Three Cheers for Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein

The Daily Mail and the Daily Express are  angry  with the Jordanian United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.   No one will be surprised by this. Neither newspaper is a fan of  the United Nations.  They don’t like ‘human rights’ – a spurious PC concept that foreigners are always trying to foist upon us.  And they especially don’t like it  whenever some jumped-up Johnny Foreigner whose name doesn’t even sound like John Smith has the temerity to criticize the xenophobia, racism and bigotry that sticks to the fingers of anyone who opens the pages of Britain’s grubby tabloid press.

The reason for their anger  was an interview with the Guardian yesterday, in which Al Hussein accused some European politicians of descending into ‘xenophobia and outright racism’ in their treatment of refugees.   Al Hussein compared the current rhetoric used by many European governments and the media towards refugees  to  the 1938 League of Nations Conference at Evian-les-Bains, when various governments refused to take in Jewish refugees from the Nazi Reich on the grounds that they would destabilise their societies and put pressure on their economies.

The UN High Commissioner argued, as many historians have done before him,   that this reluctance inadvertently facilitated the Holocaust, when Hitler opted for extermination rather than expulsion.  These comparisons have sparked ‘outrage’, according to the Daily Express and the Daily Mail.    The Express quotes Tory MP Bill Cash, who says that  ‘  Britain took in a huge number of Jews and stood against Hitler. It is not appropriate to use that kind of analogy against those who saved Europe from the kind of abominations that were being perpetrated by Germany.’

The Daily Mail quotes Tory MP Andrew Percy, who is indignant at the notion ‘that the debate around the Syrian issue could in any way be similar to Nazi persecution of the Jews is offensive. This kind of comparison is so overblown and so disgusting it undermines a sensible debate on how to address the migration crisis.’

And Immigration minister James Brokenshire similarly rejects ‘ any characterisation that this country does not have a proud record of welcoming refugees or showing compassion in these circumstances.’

All this indignation wilfully misses the point.       Al Hussein did not accuse the governments at Evian of direct complicity with a genocidal project that had not yet been designed, nor did he argue that refugees coming to Europe were threatened by a new Holocaust.

He pointed out  that the dehumanising language and rhetoric used by some participants at the Evian conference  regarding the dangers of ‘saturation’ by Jewish refugees was not that different to contemporary politicians in response to the current refugee crisis, ‘ who can use the excuse of even the smallest community as a threat to the sort of national purity of the state.’

Al Hussein singled out Theresa May’s conference speech as an example of these tendencies.   He also criticized David Cameron’s reference to ‘swarms’ of refugees this summer and  described Katie Hopkins’s ‘cockroach’ comments as ‘straight out of the language of Julius Streicher in the 1920s – and of course Radio Milles Collines in Rwanda in 1994.’

Al Hussein is not the first person to make such comparisons, but his reference to Evian raises an important issue that is rarely acknowledged in the sour debate on how Europe should respond to its current ‘refugee crisis’.

It was not until the first half of the twentieth century that refugees fleeing war and persecution began to acquire political traction as a category of stateless person with a unique hold on the world’s conscience – a development that was formally codified in the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees.

In theory governments recognized that refugees, unlike ‘economic migrants’ might have exceptional rights to  cross international borders without documentation.  But these moral obligations were never universally accepted and were always contingent on immediate circumstances and state priorities.  Sometimes governments have accepted refugees without questions, such as Belgians during World War I, or Hungarians after the 1956 uprising.

At other times governments have tried to evade their moral and legal responsibilities by denigrating and dehumanising refugees to the point when they would no longer have any any obligations towards them.

As Al-Hussein argued, these tendencies were never clearer than in the international response to Jewish refugees in the 1930s.  Most  of the 38 delegates at Evian-les-Bains recognized that Jews were being persecuted in Hitler’s Germany and in need of protection, but almost all of them refused to accept any more Jewish refugees.  Some argued that they would undermine their economies; others that too many refugees would foment antisemitism or export  a European ‘racial problem’ to their own countries, as the Australian delegate put it.

Even the Nazis declared it ‘astounding’ that foreign countries criticized Germany’s treatment of Jews, yet refused to accept them.  Britain was no exception.  Politicians like Brokenshire love to refer to Britain’s ‘proud tradition’ of providing sanctuary to refugees, but that tradition has always had limits and contradictions.

