Thursday, 27 October 2011

Lessons from Libya

by Martin Pollard


In a lecture at the Temple of Peace earlier this month, Alan Doss reminded us that the United Nations is not a pacifist organisation. In its search for peace and justice – at least when that is what its members seek – an international alliance will sometimes have to choose a violent way to bring about change. Doss, who worked for the UN throughout his career but saw his greatest challenge at the end of it, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, faced criticism from Congolese refugees who accused him of not doing enough to prevent violence there. But while the Congo’s situation may be unique in its level of depravity, with rape being used as a systematic weapon of war, it is not unique in demonstrating that where international troops intervene in a national conflict, things will inevitably get dirty. Iraq and Afghanistan provide our clearest recent examples of what can go wrong.

However, no-one who is committed to democracy or human rights should doubt that sometimes, the violence used to bring about change is justifiable when weighed against its longer-term benefits. It looks as if Libya falls into that category and, I would argue, provides a case study about which pacifists might think long and hard.

Saying this, by the way, is not the same as saying that we should ignore the abuses carried out by liberators, or that we should applaud Muammar Gaddafi’s swift and bloody execution. Plainly, the former are inexcusable in the context of a fight for freedom and democratic rights; we can only hope that reconciliation with Gaddafi loyalists is not all the harder as a result. The latter is a greyer area, as it’s clear that seeing the dictator’s corpse paraded on national television has been cathartic for Libyans, most of whom frankly had no interest in seeing him tried in court. But the justice seeker in me wishes it had been otherwise.

As many journalists noted, Gaddafi’s end looked like that of Saddam Hussein. Months after losing power, he had lost the country and his name had lost its power to terrorise. He was found in a bolthole, and despite keeping his promise to die in Libya, the end was inglorious. But attempts to draw comparisons with the actual conflict in Iraq are less fruitful.

First, this was a widely backed military intervention, endorsed by the United Nations and, perhaps more importantly, the League of Arab States. The UN resolution that decided NATO’s course stressed that this was a mission to protect Libyan civilians from Gaddafi’s attacks, under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine hammered out following the international community’s inaction in Rwanda. Gareth Evans, who co-chaired the commission that developed R2P, said:

"The international military intervention in Libya is not about bombing for democracy or Muammar Gaddafi's head… Legally, morally, politically, and militarily it has only one justification: protecting the country's people."

That was on 24 March, a few days after the action began. In the months that followed there were worldwide cries of “mission creep”, as the intervention evolved from simply protecting civilians into an all-out effort to unseat Gaddafi’s regime. But what remained constant throughout those months was that NATO essentially played a supporting role. This was a genuine popular revolution with nationwide support from those who had seen their communities beaten, starved and denied a voice for 42 years.

Secondly, Libya has seemed remarkably united behind efforts to oust the dictator, with Gaddafi loyalists evaporating to an insignificant (though well armed) minority in a relatively short time. And there seems a real hunger for democracy throughout the country, despite the recent suggestion that sharia law will hold sway. The optimistic view is that Libyans will simply not allow a strongly Islamist government to take root, and that they will prioritise their new freedoms over tribal differences. But even if they do not, Libya is still no Iraq: there is no powder keg of ethnic and religious conflict waiting to be lit, and no comparable regional influences seeking to undermine the new order.

Debate will continue to rage over the way in which NATO plainly exceeded its authority in pursuing regime change in Libya. There will also be voices raised in objection at the UN’s selective protection of Libyan civilians from their own government, when it has done little or nothing in Syria or Burma or Zimbabwe. Richard Falk at Princeton University argues that the UN needs to separate the responsibility to protect from geopolitical considerations, and proposes establishing a UN Emergency Force in future cases – similar, perhaps, to the international standing army sought by Lord David Davies, founder of the Temple of Peace.

