immune to any humane reasoning, and in the extremes, neutrality can lead to helping the executioner as well as the victim. Finally, the Biafran war showed that the law can be, rather than a tool to alleviate suffering, a means to prevent relief (in the name of “national sovereignty”).

From these failures arose the “without borders” impulse. The idea is simple: free citizens, armed only with their moral conscience and the means given to them by other citizens informed by the press, can go to help victims wherever they are. We know the immense wealth of this approach over the last two decades of the past century. The humanitarian mobilization has changed the face of conflict. It has developed methods of action that others, including the Red Cross, have subsequently sought to emulate. It spread the use of refugee testimony, forming an effective team with the press, allowing the world to know the fate of those who were murdered, from Ethiopia to Cambodia, from Afghanistan to Central America.

The first age of the citizen movement reached its apogee at the turn of the millennium. It remains alive and active. And yet one can not help but notice that it has been in a deep crisis for several years – a crisis which paradoxically stems from an enormous success. Because after more-or-less improvised beginnings, the “without borders” associations became, for the most part, structured and professional organizations. Robin Hood has fat on his belly. The humanitarian today is rich, and that prosperity comes largely from international donors. While these donors are not states, they are nevertheless institutions that come from them, like the European Union, which inevitably raises questions of independence and neutrality.

NGOs based on the idea of transgression of the law do not hesitate to place themselves under the protection of the law today. And paradoxically, it is the States, especially the most active of them internationally, the United States, who recuperated the theme of transgression, turning the idea of a right of interference in their favor. We have seen states rely on humanitarian grounds to violate the sovereignty of others, while at the same time NGOs became increasingly concerned about respecting international law…

There is also the main complaint that pacifists have always addressed to the humanitarian: their efforts to humanize the war have no effect on the onset and length of conflicts themselves. Humanitarian organizations are never successful in bringing peace; they do not contribute to reducing inequality between rich and poor which is the main challenge of underdevelopment; and they have no effect on environmental degradation and its attendant famine, rural exodus, and health threats. In short, the humanitarian is not effective at the root causes of problems. Little matter that this is neither his purpose nor his mandate: the hopes he has raised have generated expectations that he is unable to answer.


A second generation of citizens’ movements is contemporary to this failure. It is symbolized by groups such as Attac, which fights against economic inequality, Greenpeace in the environmental field, or in conflict prevention, the International Crisis Group or the Sant’Egidio community. In their different ways, each association’s objective is to act on the causes and not the effects, to be at the root of problems and not on the surface of things.

But despite this difference, the principle of action remains the same: these movements claim to overcome the rules of law or policy constraints that characterize States and they oppose them by the force and freedom of citizen mobilization. When GMO activists penetrate private property, when Greenpeace sail its boats into militarily prohibited areas, when the Sant’Egidio community clandestinely transports warlords sought by all the police forces to enable them to negotiate with their opponents, the citizen movement overcomes the rules in the name of the superior interest of moral purpose it pursues.

This type of action has been very successful. However, the second generation of citizens’ movements are also marking time. The global justice movement has fragmented and weakened itself by playing the institutional game. Between, on one side, an ecology of government advocated by the more and more conventional political parties, and, on the other, an anti-state activism that affirms its determination to preach “decay”, balance is increasingly difficult to find. The contradictions are deep and affect the consistency of the movement.

Finally, in the field of conflict prevention, although some successes have been achieved on “peripheral” wars, citizen action has not found a way to effectively oppose wars waged by the major powers (China in Tibet, Russia in the Caucasus, and the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan).


This is where the third generation of citizens’ movements intervenes, the one we discover today by its spectacular actions. Radical ecology had already set an example. Militant groups that defend the interests of animals or the planet have already distinguished themselves, in the United States and Great Britain, with spectacular and totally illegal actions. Relying on a sophisticated philosophy (called “deep” ecology), these movements do not hesitate to attack man as representative of a hated species, responsible in their eyes for all ills. They are more inclined to violent action and regularly make attempts on the security of people and property. [AFAIK, this is false – groups like ALF and ELF do not attack people, only property.]

In other areas, the fight against inequality and conflict prevention, a similar trend is noticeable. The news of recent weeks has furnished us with several examples ranging from the tragic to the ridiculous. Two heroes have shared media attention: Julian Assange on one side, with his leaks with global repercussions; Eric Cantona, on the other, with a ridiculous initiative, poorly prepared and poorly thought-out, but which has explicitly demonstrated the omnipotence of the citizen against the “system” financially.