During last month’s debate about Syrian refugees the Kindertransport was frequently invoked by politicians as an example of that ‘proud tradition’,  but the parents who were not allowed to enter the UK, or the many other Jews who could not get visas, were rarely mentioned.

The Mail accompanied its article on Al Hussein today with a short column about the Evian Conference on ‘How Britain Abandoned the Jews: Britain Refused to Increase Quota for Refugees.’  That is correct, but one of the reasons why Britain didn’t want more Jewish refugees in the country was because of the coverage of newspapers like the  Daily Express and the    Daily Mail.

In March 1933, Lord Beaverbrook’s Express responded to an attempted boycott of German goods in response to Nazi antisemitism with the headline  “‘Judea declares war on Germany: Jews of all the world unite in action.’

And on August 20, 1938, just over a month after the Evian conference, on August 20, 1938, the Mail reported:

“‘The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage . . .” In these words, Mr Herbert Metcalfe, the Old Street magistrate, yesterday referred to the number of aliens entering the country through the ‘back door’ – a problem to which the Daily Mail has repeatedly pointed.’

The Mail might have mentioned that in report on the Tory ‘outrage’ at Al Hussein’s comments.   But it wouldn’t, would it?  Because for the British tabloids and for too many Tory politicians, the only good refugees are the ones who belong to our ‘proud tradition.’

Those in the present are invariably suspect.   And  even if, like Jews in the 1930s or Syrians today,  they are considered ‘genuine’ refugees, there will always be too many of them, and there will always be reasons why they  shouldn’t come.

And there will always be politicians and newspapers that will use the kind of language that Al Hussein rightly condemned, in order to diminish the humanity of refugees, and justify their exclusion.





Why can’t the United Nations feed Syria’s refugees?

In the oxymoronic world of humanitarian war, refugees occupy a precarious and unenviable position.     Sometimes they will find themselves propelled to the forefront of international concern, and then suddenly they will become a problem and a burden, and they may find themselves forgotten and ignored.

This is what seems to have happened to Syria’s refugees.   Only last year,   Samantha Cameron went barefoot to Lebanese refugee camps for Save the Children, and William Hague visited refugee camps in Jordan wearing a stain-on-the-world’s-conscience frown.   At that time Britain and the ‘international community’   were trying to get the security council to approve military action in the event of Syrian   non-compliance with the Annan plan.

Back then it was useful for Hague to have himself filmed threatening Syria with ‘consequences’ against a background of refugee tents, while simultaneously promising that the ‘international community’ would respond to the ongoing humanitarian crisis.

Now, more than a year later, Syria’s refugees are no longer useful, and have become so useless that the ‘international community’ cannot even find the money to feed them.

On Monday the United Nations food agency announced that its World Food Program (WFP), which feeds 4 million Syrian Internally Displaced People (IDPs) inside Syria and another 2 million outside the country will be suspending its food voucher program, through which food is channelled to Syria’s refugees, because of a $64 million funding shortfall.   .

Refugees in Lebanon learned of this decision through a text message, which informed them: ‘We deeply regret that WFP has not yet received funds to reload your blue card for food for December 2014. We will inform you by SMS as soon as funding is received and we can resume food assistance.’

The Gulf states bear particular responsibility of this shameful outcome.     Some of them, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, played a pivotal role in supporting and facilitating the armed uprising and opposing any attempt to reach a negotiated solution.

Yet these states have failed to fulfil financial pledges that they made at a donor’s conference in Kuwait in January, where the Gulf states promised $650 million in humanitarian assistance.   Qatar promised $100 million, and has so far donated $2.7 million.   Other countries have donated nothing at all.

It’s true that some of the GCC countries have made their own private donations to particular refugee camps or refugees.   But these tend to be arbitrary and piecemeal, and there is no indication that they have reached the massive sums that the GCC has spent on war or the preparation for war.     This year Qatar signed an $11 billion dollar deal to buy US Patriot missiles.     Last year Saudi Arabia gave a whopping $3 billion to help the Lebanese army ‘fight terrorism’.   This year it gave another $3 billion in ‘fuel donations’ to the military government in Egypt, on top of another $5 billion that it gave the government last year.

