By Jonathan Steele (THE GUARDIAN, 28/04/06):
here is an ABC of how to promote undemocratic regimes. The leader of country A will be George Bush’s guest today after recently supervising a parliamentary election that was widely considered not to have been free and fair. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which sent the usual team of observers, described it as “not meeting international standards”.The incumbent leader had tight control over the media, and used state-funded TV to highlight his alleged achievements while ignoring or denigrating his opponents. His police were brutal and broke up rallies. “There were restrictions on the freedom of assembly, as well as harassment, intimidation, and detentions of some candidates and their supporters,” as the OSCE put it.
last week, the president of country C was given an even warmer reception in Washington, with ceremonial pipers and drummers serenading him on the south lawn of the White House. As a beacon of un-democracy, his regime far outshines that of country A. It does not bother with election fraud, since it runs a one-party state and allows no contest for power at all. It restricts religion and imposes harsh regulations on women’s reproductive rights that make Islamic fundamentalists seem liberal. Yet Bush made no mention of any of this in his public welcome for country C’s leader or, apparently, in his private talks.
Now to country B. Its political repression is considerably milder than country C’s and about on a par with country A’s. A presidential election last month was a travesty of democratic principles. State-run TV did allow opponents airtime, but for the most part they were insulted and demonised. Unlike in country A, foreign observers reported no cases of ballot-stuffing, but they saw falsification of the vote totals awarded to the incumbent in the protocols signed by officials at polling stations. Independent analysts believe most of the people were satisfied with their economic position and probably voted for the president, making his use of fraud grotesquely unnecessary.
What was Bush’s response? Instead of rewarding this champion of repression with an invitation to Washington, country B’s president and several of his cronies were told they were being punished with travel bans. EU foreign ministers made the same decision. What kind of message does this send? Do only the worst dictators get a Washington trip? If he wanted a session with his US counterpart, should the president of Belarus (country B) have been more repressive, ensuring his judges were as tough in sentencing demonstrators who protested against the fraud as were the judges who answer to Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan (country A), whom Bush is greeting today?
Should Belarus revert to a one-party system on the pattern of China (country C), whose president, Hu Jintao, was Bush’s guest last week? Would that give President Alexander Lukashenko a ticket to a White House dinner? The leader of the main opposition party in Belarus was sentenced yesterday to 15 days in prison for attending a rally on the anniversary of Chernobyl. Is that enough for lunch with Donald Rumsfeld, at least?
I jest of course. Powerful states’ pressure on other states has always been contingent on a messy range of considerations. States with nuclear weapons are treated with more sensitivity than those without. States with oil or other much-needed minerals are favoured over others. Size matters. So does geography. That was as true in the 19th century, when states nakedly made alliances of convenience, as it is in today’s world, where states dress up their behaviour, on occasion, in the new clothes of “democracy promotion”.
Historians of international relations, as well as diplomats and foreign correspondents, have always known that. But the lesson is worth repeating for the ideologues and political philosophers who look for good guys and bad guys in every conflict and turn themselves into cheerleaders. Human rights organisations and private citizens are right to press their own and other governments to adopt higher standards of democratic behaviour, but they need to be rigorous, even-handed and aware of history. Journalists should be on their intellectual guard against herd mentality. Commentators must not get embedded in the agendas of powerful governments.
OK, say some critics, we know there are double standards in the way states behave. Democracy promotion is not a one-size-fits-all strategy, and has to be tempered by realism. But Timothy Garton Ash argued on these pages: “If someone witnesses two separate murders and only goes after one of the murderers, because the other is his friend, we don’t say ‘He was wrong to go after that murderer’. We say ‘He should have gone after the other one as well’.”
As a parable for personal morality, the good samaritan is an inspiring model. But it rests on the premise that for any individual the probability of witnessing a terrible incident is low. The good samaritan is a parable about courage and compassion in unexpected circumstances. If you stumble on injustice, don’t be a coward. Secondly, few people have murderers as friends, so the analogy is doubly naive.
What is typically true for a citizen is not true for powerful states. States are constant travellers on the blood-stained road of international influence-seeking. They willingly decide on close relations with various countries, some savoury and many disgusting. If they pick and choose from countries and only denounce, sanction and ostracise a few, this is not primarily evidence of double standards and a sad lapse in morals. It’s a deliberate way of brandishing power, a signal of superior strength, a device for telling junior partners whom they are expected to like. As Condoleezza Rice said after the Iraq war: “Punish France, ignore Germany, and forgive Russia.”
And what if the issue is bigger than a mere failure to go after your murderous friend? Suppose you are complicit in his killing. I’m not thinking of our ABC trio, but of regimes in Latin American and the Caribbean, whose dictators were installed by Washington, as well as of murderers such as Osama bin Laden and Pol Pot, whom the US helped to power or supported once they got there.
Serious changes in the way powerful states conduct themselves will not happen quickly. And when those states mount crusades, we should all beware.