Saddam Hussein helped me to understand the role of the UN and the nation state when he gassed the inhabitants of the Iraqi town of Helabja in 1988. I was 18, and it was the first time I ever saw a dead body on TV. The attack killed something like 5,000 people and injured many more. The reaction of my own country, the UK, it’s allies and the UN was muted and in some quarters seemed to involve trying to blame the Iranians, with whom Iraq was at war.
Then the realisation struck: the UN pretty much leaves you to your own devices within your own borders because to do otherwise would seriously worry its member states. Fancy mandating the interference of a league of nations into your country’s affairs? Because once the principle is established then quite a large fraction of the members of the UN could find calls for interference within their borders. And if you think that sort of response is just for nasty countries like Russia and China, then observe the British response to European Court of Human Rights judgements against it.
Another formative event for me was the end of the first Gulf War: after Iraqi forces had been ejected from the recently invaded Kuwait. The Allied forces were heading towards Baghdad, the Iraqi people were rising up against their leader. And then we stopped and I remember John Major giving a press conference saying, when asked about supporting the Iraqis against their leader, “I don’t remember asking them to revolt” or words to that effect. Surely this, more than any other, was a time to act ethically, to depose the tyrant rather than pop him back in his box with the people of Iraq, a bulwark against our greater Satan: Iran. Invade another country: very bad, but do what you want inside your own borders.
A motivating factor for this post is the wave of revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya triggered, it seems by poor economic circumstances, and perhaps the success of other democratic revolutions. Largely these are countries with whom we’ve been happy to do business, Tunisia and Egypt are even popular tourist destinations.
Libya has been ruled by Gaddafi for the last 42 years, he has always seemed to be genuinely quite bonkers and was a great enemy of the UK for a number of years (supporting the IRA, and responsible for the shooting of Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan embassy). More recently he has been back in favour but now he’s back out of favour again. Who can keep up with all these changes? His return to favour in 2004 was stimulated by his renunciation of “weapons of mass destruction” and support for the “War on Terror”. It’s interesting that in his recent speech he tried to hit that button again to regain support from his old allies in the West.
Egypt has long been a friend of the West, largely because it has taken the lead amongst Arab nations in maintaining diplomatic relationship with Israel. For this we conveniently ignore its not particularly good democratic and human rights record. Now the people have managed to oust Hosni Mubarak it turns out that as a nation we weren’t all that keen – who knew? It must be more than a little galling to the opposition in Egypt that we’re willing to show how much we support them just when that support is no longer needed.
Mixed in with all this is David Cameron is off to the Middle East for an arms fair; we’re often told that the weapons, tear gas, rubber bullets that we sell to nations will definitely not be used to suppress their own populations. Quite why we should think this is even remotely plausible I don’t understand. Did the nice dictator promise not to use them against his own population? What else is he going to do with them?
It would be nice to think we could run a foreign policy whereby we didn’t support people who weren’t very nice and in fact actively sought their removal from office perhaps by more widespread use of travel restrictions and financial embargoes on the leadership, as we seem to be heading with Libya now.
Working out which countries are nice and which are nasty shouldn’t be too hard: we could use the Democracy Index, perhaps the Press Freedom Index, or even the use of the death penalty as a proxy. Indices such as this are always going to be a bit subjective but the same cast appear at the bottom again and again.
I can’t help thinking that across the world people of many nations remember; they remember who we supported and who we didn’t. We in Britain remember, just look at our media regarding Germany, and that was over 60 years ago. Just think what the people of other countries will remember in the years to come.