Friday, April 18, 2008

Why all the media attention on Zimbabwe and Tibet?

Do Robert Mugabe’s ongoing actions in Zimbabwe and China’s policy in Tibet put them in the axis of evil? An interesting question posed by Seumas Milne, in Comment is Free:

…[O]n the basis of the scale of violence, repression and election rigging alone, you would be hard put to explain why these conflicts have been singled out for such special attention. In the violence surrounding Zimbabwe's elections, two people are currently reported to have died; in Tibet, numbers estimated to have been killed by protesters and Chinese forces range from 22 to 140. By contrast, in Somalia, where US-backed Ethiopian and Somali troops are fighting forces loyal to the ousted government, several thousand have been killed since the beginning of the year and half the population of the capital, Mogadishu, has been forced to flee the city in what UN officials describe as Africa's worst humanitarian crisis.

When it comes to rigging elections, countries like Jordan and Egypt have been happy to oblige in recent months - in the Egyptian case, jailing hundreds of opposition activists into the bargain - and almost nobody in the west has batted an eyelid. In Saudi Arabia there are no national elections at all, let alone the opposition MPs and newspapers that exist in Zimbabwe. In Africa, Togo has been a more flagrant rigger, while in Cameroon last week the president was given the job for life. And when it comes to separatist and independence movements, the Turkish Kurds have faced far more violence and a tighter cultural clampdown than the Tibetans.

The crucial difference, of course, and the reason why these conflicts and violations don't get the deluxe media and political treatment offered to the Zimbabwean opposition or Tibetan separatists is that the governments involved are all backed by the west, compounded in the Zimbabwean case by a transparently racist agenda. But it's not just an issue of hypocrisy and double standards, egregious though they are. It's also that British and US involvement and interference have been crucial to both the Zimbabwean and Tibetan conflicts.

It’s an interesting matter, especially for Africa followers. Are things actually worse in Zimbabwe than they are in Congo Kinshasa? Why continue the diplomatic hand-ringing over Zimbabwe when other corrupt nations like Cameroon and Guinea are allowed to skate?

In a perfect world, all countries would be treated equally. Of course, that’s not true. One could make the argument people worry more about fighting in places like Zimbabwe because there is something to fight for. (Would we care if Mugabe was a former liberation fighter and present corrupt leader in Mauritania? Would we care more if we knew Mauritania had oil?)

Politics of despair?
Before we go too realpolitik on you, here’s an interesting reply to the column, in the Guardian’s letters section:

Does he believe we should calmly look the other way as a tyrannical dictator tears the heart out of a once relatively prosperous country? Should we clap politely as the Olympic torch passes through? Are we moving towards a world-view in which progressive opinion does nothing no matter how dire the situation on the basis that there is always somewhere worse and that none of us have entirely clean hands? This seems to me truly the politics of despair.

In my mind, Milne’s underlying question is this: When should countries invoke the human rights doctrines meant to protect people in nasty places? They came into use after the end of the Cold War – and more recently during the “War on Terror™.” Of course a doctrine such as this is completely subjective – the importance of human rights remains in the eye of the beholder, especially when the beholder has a foreign policy and military capabilities. But I’ve got to wonder, five years into the Iraq war, how much muscle remains in these philosophies?

Responsibility to protect (what? whom?)
Born out of the ashes of atrocities in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, members of the United Nations attempted to agree on a methodology that would decide who is ultimately responsible to protect citizens or groups in places where they have been targeted for large-scale abuses or loss of life. The doctrine, called Responsibility to Protect, (with fancy post-millennial designation of R2P) attempted to elevate the twin beliefs in human rights and intervention over the philosophy of state sovereignty.

As you could well imagine, R2P has faced some serious rhetorical obstacles. The idea of self-determination and sovereignty plays an essential role in international affairs. As do worries about the misuse of Western “intervention.” (For better or worse, R2P was used in the justification for the war on Iraq, leading Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch to claim “better late than never” is never a justification for intervention.)

There’s more. From Simon Jenkins:

I regard the way I am governed as superior to most. But I am not so arrogant or naive as to believe I can change other states by persuasion or war. The latter is an infringement of self-determination and has proved starkly counterproductive. The greatest boost to the overrated Islamist threat is from just the power projection Miliband supports.

In the non-interventionist 1990s, the thinktank Freedom House charted a steady growth in democracy worldwide. With the advent of the democracy crusaders Blair and George Bush this trend has probably gone into reverse. The cynical appeasement of China and aggressive treatment of Russia and the Muslim world has done no service to democracy. Indeed the cause has fared better in south-east Asia and Latin America, where outside pressure has been least in evidence.

However, those who hold out support for R2P claim the idea has been hijacked by politicians in large, very powerful countries. Intervention has been much more fruitful on the regional level, especially in Africa, argues Thelma Ekiyor of the West African Civil Society Institute. For example, the African Union mission in Burundi; to a lesser extent, ECOMOG’s work in Sierra Leone and Liberia. There’s also the present AU work in Darfur.

For better or worse, the rest of the world has a habit of looking the other way when it comes to Africa’s problems. It’s crisis in countries like Sudan and Somalia and perhaps Kenya or Guinea or Niger that will keep Africa’s diplomats (and perhaps soldiers) busy. With memories of colonialism and poorly planned interventions fresh, it’s probably best this way.

Let’s get real
In the end, the American in me claims debates like this are mere abstractions. The ideas of R2P and rhetoric over intervening before the next “human rights catastrophe” comes down to much more practical ideas: What exactly is happening? Where is this happening? Who are the country’s friends? How powerful are they? Do they have things we want?

No one will ever consider intervening in China over anything. The same goes for Zimbabwe, for very different reasons. China is too powerful; Zimbabwe, in the eyes of those who make the decisions, is not worth the cost. These arguments trump all others. Of course, interventions are not equal. It can take things other than “shock and awe” to change someone’s mind. Like George Bush, we can practice “quiet diplomacy” in the case of China and Tibet or Thabo Mbeki in the case of Zimbabwe. Of course, what has that gotten us?

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