The savage purges of the Muslim Brotherhood unleashed by the Egyptian military have exposed – perhaps definitively – the dishonesty, hypocrisy and opportunism with which human rights discourse has been co-opted by Western states in order to lubricate the neo-imperialist ‘interventions’ of the last decade or so.
From the Kosovo war to Libya, Western governments have routinely invoked the rhetoric of human rights as a justification for bombing campaigns and invasions. In Kosovo, the bombing of Serbia was presented as an attempt to prevent ‘genocide.’ In Libya, the imposition of a no fly zone in order to ‘prevent a massacre’ by the Gaddafi dictatorship quickly morphed into a broader regime change agenda in support of a civil war that may have killed 50,000 people.
In Syria in 2011, Western governments were calling for the overthrow of the Assad regime within months of a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests, and have, at least until recently, continued to insist that no diplomatic or political solution is possible and that the world ‘cannot sit idly by’ in the face of the crimes carried out by the regime (the crimes carried out by the opposition rarely feature in this kind of emotional blackmail).
The slaughter being perpetrated in Egypt has provoked a very different response. There have been no calls for bombs to ‘prevent a massacre’ that has already started, no Syria-like demands that the military must go or for the regime to be quarantined. The Obama administration has not even tried to use the lever of military or economic aid in order to get the military to moderate its behavior, and has done nothing but cancel a joint military exercise.
Though Obama has expressed his ‘concern’ at civilian deaths, he has also argued, in his Martha’s Vineyard statement last week that
We want a peaceful, democratic, prosperous Egypt. That’s our interest. But to achieve that, the Egyptians are going to have to do the work.
We recognize that change takes time and that a process like this is never guaranteed. There are examples in recent history of countries that are transitioned out of a military government towards a democratic government. And it did not always go in a straight line and the process was not always smooth.
This sounds a lot like an invitation for the military to stay in power and ‘manage’ this transition – regardless of how long it takes. Britain, taking its cue from the Imperium as always, is also ‘deeply concerned’ about the violence and is calling for a ‘political dialogue’ that seems increasingly remote, unless serious pressure is put on the military to bring it about.
There are various reasons for the meek response of the West, which are mostly to do with its determination to support any regime that will ensure the continuation of a pro-Western ‘stability’ in Egypt.
But the specific nature of its interests in Egypt is itself an indication of the weak and essentially fraudulent use of human rights in the wars and interventions of the last two decades. This was a relatively recent innovation in international relations that roughly followed the end of the Cold War and received its first outing in the wars in the ex-Yugoslavia, particularly in Kosovo.
Until then Western governments had spent the best part of the Cold War supporting coups, overthrowing governments and backing fascistic military governments in Africa, Latin America, South East Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean without blinking an eye.
Whether giving active or passive support to the Guatemalan army, the Shah, the Indonesian military in 1965, Mobutu in Zaire, Lon Nol fascism in Cambodia, the Latin American ‘national security states’ of the 1970s, or Pakistan’s murderous rampage in Bangla Desh, the least that can be said is that human rights were not exactly an overriding concern in Western foreign policy in this period.
On the contrary there was, or so it often seemed, no regime too brutal for Western governments to work with, no dirty war that these governments were willing to abstain from on moral grounds, no amount of violence that could not be tolerated – or facilitated – if ‘communism’ was on the receiving end of it.
The slaughter of 700,000 Indonesian communists? Pass the ammunition. Contras carving up peasants and health workers with knives in Nicaragua? Not a problem. Mujahideen blowing up girls’ schools in Afghanistan to resist the godless Soviet occupation? The moral equivalent of the founding fathers, says Ronald Reagan.
Massive violence inflicted on South Africa’s frontline states by the apartheid regime’s ‘total strategy’? Nothing that couldn’t be solved with a little ‘constructive engagement.’ Death squads in El Salvador? A tragic but unavoidable necessity if civilization is to be saved.
And so it went on, even as the governments that engaged in such behavior worked themselves up into a paroxysm of indignation at the evils of ‘terrorism.’ Some attributed this willingness to ‘Kissingerian’ realpolitik or the imprint of Machiavelli; others argued that democracies were sometimes obliged to work with ‘unsavoury’ regimes in order to save the free world from the Soviet hydra or from ‘terrorism’.
Call it what you will, this is how business was routinely done between states, and few governments questioned it. All this began to change in the 1990s and the terror-ravaged noughties. Within a decade of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Western democracies not only began to rediscover human rights, but some governments began to argue that they were worth fighting for – on some occasions.
No longer was it acceptable for dictators to ‘kill their own people’ or carry out egregious violations of human rights with impunity. Now the world – or those sections of it that called themselves the ‘international community’ were obliged to do something about it.
Indifference was no longer acceptable, and democracies were beholden to the principle of ‘Responsibility to protect’ (R2P). ‘We’ could no longer sit idly by, but had to ‘do something’ – which usually meant bombing someone.
These arguments appeared to reject the ‘realist’ school of international relations, which argued that states were primarily driven by amoral considerations of national interest, and which upheld – pretended to uphold the principle of national sovereignty as the essential foundation of international stability, in favour of the forgotten ‘idealist’ tradition which attempted (ineffectually) to bind states to a common community with certain internationally recognized political values at its core.
According to R2P, (some) governments could override the sovereignty principle, not in pursuit of national interests, but in order to uphold universal human rights obligations. Some proponents of this idea, most notably Tony Blair in his 1999 ‘doctrine of the international community’ speech in Chicago, attempted to merge the realist and idealist schools by suggesting that it could be in the national and international interest to intervene, in countries where violence and instability threatened to spill beyond their borders.
In practice however, the supposed universalism of R2P has provided a moralistic fig leaf for the projection of military power by Western states in areas of geostrategic interest. This means that when our governments deem it necessary to whack regimes that they don’t like, then we hear a great deal about the human rights abuses carried out by the target du jour, till the public is virtually crying out for the bombs to fall, somewhere.
In other cases, such as Bahrain, Uzbekistan or Saudi Arabia, our governments fall mysteriously silent and come over all nuanced, suddenly rediscovering concepts like ‘diplomatic solution’, complexity or ‘democratic transition’, or respect for the internal affairs of the states responsible.
Now Egypt has been added to the list, and the clear but undeclared expectation behind the West’s muted response is that the military can kill who it has to kill and get back to normal, especially since most of those of who are being killed are ‘Islamists.’
Sisi and his generals have clearly taken the hint, and have gone on the offensive with a viciousness that has no precedent in modern Egyptian history.
It remains to be seen how many people they will have to kill in order to ensure the required stability, or whether these massacres will evolve into a full-fledged civil war, but whatever the outcome, do not expect the ‘international community’ to exert itself too much to stop them.