Foreign policy isn’t easy. One cannot always predict with accuracy the outcome of a decision made in Whitehall or Brussels, and we should not be too quick to judge people’s failings – even if drafting and enacting sensible policy is their only job, for which they are paid handsomely.
Having said that, the least we should expect from our elected representatives is that they should avoid the obviously ridiculous – policies which are not just not guaranteed to work, but are in fact obviously doomed to fail, to result in loss of life, or both.
It’s now been a fortnight since the UK General Election.
In between an inexplicable drive to fulfil every negative stereotype associated with it (promising to scrap the Human Rights Act, pledging to legalise fox hunting, criticising the NHS, naming a woman who opposes gay marriage as Equalities Minister and a man who opposes the BBC as Culture Secretary, and arguing that we should no longer ‘leave alone’ those who do not break the law), the UK government has also managed to take a stance on Libya which appears poorly-researched, impossible to achieve, likely to make matters worse in Africa, at EU level and for the UK internationally, and entirely unaffected by respect for human life.
It’s a hell of an achievement.
As explained in previous blogs, Mare Nostrum – a programme in which people attempting to cross the Mediterranean to escape war, terror or starvation were rescued from drowning – ended in October 2014, when EU states refused to continue to pay for it.
Here in the UK, Conservative politicians told the public that the programme had to end because it acted as a ‘pull factor’ for desperate people to attempt the crossing, even though the boats are known as death boats to those unlucky enough to feel the need to use them, and in any case ‘you just might be pulled from the middle of the sea if you are drowning, if you’re extremely lucky’ didn’t seem like a particularly strong selling point for a water voyage.
Then last month, in just two days, more than 1,200 people drowned in the Mediterranean.
The EU announced a plan to tackle the crisis.
It was widely criticised, including in a previous blog on this site, because although it proposed restarting sea rescues, it did so only at a reduced scale, and because of its other components.
One of these was trying to stop people attempting to make the crossing at all, which places an impossible demand on African and Middle Eastern states to prevent people travelling between them, while simultaneously sentencing to death all those who would be prevented leaving states where they face war, repression, torture, starvation or death by preventable disease.
Another is blowing fishing vessels from the sea, which is difficult logistically (how can anyone be sure whether a boat is being used to carry people, or for fishing?), likely to endanger the already perilously precarious livelihoods of many Libyans and potentially to push yet more people into the arms of armed and unscrupulous military groups who would then have the extra pulling power of promising ‘protection’ from a militarised EU which uses force against them.
But there were some positives. Though lifeguards and search and rescue teams (not to mention every single human rights and humanitarian organisation to have engaged the issue at all) have decried the new plan’s avoidable and unacceptable shortfalls on human life, there is at least a proposal to pull more people from the sea should they be about to drown (just not enough of them), and alongside that, the proposals included suggestions that EU member states should have some obligation to allow a certain number of people each year to make a new life within their borders.
Which is where the UK government steps in.
Home Secretary Theresa May spoke – seemingly with a straight face – on the proposals, claiming in one breath that: ‘The UK has a proud history of offering asylum to those who need it,’ and in the next that: ‘we will oppose any EU Commission proposals to introduce a non-voluntary quota [of refugees to be taken by member states including the UK]’
May’s use of language is telling. She could just as easily have argued that ‘the UK will not be forced’ to take a set number of refugees (this is what UKIP would have said, playing to its gallery of people who oppose the EU’s supposed iron grip over the UK).
But instead, she chose to invoke the word ‘voluntary’. This word, with its positive connotations of ‘rolling up one’s sleeves to help with no ulterior motive’ is a signal of weakness, a sign that she knows most people in the UK are at least interested in the reasons why people might want to risk death to get here, and help them not to die if at all possible.
And it suggests that if only it were allowed to, the UK might happily volunteer to welcome people who needed help into the country, where they might be able to flourish and thrive – safe from violence, arbitrary imprisonment and the threat of death – and become an asset to the UK, rather than a stateless individual, a person reduced to a ‘problem’.
But it also contains steel: the word ‘any’ meaning not only will we not sign up to this proposal, but that we will never sign up to anything like it, whatever the context, however many people might die, be maimed or be crushed under the heel of some politician or militia.
So it’s worth taking a look at exactly how the ‘voluntary’ model has worked so far in the UK.
In response to the Syrian Civil War, in which 12m people are in urgent need of aid, with seven million people within Syria forced out of their homes and more than four million forced out of the country altogether, The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) called for each developed state to offer sanctuary to 30,000 people.
The UK has accepted just 147 Syrian refugees.
That’s what ‘voluntary’ means in this context: being the world’s sixth richest state and taking just 0.5 per cent of the requested number of human beings who sit, awaiting death, whether from terrorist torture and decapitation, bombing by their own President, or bullets from panicking (and losing) rebels – not to mention the good old-fashioned chance of dying a grim death from starvation or a disease caught from filthy water – with the added frisson of being under canvas far from home while experiencing it.
On 18th May, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told UK media that ‘Saving lives is not a long-term solution.’
Now, he probably meant we should not be planning a future in which people repeatedly risk drowning and have to be pulled from the sea, but the problem is that from a UK Foreign Secretary, that should be clear and it simply was not.
Because ‘saving lives’ should be our long-term plan. What else is the point of being Foreign Secretary of one of the world’s richest nations?
Certainly, we can all agree that ‘saving lives’ in the sense of ‘pulling drowning people from the sea’ is not an aspiration to which we should all dedicate our lives, but the UK is an incredibly wealthy state and along with France the historical source of its wealth – its extensive global empire – means it is in an excellent position to save lives in a far more meaningful and effective way: by using its cash and influence to improve lives in the countries where people are currently terrorised.
For politicians with imagination and talent, that opportunity would be a Godsend – a genuine project on which to expend brainpower and energy. Of course, it would not be simple, and would require at least as much listening and consideration as action, but politicians who enter politics for an easy ride should not be allowed to hold positions of national – let alone international – importance. We all deserve better.
Instead, Hammond has decided to back up his argument that ‘saving lives is not a long-term solution’ by offering that the UK will take a lead role in military measures – including drone strikes – to attempt to ‘prevent’ people boarding boats, both by targeting the boats themselves, and those who operate them.
Now, this plan would require UN approval, and it is desperately to be hoped that it does not receive it, not least for the reasons laid out above: it will destroy livelihoods and strengthen armed resistance against the EU, which is one of the few political blocs with both the wherewithal and the reason to actually help people’s lives improve in the Middle East and Africa.
If this were a political blog, this might be the moment to come up with a slogan like: ‘faced with the choice between construction and destruction – with the choice between improving people’s lives or ending them, and between intervening to help or intervening to smash – the Conservative Party has chosen the latter. Its dedication to ‘keeping things the same’ is, ironically, so strong that it is prepared to irrevocably change them at micro- level in an attempt to return to some perceived golden era at the macro’.
It’s tempting for many people to believe such a thing. But the reality is slightly more complicated – and in many ways even more depressing.
We shall come to what that is in the next blog…