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SOVEREIGNTY AND HUMAN RIGHTS

This article by John Lloyd, who recently resigned as a columnist with the New Statesman, was published in the centre-left Italian newspaper Il Riformista on Tuesday and the author has kindly made the original English version avaliable to readers of this weblog. It is well worth digesting.
A line has been crossed, and politics must deal with its crossing. Tony Blair is the leader who, of all others in the world, has given himself and his country the responsibility of dealing with it. And now the longer test, of him and of us, begins.

The line he crossed that which has gone on since the end of the Cold War: it went under many names, but the one which has stuck is that of ‘humanitarian intervention’. This has been the realisation that, as Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, put it in a speech last February, ‘human rights and the evolving nature of humanitarian law will mean little if a principle (of sovereignty) guarded by states is always allowed to trump the protection of citizens within them’.

This is as clear and concise statement of the dilemma into which our own preoccupation with human rights led us. State sovereignty developed in the 17th century to protect national communities from invasion. But sovereignty could become, and has become, a shield behind which murderous rulers sheltered, ruling in flagrant violation of all principles of human rights. These murderous rulers could generally be dislodged only by invasion. But invasion means a destruction of the principle of sovereignty…

The end of the cold war seemed to offer some escape from this endlessly circular argument, in which, to use Annan’s word, sovereignty always trumped rights. More and more states had come to believe in and observe democratic norms and in the observation of human rights. There had come an end to the bi-polar stasis within which most kinds of brutalities were tolerated as long as the ruling brute in question was at the service of one power or the other. And thus there could be an evolving agreement that brutes would be pressurised, sanctioned and in the end invaded out of existence.

This was not an academic and diplomatic argument alone. The decade of the nineties saw many brutes and brutalities – in Africa, in Europe, in Asia, and in the Middle East. In broad terms, the African ones continued their brutalities until sated or stopped by inter-tribal or inter-state wars (though they continue still, notably in the Congo). The European brute, Slobodan Milosevic, was stopped by US-led intervention in Kosovo, and is now on trial in the Hague. The Asian brutes, the Taliban, were dispatched last year by a US-led invasion of Afghanistan. The largest Middle Eastern brute, Saddam Hussein, has just seen his rule crushed, by a US-led force.

There seems no pattern here. No-one cares enough to intervene in Africa: the US, which had done so in Somalia, suffered a televised (rather than a real) defeat in Mogadishu when marines were captured, and withdrew from further engagement. Europeans were finally goaded enough by the US to intervene in former Yugoslavia- though the Kosovan intervention was bitterly contested by Russia, and by sizable chunks of opinion, mostly on the left, in Europe and North America (and was not sanctioned by the UN). The invasion of Afghanistan was tolerated by the UN because it was reckoned the US was owed some slack after 9/11, and most states had some reason to fear radical Islam, if in very different guises. Most states are against the invasion of Iraq.

But there was an underlying pattern, and it was and is that only the US has the power to determine an intervention of any size. And thus, well before George W Bush came on the scene, a great resentment grew over the power of the superpower – or, as the former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine termed it, the hyperpower. The other powers which could project a large military force beyond their borders – Russia, Britain, France, China – were faced with the problem of living in a world over which one power had military hegemony of a kind never seen before.

The tensions in such a world were bound to be focussed on the use of that military hyperpower, and the reasons for its use. And the tension has burst out over Iraq. For its example – much more than any other intervention taken or baulked – faces all states, especially the second tier military powers, with an urgent question. Do we support this gross breach of national sovereignty (which the invasion of Iraq certainly was)? Or do we oppose it, ultimately in the same of just such a national sovereignty? Do we, in other words, allow the sovereignty to trump human rights, yet again?

Only Tony Blair has decided the former route, of support. I write Blair rather then Britain, for it must be doubtful if another British leader would have done so. For all that the UK is the closest of European powers to the US, that it has more to lose from a chill over the Atlantic than any other large state, it was still Blair’s call and he could have called it differently. He could have refrained from persuading the US to seek the approval of the Security Council, allowed it to procede directly to war with Iraq, and stood aside, while regretting – in the nicest possible way – the haste and crudity of the US invasion.

But he chose more war rather than more jaw. At a certain point – it was probably late last year – he took the big and solitary decision to throw himself behind George Bush. In doing so, in articulating the rationale for a humanitarian intervention against the settled opinion of much of the rest of the developed world and the often militant opposition of the electorates of Europe and of the other substantial military powers, he may have changed the nature of politics forever.

First, he has thrown down the gauntlet to the international system. He has said – stop your endless debates about sovereignty and human rights. Human rights trump sovereignty. Realism would have to add – he sometimes adds himself – that this will not be so everywhere at every time. He would also add – this would only be so if it can also be aligned with British interests. For many, these reservations are proof of hypocrisy. In fact they are evidence only of inevitable restraints. Morality, in world as in human affairs, is rarely pure: it never is when acted upon. Blair has acted for as much of a moral cause as he can square with realism.

Second, he has set the Anglo Saxon cat among the continental pigeons. Discussion of a common foreign and defence policy – an even more leisurely and circular debate than that on human rights and sovereignty- can never have the same fine careless languor it had before. European leaderships – including those candidate members whom President Jacques Chirac told to shape up or shut up – must now decide whether or not they wish to be partners with the US, or counterweights. On these decisions hang the future of Nato, of transatlantic relations and on the long term balance of powers. For if Europe is to be a counterweight it is bound, at times, to use its weight to counter the US. When these circumstances occur, Europe will seek allies – in Russia, in China, in India and elsewhere. A counterweight thus soon becomes opposition. Opposition can become hostile. Who needs reminding of that these days, even if we still may believe that the present rhetorical torpedoes swishing across the Atlantic will be de-fused by time and diplomacy?

Third, Tony Blair has put another stake through the heart of socialism – not, in this case, the theory as much as the sentiment. British socialism, as elsewhere in the democratic world, has been suffused with pacifism since its inception. It was at times a popular pacifism, stemming from the experience of the First World War, and based on the harsh experience that it was the working class which suffered most when war was declared by their rulers. More recently, the remnants of that old feeling have merged with a multilateralist, UN-led view of the world, which sees all conflicts as capable of resolution by talk and all war as failure. That current has in turn tended to merge with the presently hugely popular view that America is the now the world’s evil empire.

The question for Britain, and for the European left is how far a Blairite centre leftism can any longer be a bedfellow with more traditional social democracy which partakes of at least some of that mix of sentiments. Not an ideological bedfellow- it long ceased to be that – but a political one, capable of glossing over differences in the service of gaining and retaining power through a parliamentary majority.

Blair has done what even Thatcher, the most prominent of the post-Churchill British leaders, did not. He has put himself at the balancing point of a series of interlocking international debates which are also real struggles for power and between powers. The irony is that the Conservative leader’s international moment of fame came from persuading President Ronald Reagan to believe the Communist Mikhail Gorbachev could bring an end to the Cold War. Blair has seized the international stage because he is a centre left European leader who is giving a rationale for an invasion led by a right-wing US administration.

Leaders of consequence – good or ill consequence – tend to leave or destroy the political vehicles which brought them to power. Blair is straining beyond his beliefs and the organisation which has sustained him- even beyond the nation which elected him. To follow or not to follow is now our choice: for he has made his.

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