It is no secret that the current wave of pro-democracy demonstrations across the Arab world have shaken the foundations of not only every tyrant’s fortress, but also the foundations of leading foreign policy doctrines. This tug-of-war, which has always existed between values such as human rights and democratic freedoms vs. the calculated interests of realist foreign policy, has rarely received such an existential test, and as such we are beginning to see just how insufficient our definitions of interests and values may be. There have been many precedents. It is no longer logically plausible for a given dictator to cast aside those who disagree with the government as “foreign agents,” whether it is Gaddafi’s imaginary hallucinogenic Al-Qaeda, Hugo Chavez’s constant Yankee invasion fantasy, or Vladimir Putin’s “scavenging jackals” of the color revolutions. The good news is that we are beginning to have real debates about the international law dimensions of violence used against protesters, not only with the progress of the ICC case in Kenya, but also the initiation of a probe into Libya.
However, lest the optimists get carried away with their dreams of overnight transitions to democracy, the determination of Col. Muammar Gaddafi to cling to power no matter what the human cost has created a situation demanding more than just the passive applause in the West in favor of the Arab Spring. Confusion and lack of clarity and vision has ensued. In this vacuum of international leadership, Washington appears extremely reluctant to make a wrong decision, leading at least some observers to question whether or not President Barack Obama has any history of courage. Europe has not been much better. Although France has been instrumental in supporting and organizing the Libya intervention, there still seems to be an identity crisis. This is not aided by Sarkozy’s strategy to fend off domestic issues from the extreme right by working up his anti-immigrant (anti-Muslim) rhetoric. Germany’s complicated abstention from the UN Security Council vote was not helpful in projecting what its new foreign policy vision would be for other citizens struggling for freedom in the region.
It therefore comes as a surprise that some of the most revolutionary statements we have heard so far defining a framework of responsibility, values, and international law come from the oft-embattled British Foreign Secretary William Hague. During his speech yesterday to the The Times CEO Summit: Africa in London, Sec. Hague drew a direct line connecting these dramatic events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya to other nations suffering under tyranny of sub-Saharan Africa, implying that these movements will inevitably spread to countries such as Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Furthermore he outlined the responsibility of Western nations to stand up for their principles, declaring Britain’s intentions to redefine the EU neighborhood policy in order to “act as a magnet for positive change, providing clearer incentives for the creation of free, democratic and just societies that respect human rights.” Hague is emphatic in declaring that Britain is not trying to dictate change, but rather recognizing that these pro-democracy movements will spread of their own accord. “The desire for freedom is a universal aspiration,” he said, “and governments that attempt to isolate their people from the spread of information and ideas around the globe are fighting a losing battle.”
These are very bold words, and perhaps detractors will dismiss the speech as more empty human rights rhetoric. Perhaps. However the Foreign Secretary appears to understand something that so few of his contemporaries have grasped – that the message being communicated by the Western response to the challenges of Arab Spring must be taken very seriously, as the autocrats from Africa to the Middle East to far beyond are watching and listening very, very closely to what, if any, are the new standards of tolerated repressive conduct.
The Red Shirt opposition that I work with in Thailand should be very heartened to hear such statements from the British Foreign Secretary, among many other organized groups fighting for fair elections and basic civil rights. Below are some more quotes from Hague’s speech, which was also published as an opinion article in the Times of London today (emphasis mine):
British Forces have conducted four days of operations to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians against a government that has responded to legitimate demands for change with crushing military force and is now under investigation by the International Criminal Court. (…)We will continue to enforce United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 until there is a complete and genuine ceasefire and an end to attacks on civilians. At a time of such hope and optimism in the Middle East, we cannot let the Libyan Government violate every principle of international law and human rights with impunity. (…)
The thirst for greater political and economic freedom continues to gather unstoppable momentum among the young people of North Africa and the Arab world. The sudden outpouring of this demand in so many countries simultaneously may have come as something of a surprise, but it is no surprise that people want freedom — the rule of law instead of the rule of state intelligence organisations, governments that they can choose, access to information and economic opportunity free of corruption: these are the common aspirations of people everywhere.
We are only in the early stages of what is happening in North Africa and the Middle East, but it is already set to overtake 9/11 as the most important development of the early 21st century. This is a historic shift of massive importance, presenting the international community as a whole with an immense opportunity. We believe that the response to these events must be commensurately generous, bold and ambitious. (…)
Governments that use violence to stop democratic development will not earn themselves respite for ever. They will pay an increasingly high price for actions that they can no longer hide from the world with ease, and will find themselves on the wrong side of history. Governments that block the aspirations of their people, that steal or are corrupt, that oppress and torture or that deny freedom of expression and human rights should bear in mind that they will find it increasingly hard to escape the judgment of their own people or, where warranted, the reach of international law.
The action we have taken in Libya, authorised by the United Nations Security Council, shows that the international community does take gross violations of human rights extremely seriously.