No one knows how much money the Gulf states have spent supplying and financing Syrian rebel groups, but as far back as March 2013, the Washington Post reported that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries were providing the rebels with ‘millions of dollars in funding each month.’

Few of these countries, it seems, have much interest in helping the victims of the war they helped create.   It’s difficult to know whether some of them actually want to see more refugees in even more desperate straits,   in order to increase the mayhem and instability that they hope ultimately to benefit from, or whether the leaders of these countries are just so stupid, shortsighted and greedy that they won’t pay for anything that they don’t see as profitable in the long or short term.

Either way, they aren’t the only ones with skewed priorities.   The largest single donor to Syrian refugees is the United States, which has so far provided $2.9 billion in humanitarian aid.     Britain has committed £700 million in humanitarian assistance – efforts that have partly been fuelled by a determination to ensure that as few Syrians as possible actually come to the UK.

All very commendable, but not exactly a massive sum when you compare it with the $3 trillion that the US spent on the Iraq war.     When Obama announced airstrikes against ISIS this summer, initial estimates of the cost of this mission oscillated between $15 billion to $20 billion a year.     Now the Pentagon is asking for double that amount to fund the war against ISIS in the coming year.

That’s on top of its existing budget and a $58.6 billion ‘ Overseas Contingency Fund’ that already pays for its military operations in the Middle East.     Britain, meanwhile is currently poised to spend at least £3 billion on the war with ISIS

Yet despite all this,   the United Nations cannot find $64 million to provide Syrian refugees with food.   No matter what the state of the international economy, it seems, there will always be limitless amounts of money to pay for wars, military interventions, and new technologies of destruction.   But when it comes to helping the civilians who continue to be the principal victims of war, the ‘international community’ just can’t seem to find the cash.

In Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa’s family are initially disgusted by his transformation into a cockroach.     Then they feel sorry for him.     And finally they just become indifferent and forget about him.

It’s disturbing to see how often our response to the 21st century’s refugees seems to follow the same pattern.

The UK and Syrian Refugees: from political pawns to political tokenism

After weeks of vacillation, the UK government has finally agreed to resettle 500 of the ‘most vulnerable’ Syrian refugees.   Lord Snooty appears to have overruled Theresa May, who was reluctant to enter an ‘open-ended commitment’ to UNHCR’s call for European governments to resettle 30,000 refugees that might have undermined the Coalition’s ‘tens of thousands’ migration pledge.

500 is not a large figure, when you are talking about more than 2.3 million people, but Nick Clegg has hailed the government’s willingness ‘ to alleviate the immense suffering in Syria’ as proof that ‘We are one of the most open-hearted countries in the world.’     And that isn’t all, says the Deputy PM:

‘On top of that, we’ll continue to support the peace talks currently taking place in Geneva, because only a political resolution between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition will provide a permanent end to the suffering.   Britain has a long and proud tradition of provided refuge at times of crisis. This coalition government will ensure it lives on.’

Well excuse me if I don’t applaud.       Clegg is certainly right to claim that the UK government has a ‘moral responsibility’ to help Syrian refugees.   His government was,   until recently, one of the leading advocates of military intervention in Syria, and part of the group of countries that included   United States, France, Turkey and the Gulf States, which saw the 2011 crisis as an opportunity to destabilize Syria and reshape it in their own interests.

Until last year, all these countries were using their political, diplomatic and economic clout   to build an armed opposition that would overthrow the Assad regime, even if it meant fomenting civil war.   Throughout those years these countries did everything possible to undermine a ‘political resolution’ in Syria and presented the crisis as an ‘either/or’ conflict between an evil Assad versus good rebels.

Those who argued that the crisis would have to be resolved politically, not militarily, or suggested that military intervention would make things worse were called ‘Assad apologists’ and accused of moral complicity in atrocities, repression and war crimes.

When Russia and China argued that there was no military solution to the Syrian crisis, they were routinely represented as cynical practitioners of geopolitics and self-interested realpolitik, who were blocking the altruistic humanitarian concern for ‘the Syrian people’ which supposedly motivated Western governments and their Gulf allies.

Throughout these years, Lord Snooty and the UK government frequently drew attention to Syria’s refugee crisis as a justification for military action.     There were visits to refugee camps by SamCam, and also by William Hague, who went to a refugee camp in Jordan last July.

