The Blog

An Ethical Foreign Policy Doesn't Have to end in Tripoli


Last month Russia and China vetoed a United Nations resolution that was mildly critical of the Syrian regime's violent suppression of internal dissent. It seems an understatement to suggest the international community is inconsistent in its response to massive human rights violations.

We live in a world where more people die at the hands of the tyrants who rule them than in wars between nations. Should the UK engage only when our self-interest coincides with the moral values we espouse? Is it hypocrisy to intervene in oil-rich Libya while averting our eyes from the fate of the brave people of Syria, Burma and Zimbabwe?

Some believe our foreign policy must avoid offending the regrettable regimes with whom we do business. Others argue we should weigh our short-term self-interest against the risk that we will be sucked into something much worse if we do not take preventative action when conflict flares. What is Britain's role, post-Gaddafi?

In the summer of 2006 war erupted between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. After 31 days of fighting, and 1200 deaths, there was a UN Security Council resolution, followed three days later by a ceasefire. The modern machinery of diplomacy had worked as it is supposed to. The memory of Rwanda, when the world, including every African nation, looked the other way, began to recede.

Yet, as diplomacy triumphed in Lebanon, the Sudanese government continued to murder its Sudanese citizens with impunity. The case of Darfur is instructive because it illustrates the limits of our sincerity and our attention span.

After eight years, and with 300,000 dead, almost none of the belated UN resolutions on Darfur have been implemented, and the killing continues, largely unreported.

The international community's failure to give meaning to its sporadic expressions of regret about Darfur has had direct consequences. The Sudanese regime and its proxies are now applying the same undoubtedly successful tactics against unarmed civilians in three states along the border with the new South Sudan. Hundreds of thousands are displaced, and satellite images of fresh mass graves support numerous eyewitness accounts of systematic state sponsored murder.

The Khartoum regime wants to eliminate those whom it believes might challenge it, including citizens it perceives as black Africans rather than Arabs. Just as Stalin killed the kulaks, assuming they were all unreliable, so Khartoum sees enemies everywhere.

Most of Sudan's non-Arab ethnic groups identify with their co-religionists in South Sudan, and resent the imposition of Sharia. Hence the South may come to the defence of its ethnic brothers, triggering war from Chad to Eritrea, dragging in neighbours, and destabilising a region yearning for peace and prosperity.

As the international community has appeased Khartoum for the sake of a quiet life, it has signalled a lack of political will to solve a local political problem using targeted sanctions before it becomes a long-term regional disaster. In doing so, we have failed to learn the twentieth century's ghastly lessons.

In the 1930s our diplomats ignored Hitler's bloodcurdling speeches about the historic imperative to expand the German empire and to solve the 'Jewish question'. Those who should have known better believed they could 'handle' him by rewarding him with Czechoslovakia and Austria, and that good behaviour would inexplicably follow.

The same arrogance about our ability to 'handle' bullies persists today, evident over years of pandering to Saddam, Gaddafi and Bashir of Sudan. We also still fail to recognise genocidal ideology for what it is. If history teaches us anything, it is that ignoring a festering sore rarely works. Sooner or later, we end up sending our sons and daughters to die to save our skins.

It is in our long-term interest to have a peaceful and prosperous Africa. So long as war and injustice prevail, millions of African immigrants will risk their lives to come to Europe. While conflict prevents the growth of infrastructure and a stable business climate, we will miss out on commercial opportunities that benefit African citizens as well as UK companies.

UK foreign policy can be shrewd as well as ethical if it is timely: we must work within the UN to enforce the existing resolutions that apply personal financial pressure on the architects of the slaughter in Sudan; the UN must impose a no-fly zone to stop Khartoum's relentless aerial bombardment of its own citizens; and we must demand humanitarian agencies have access to help the survivors.

Khartoum is desperate to have its debt forgiven, and for the embrace of the IMF and World Bank. All such 'rewards,' currently being negotiated by the UK on behalf of the international community, must be contingent on the fulfilment of Sudan's numerous promises to the UN and the African Union. Without peace and justice, there should be no dividend for Khartoum.

Using our diplomatic and economic leverage for the benefit of those voiceless citizens who are ruled by tyrants has the makings of a foreign policy many of us could be proud of. Not empowering kleptomaniac oppressors in the first place might also pay dividends. It may not be an all-encompassing world view worthy of Bismarck, but it is a start.

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