But whatever course that debate takes, Libya does remind us that international intervention can work; that military force is a legitimate means of protecting human rights; and that pacifism as a principle is difficult to defend. What happens next will, if the peace is secured effectively over the coming months, be up to ordinary Libyans. And that’s as it should be.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

A bagful of promises

By Martin Pollard

Anyone doing the usual hellish trawl of Cardiff’s shopping metropolis on Saturday will not have failed to notice that something has changed. How much it affects you, of course, will depend on your existing eco-credentials, or at least your penchant for a rucksack. Yes, the carrier bag charge – mighty symbol of a new green Wales – has arrived, and shop assistants everywhere are tiring already of the need to remind us.

Don’t let my soup├žon of sarcasm give you the wrong idea: the 5p charge is clearly A Good Idea. We should doubtless be proud that our newly-empowered lawmakers have decided to follow the example of Ireland, albeit at a lower rate and without any of the new funds entering public coffers. It’s just that one might argue – as George Monbiot did at the weekend – that in the grand scheme of environmental sustainability, it isn’t really that big a deal.

The Federation of Small Businesses was determined to makea stand against it all, even though consumers themselves seemed supportive. “There's a lot of confusion and I think it will take a long time for people to get used to the charge,” they noted, a comment which could hardly be translated into rage by even the hardiest of tabloid headline writers. The Western Mail did, however, manage to make a “storm” out of the fact that the Welsh Local Government Association doubted the law’s enforceability.

The real importance of this law is that it will prove, once again, that legislation is better than regulation if you want the nation to change its lifestyle. We’ve seen it with the decline in smoking, and with the ban on using our phones when driving. On the flip side, one look at our hopelessly inadequate response to the obesity crisis is enough to tell us that so-called ‘self-regulation’ by the food industry simply doesn’t work.

But charging for carrier bags is painless. It will take a few weeks, or months at most, for everyone to accept it as a fact of life and take reusable bags wherever they go. No-one makes a big sacrifice. Dealing with the ramifications of climate change on a bigger scale is where the real challenge lies.

Oxfam recently reported that the Horn of Africa, already suffering a devastating drought which has killed thousands and forced nearly a million Somalis to leave their homes, faces a likely temperature increase of 3-4°C by 2080-2099 relative to 1980-1999. Quoting a Royal Society report, they predicted a 20% decline in yields in maize crops and up to 50% in bean crops. That’s just one region of one continent, but Somalia is one of the poorest and least stable countries in the world. The effects of climate change, as we are continually reminded by NGOs desperate for swifter global action, will be felt most keenly by those who have the least resources to cope.

It’s not even as if our governments fundamentally disagree on the science of climate change. Last December in Cancun, nearly every member state of the UN agreed on a whole range of principles including cutting carbon emissions, helping developing countries to deploy cleaner energy, and getting a grip on the destruction of rainforests. But it’s the political leadership back home, after the inspiring words have been spoken on the world stage, that is lacking.

Here in our cosseted world of the developed North, we have still not come terms with the fact that dealing with climate change really is going to mean making sacrifices. We can dream all we like about fleets of electric cars, vast investments in renewable energy, or the wholesale dismantling of global capitalism to make way for some kind of pastoral localist idyll. But in real world politics, what will really make the change will be when world leaders are brave enough to stand up and start saying, “Sorry – this is going to hurt.”

No more cheap flights. Big increases in taxation for private cars and investment in sustainable transport. Public campaigns to eat less meat. Until governments start speaking up for these kinds of steps – and there are many more – we, the public, are unlikely to adopt the wholesale change of mindset that will be necessary if we really mean business. Climate change is likely to be the defining issue of the twenty-first century – politically and socially as well as environmentally – and we need our public figures to face up to it. Like the Poor Laws or the start of the welfare state – but a global issue in an unprecedentedly globalised world – we need a wholesale change in our society’s narrative. Individuals and communities will contribute in important ways, but we need the political weight and financial wherewithal of our governments to make the really big changes.

I do believe that this change will come: it has to. But as mitigation of climate change fades inexorably into adaptation to its reality, we can only hope that it will happen sooner rather than later.