Surrounded by refugees and reporters and exuding moral gravitas, Hague declared that   the refugee crisis ‘underlines the need to act at the United Nations security council.   We are negotiating there at the moment for a Chapter 7 resolution threatening consequences over non-compliance with the Annan plan.’

A ‘ Chapter 7’ resolution was a trigger for war, and this was why Hague was so keen to point out that the UK government and the ‘international community’ were providing aid to refugee camps, that ‘the horrors of the Assad regime are clearly on display when you talk to people here just over the border.’

For Hague and his government, Syria’s refugees were only worthy of attention when they could used to provide a humanitarian veneer to military intervention.   Then all that changed last August, when Cameron’s crude attempt to railroad the British parliament and public into war was rejected.     Only days afterwards Hague was still tweeting:.

[stextbox id=”alert”]“One year ago: 230,000 Syrian refugees. Today: 2,000,000. 1/2 children. If we don”t end the conflict, think what the figure could be next year.”[/stextbox]

By ‘end the conflict’ Hague meant military action, even if he had no idea how or if it would actually end the conflict at all,   let alone stop the flow of refugees.   At the G20 Summit in St Petersburg last September, a humiliated and marginalized Cameron was still calling for a global response to what he called ‘the worst refugee crisis of this century’ and telling the world ‘to do more to help the innocent victims of this conflict who dreamt of a democratic and peaceful future but who are now living a nightmare far from their homes and struggling to feed their families and keep them safe.’

Less than a week before Lord Snooty had been trying to get his own country to ‘ do more’ by bombing Syria, regardless of whether such action might have forced even more Syrians to become refugees.

But then it became clear that the United States was not going to intervene after all, and the UK naturally followed suit.       Only now, as the West realizes that it cannot overthrow Assad, and that its efforts had helped wreck Syria and empowered a collection of ’emirs’, warlords and violent jihadists, has it began to think that Russia might actually have been right in calling for a political solution to the conflict – even though it is now increasingly difficult to see what that conflict might be.

With war no longer on the cards, the refugee ‘nightmare’ that Cameron described in St Petersburg became a political problem for Lord Snooty and His Pals.   If they refused to take refugees they look like ‘villains’, as one government official put it.   If they accepted too many, then they risk looking ‘soft’ on immigration.

The government has tried to get out of this conundrum by highlighting its generosity in providing £600 million in humanitarian aid to Syria’s refugees.   But with more than two million Syrian living in dire conditions in tented camps, possibly for years, in countries with far less resources than ours, that still doesn’t make us look like the good guys.

And so it has settled on the 500 ‘ most vulnerable’ to demonstrate its humanitarian credentials – a category whose selection process is not exactly clear.     Compare this with Germany, which has agreed to take 10,000.   Or Sweden, which has agreed to grant asylum to all Syrian refugees who reach its shores (admittedly not doing anything to help them get there).

And these countries were not the ones calling for military intervention.     They were not the ones drawing up ‘red lines’ and ‘Chapter 7s’, who saw civil war as a geopolitical opportunity and used refugees as political pawns.

Our government did that.       And the fact that it is now willing to grant asylum to 500 people does not make it generous or ‘open-hearted’.


All Quiet on the Humanitarian Front

It’s long been one of the recurring paradoxes of ‘humanitarian war’   that Western governments are willing to project military power far beyond their borders in order to save dark-skinned bodies from the dictators and regimes that oppress them, yet remain generally antipathetic to the presence of these same bodies in their own national territory.

On the contrary, the same governments that argue that they cannot stand idly by in the face of serious human rights violations will often go to extraordinary lengths to prevent such arrivals, by raising the visa threshold to limit illegal entry, and by making it as difficult as possible for ‘illegal’ refugees to reach their shores.

This is a tendency that we have seen again and again in the various ‘interventions’ of the last decade, and the UK government has been particularly prone to it.

At the height of the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq,   two million Iraqis fled the country and other two million were Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), yet the UK routinely refused entry even to Iraqis who had worked with British forces, and deported Iraqi asylum seekers even when the country remained a sectarian war zone.

From the perspective of the UK government, the Iraqi refugee crisis was not politically useful and was in fact an embarrassing and irrefutable confirmation of a military misadventure and botched occupation that had gone wrong in pretty much every respect.

