How do we decide which human rights abuses to focus on? Not by listening to those who tell us ‘it’s worse in another country’
A violent crackdown on a broad-based, pro-democracy movement is, with the best will in the world, never going to be the easiest thing to defend. Nor is the staging of a major international sporting event in the country in question, when the regime is obviously going to try to use that event to help launder its reputation in the eyes of the world. Still, it remains inevitable that, when power and profit are at stake, the indefensible will be loudly defended. So it proved with last month’s Bahrain Grand Prix.
One recurring theme in the efforts to deflect criticism of the race was the line that there are worse places than Bahrain. Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa, the regime’s foreign minister, tweeted: “If any here to cover ugly bloody confrontations, go to syria. Here we have a grand Prix to enjoy”. Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone advised journalists to “Go to Syria and write about those things because it’s more important than here”.
Even David Cameron, while dodging the question of whether the race should proceed and making the standard noises about the importance of Britain’s ally undertaking political reforms, echoed the line when he said: “I think we should be clear: Bahrain is not Syria.”
The retort from Ecclestone and the Bahraini foreign minister, that worse things are happening elsewhere, also happens to be a favourite of the Israeli state and its defenders. A week before the Bahrain Grand Prix, activists arriving in Israel to protest about its treatment of the occupied Palestinians were presented with a letter from the prime minister’s office, noting that they had not chosen to protest against the Syrian or Iranian regimes, or against Hamas’s rule in Gaza, but instead had chosen “the Middle East’s sole democracy, where women are equal, the press criticizes the government, human rights organizations can operate freely, religious freedom is protected for all and minorities do not live in fear”.
Activists and journalists who draw attention to Israeli human rights abuses are by now well accustomed to hearing this argument being made, sometimes with the accompanying insinuation that Israel is being “singled out” for more sinister reasons. It is interesting to see this rhetorical device being employed in both these situations, and of course, fairly obvious problems apply in each case.
There is no serious doubt about the fact that both Israel and Bahrain have very poor human rights records, as documented extensively by organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Bahrain responded last year to peaceful mass demonstrations for political reform by inviting the armed forces of allied neighbouring regimes to enter the kingdom and back up its violent crushing of the protesters. Israel discriminates against Palestinians living within its internationally recognised borders and subjects those living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to the tyranny of a foreign occupation, while colonising that land in flagrant breach of international law.
Whether other states do worse things is largely beside the point, unless the suggestion is that abuses short of the absolute worst kind should simply be ignored altogether. States responsible for human rights abuses are – whether they like it or not – going to come under public scrutiny.
Nevertheless, a question does arise for individual activists or small campaign groups who cannot, unlike institutions such as Amnesty International, devote attention to every state’s human rights abuses. With real limits on time and resources, they are compelled to make difficult choices, and there may be a number of reasons why some causes are focused on to a greater extent than others.
One is the need to win the argument over the issue in question, which is of course a prerequisite to mobilising popular pressure against the offending state. Syria, for instance, thankfully has almost no supporters in the west, whereas Bahrain has employed leading PR firms to protect its image abroad since the anti-democracy crackdown began. In the US, AIPAC performs a similar public relations and lobbying role on behalf of Israel. It and other similar bodies find a receptive audience in the media on both sides of the Atlantic, in a way that reflects the American and British political alliance with Israel. Countering these official narratives is an important task, which an activist may usefully choose to engage in.
At a moral level, a compelling reason to choose a particular issue is complicity. Britain arms both Bahrain and Israel, and, to give a different example, opposed sanctions on South Africa in the 1980s. In a democracy, citizens bear a degree of collective responsibility for what their governments do, and challenging our own countries’ support for human rights’ abusing states is therefore a civic and moral obligation, just as it was in the case of apartheid 25 years ago.
As Noam Chomsky frequently points out, it would be simple hypocrisy to do the reverse, and focus on the crimes of others over the ones that we ourselves are involved in. This principle, I would argue, applies just as much to journalists and academics as it does to human rights activists.
Finally, from this moral consideration flows a practical reason. If we can pressure our government to withdraw its support from an offending state then we have a form of leverage which we do not necessarily have over a non-allied regime. This raises particular and specific possibilities for effective activism which we ought to be mindful of.
It is hard to avoid the suspicion that some defenders of government A who tell its critics to look at the wrongdoings of government B instead, would in fact be quite content if the crimes of both A and B were ignored altogether. If this suspicion is correct, then it seems dishonourable to use one set of victims of violent state oppression to morally blackmail into silence those attempting to draw attention to the plight of other victims of violent state oppression.
In any event, activists should not allow themselves to be intimidated by allegations of inconsistency, hypocrisy, or worse, from making the choices that they are forced by necessity to make.
The main thing is to ensure that those choices are considered ones. After that, diversionary tactics from those who choose to defend human rights abusing regimes are perhaps only to be expected.
• Follow Comment is free on Twitter @commentisfree