The central idea of WikiLeaks belongs entirely to the logic of marketing. This is to give an industrial scale to a previously artisanal activity. This activity is the leaking of sensitive documents or confidential testimony. It has always been practiced on a small scale, through newspapers, some of them, like the Le Canard chain, making a specialty of it. With WikiLeaks, we change scale. The leak is about huge numbers of documents and their dissemination is ensured by the powerful relay of leading newspapers. The transgression, in this case, changes in nature. Medium becomes an end and is the heart of the action. The illegality, the provocation, and even hiding become the rule and the method of action. Theft of material, cyberattacks, personal testimonies submitted to reserve duty, everything is legitimate, if it’s for the cause.

This new age of citizen action is strongly marked by the increasing influence of virtual networks. Perhaps not the least of the reasons for this tendency to transgression is its dematerialization in cyberspace. Real burglaries, the actual destruction of property belonging to others are serious acts which involve the difficulty of taking part in physical violence. On the contrary, the Net adventurers present themselves as “sweet”.

Their violence is deployed in an area close to that of video games, a place where nothing is really serious, where the player has several lives, where the desire to win precludes any moral concern.


Yet if the methods are new, the motivations remain conventional and place these new forms of action in the continuity of the history of the citizen revolt that began forty years ago. Those of Julian Assange’s ambitions which we can understand are altruistic (without prejudice about the troubling matter of the manipulation they can hide). He claims to be an “activist.” His first actions were clearly designed to discredit U.S. military operations in public opinion and to put an end to the wars in which they operate. In his latest spectacular “coup”, his ambition has grown. According to one of the French correspondents of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange confessed to wanting to “make the system better.” His next targets would be financial institutions.

Those who, thirty years ago, lived through the birth of the first generation of citizens’ movements in the form of humanitarian action will readily recognize in this rhetoric the same idealism that underpinned the creation of organizations “without borders”. That is why I believe there exists a deep kinship between these different approaches, despite profound differences in culture, resources, and above all generation.

Kinship does not mean adoption. Recognizing the continuity of the process does not mean sticking to it. On the contrary, the actual excesses of the current civilian revolt reveal contradictions that other, more consensual forms of action – particularly humanitarian action – left in the shadows. The problem of principle posed by this type of initiative is clearly at the limits.

When the citizen revolt applies to a totalitarian State, its legitimacy is difficult to contest, whatever form its action takes. It is quite different in democratic States. The question of balance between State power and citizen counter-power is then posed in all its acuteness. Can we put in balance the democratic institutions, issues of free expression of popular will, and the activism of a number, even a large number, of protesters? One slogan read during the protests against retirement age changes summed up the problem: “What 500 deputies have done, three million demonstrators can undo.”

Today, the citizens’ initiative in all its forms, especially the hundreds of thousands of associations that cover all fields of activity, obviously constitutes the fifth power in democracies. The latest generation of citizens’ movements that symbolize WikiLeaks has the merit of presenting an extreme and disturbing face of this fifth power that interrogates its limits. Stubborn by nature against all control, multiple, elusive, impossible to unify and without a doubt to regulate, the fifth power is gaining a power that threatens all the others. Pushing its logic further, it is conceivable that the activity of the fifth power may ultimately render democracy impossible to reform and perhaps even govern, secrets impossible to protect, and authority, even emanating from law and secured by justice, impossible to exercise.

Beyond the interest of its revelations, the merit of WikiLeaks is to make this debate necessary. How far is the citizen allowed to go against the state in a democratic regime? At what point do we pass from useful mobilization to a threat against the social contract? The seeds of all these questions were contained in more consensual forms of action. They are revealed today by the uninhibited action of the grandchildren of May 68.

Jean-Christophe Rufin, doctor, writer and diplomat. Born in 1952, he was one of the pioneers of Doctors Without Borders. From 2007 to 2010, Jean-Christophe Rufin was Ambassador of France to Senegal and Gambia. Member of the French Academy since 2008, he is the author of many novels including “Brazil Red” (Gallimard, 2001), which won the Prix Goncourt, and “Katiba” (Flammarion, 392 p., 20 €).

One thought on “WikiLeaks: The Third Revolt

  1. My biggest issue with this piece is that Rufin treats the State as a sacred cow. The “fifth estate” sounds to me more genuinely democratic than the other four. And the State is amoral – it’s a nice change to have forces that explicitly aim to be moral.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s