During the NATO humanitarian intervention in Libya, the British government, and in fact all the European governments that participated in the NATO bombing campaign – remained resolutely indifferent to the thousands of refugees pouring out of Libya, hundreds of whom drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean.

At the height of the war,   William Hague called on European governments to get ‘tough’ on the refugees fleeing the conflict, on the grounds that ‘ We can’t just accept a flow of hundreds of thousands or millions of people into southern Europe and then coming beyond that.’

The same phenomenon is now evident in regard to Syria.   On the one hand,   Syria’s disastrous refugee crisis has been one of the key components in the ‘humanitarian’ case for war.   Both Cameron and Hague have frequently cited Syria’s refugees as a justification for international intervention – a concept that until last month referred to military action.

To the UK government,   Syria’s refugees, unlike the Iraqi refugees generated by the Anglo-American occupation, were not just victims of war, but useful victims,   who are worthy of attention and photo-opportunities that have included a visit by Samantha Cameron to Syrian refugee camps, in order to mobilize support for an escalation of the war.

Even last month at the G20 Conference in Moscow, when Lord Snooty’s call for military action had just been voted down by parliament, he was pledging an additional £52 million in ‘humanitarian funds’ to help mitigate the impact of the war on Syrian civilians and send ‘ a strong message about our commitment to the Syrian people and the urgent priority to do more.’

Cameron described the Syrian refugee crisis as ‘ a moral imperative. This is the big refugee crisis of our time’ and told the Conference ‘ A Syrian becomes a refugee every 15 seconds while we sit here at this conference. That is 5,000 fleeing their homes and becoming homeless while we are at this G20 summit.’

Still groping hopefully at the possibility of missile strikes that his MPs had denied him,   His Lordship let the cat out of the bag somewhat when he also described the refugee crisis as a ‘political imperative’ that ‘will help us build international support for action by showing that our response is not just military.’

Theatrical demonstrations of concern are essential to the presentation of humanitarian warfare.   But now that the prospect of war has receded, Syria’s refugees have slipped down the list of the UK government’s priorities.     One way that Lord Snooty and his Pals might have shown their ‘commitment to the Syrian people’ would have been by granting Syrians refugee status in the UK.

17 countries have agreed to accept resettled Syrian refugees, and the Refugee Council is urging the UK to assist in their evacuation and resettlement.   So far these requests have fallen on deaf ears.     Within the last month Sweden has offered asylum to any Syrian refugee, and France has agreed to resettle 500 refugees.   The UK has accepted precisely zero.

Though the government has pledged £500 million to help Syria’s neighbors look after the refugees who have crossed their borders,   it has so far shown little interest in accepting those who want to cross ours.

According to French authorities in Calais, there are now ‘hundreds’ of Syrian refugees in Calais, who want to apply for asylum in the UK , most of whom are sleeping rough and trapped in the vicious war of attrition that the French police have been waging against migrants in the city for nearly five years.

Last week 65 Syrians blocked the entrance to the port of Calais, two of   whom climbed onto the roof of one of the terminal buildings and threatened to jump unless David Cameron or a representative of the Home Office went to meet them.   Not surprisingly, no such visit was forthcoming.

The Syrians called off their protest, after UK border officials agreed to consider the applications for asylum from Syrians with relatives in the UK on a case-by-case basis.   Given that all Syrian refugees are ‘genuine’ refugees, according to the UK government’s ‘moral imperative’, this narrowing of the bureaucratic filter might seem a little morally problematic, if not downright hypocritical.

Last week’s protesters will undoubtedly not be the last.   Syrians are coming to Europe in growing numbers, through the same dangerous and difficult routes that all asylum seekers and refugees must take, and many of them have been attracted to the UK by the same humanitarian rhetoric that has emanated from the Coalition for the last two years.

But they are unlikely to find a positive reception from the government that was once so keen to save them.     This partly because, unlike the wealthy Chinese businessmen and tourists who Osborne has been so keen to attract to the UK, Syria’s refugees are no longer useful.

But even when they were, their usefulness was dependent on their staying put or in refugee camps in neighboring countries, where they could provide television imagery that could then be used to reinforce the drive to war.

And now the bombs are no longer going to fall – at least for the time being.   But the refugees are still coming, and it seems that our moral obligation to help them doesn’t even extend across the Channel.