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Hypocrisy, Democracy, War and Peace

Dinner Keynote Address by Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, to Harvard University Weatherhead Center for International Affairs Conference on Democracy in Contemporary Global Politics, Talloires, France, 16 June 2007

As someone who has devoted most of his life to elective politics, Andrew Moravcsik struck a responsive chord with me when he observed earlier in this conference that legislatures and elected politicians are the least legitimate and most generally despised of all our governance institutions.

It is interesting to ponder just which of our sins it is that – in the league tables of most admired professions – puts politicians down there with used car salesmen and child molesters. I don't think it is any of the familiar seven deadlies: we know from recent US history that electorates can live with lust, and – if my experience in Australia even begins to match that elsewhere – gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride don’t seem to be show-stoppers either.

My own judgment, for what it's worth, is what people most associate with politicians as a class, and most hate about them as a result, is hypocrisy, and all the familiar variations on that basic theme: double-standards, unprincipled inconsistency, saying one thing and doing another. And it's on the dangers and risks of hypocrisy, not just in domestic politics but in international relations, and in a number of different contexts, that I want to focus this evening, Far from consistency being the hob-goblin of small minds, it's something that voters take rather seriously – and so do states in their assessment of each others' international behaviour.

I rather hope that what I have to say will mildly outrage some of you – there's always a chance with Max Boot in the audience – and generate a debate accordingly, but I suspect that at this late and speeched-out stage of the proceedings there is a better chance of being greeted by listless indifference. But, like Bill Clinton, I feel your pain. So I will keep my remarks as brisk and staccato as I can, and won't detain you too long from the sybaritic wallowing in which I'm sure you'd be much rather engaged.

Hypocrisy and Democracy

There are quite a few things we've learned about democracy promotion over the last few years, and most of them have emerged pretty clearly in course of discussion at this conference, so I will not labour too long over familiar ground.

First, it is obvious now to just about everyone that democracy – or at least liberal democracy, the only kind that means anything – is about much more than holding elections. Protection of human rights, especially minority rights and those related to freedom of expression, and respect for the rule of law, are indispensable concomitants.

Secondly, it is rather obvious now to everyone, except perhaps those most capable of doing it, that bombing for democracy – trying to deliver it on the tip of precision guided missiles, as my Crisis Group colleague Chris Patten puts it – is not, on the whole, a very good idea.

Thirdly, and maybe not so obviously, democracy promotion can be rather bad news for democrats. I am thinking in particular of the cries of anguish we have been hearing recently from civil society and human rights activists in Iran, who have – following the US announcement that large dollops of democracy funding will be headed their way – been subjected to a rapid increase in state repression. Maybe it's possible for this kind of external support to distinguish between promotion of regime change and support just for building the preconditions of democracy (voter rights, better information flows, transparency and the like), but at the very least we should be asking first those in whose interests we are supposed to be acting. Fighting for our principles to the last drop of someone else's blood is never very edifying.

The fourth big thing we should have learned about democracy promotion, which directly leads into my main theme, but doesn't seem to be at all obvious to most US and European policymakers, is that inconsistency is totally counterproductive: it is wholly damaging to the cause to advocate the case for democracy only when you are sure the that democratic process will produce an outcome you like.

It has not been a pretty sight in this respect to watch the almost universal Western disavowal of Hamas after it won the Palestinian election that the West had so enthusiastically supported. An International Crisis Group report shortly after that election argued strongly that the international community needed to focus on encouraging Hamas to govern responsibly, not to force it out of government or make the government unworkable by imposing conditions that nobody believed could be immediately met, and we summarised the Hamas response as we found it as 'let us govern or watch us fight'. Events since then have done nothing but reinforce the accuracy of that assessment – with the outbreak of civil war-level violence, the complete collapse of the strategy to arm and support Fatah at Hamas’s expense, the takeover of Gaza by Hamas, the collapse of the government of national unity, and the evaporation once more of hopes for resuming any kind of Israeli-Palestinian peace process for the foreseeable future.

Another less than edifying experience has been the constant wriggling of Western, and in particular U.S. policymakers, in the face of Pervez Musharaff's continuing authoritarian rule in Pakistan, and in particular the contempt that continues to be expressed by so many of them – more veiled in public, but often quite open in private – toward the democratic parties as they struggle, with signs of growing popular and elite support, to recover ground. One does not have to be naοve about the manifest failings of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif and their colleagues in the past, to nonetheless feel strongly, as I for one do, that New York Governor Al Smith was absolutely right when he said in the 1920s that 'The only cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy'.

Of course we have to face the prospect in the Islamic world, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, that if full electoral democracy is introduced there is a prospect that Islamists will be elected – and a risk that cannot be ignored that the first such democratic election might be the last: Hitler was after all democratically elected. But it is absolutely critical to recognize that 'Islamism' or Islamic activism is not a single-stranded phenomenon, and that it is only a small minority of Islamists – which are in turn only a minority of Muslims – that would even be tempted to go down this absolutist path.

As Crisis Group has spelt out in detail in our 2005 report, Understanding Islamism, there are in Sunni Islamism alone three very clearly distinguishable groups – the missionary (with no political agenda at all), the political (seeking power but by constitutional means and invoking democratic norms, of which the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is currently an example), and the jihadi (embracing violence, and with an extremist agenda) – of which the last is much the smallest. For those who think there is a risk in any brand of Islamism gaining a toehold through the democratic process, and would act accordingly to exclude that possibility, Algeria stands as an awful warning – with cancelled elections followed by a further ten years of brutal conflict.

Double Standards in Human Rights Promotion

Moving beyond democracy promotion to human rights advocacy generally, the short point to make – which again seems rather obvious these days to just about everyone in the world except those most in a position to do something about it – is that you lose your bragging rights and haranguing license when you are responsible for Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, secret rendition, extended detention without charge and all the rest of the Bush/Blair post-9/11 bill of goods. This hasn't exactly escaped the notice of the Chinas and Russias of this world, who are becoming increasingly less polite in their responses to concerns expressed about their domestic human rights records.

Having done a fair bit of haranguing on human rights in my previous foreign ministerial life – politely of course, because as everyone knows, subtlety and nuance are central to the Australian political culture – I am of course aware that having bragging rights about one's own record doesn't necessarily mean your interlocutors will take any notice when it comes to theirs. But we should never underestimate the effect of consistently and relentlessly applied moral pressure. However squalid their actual behaviour and motives might be, states – like politicians – always like to be seen as doing the right thing, and do get embarrassed when most of the world thinks they are not. Russia might be a tough nut to crack in this respect, but I do believe that China's recent moves to play a more positive role in Darfur, for example, owe something to that concern.

Selectivity in Responding to the Most Extreme Human Rights Abuses

This is another area of international relations where double standards are completely counterproductive, but unfortunately still in evidence. We may be past the Cold War days when political leaders could say openly and shamelessly of a given counterpart that 'he is a tyrant, but he's our tyrant, so what's your problem'? And we do, as an international community generally now accept that, after Rwanda and Srebrenica and Kosovo, that sovereignty is not a license to kill: that when a country's shamelessness reaches the point of a government being engaged in the large-scale killing or ethnic cleansing of its own people, or allowing others within the country to do so, then it’s the responsibility of the rest of the world to do something about it.

But while the responsibility to protect (R2P for short) principle was unanimously accepted by the UN World Summit in 2005, there is still a lot of uncertainty about what it means and how it should be applied in particular cases, uncertainty generated above all else by a spectacular misuse of R2P principles by the US-led coalition, supported particularly in this respect by the UK, in the case of the 2003 invasion of Iraq – and the suspicion that R2P will be just another excuse for neo-colonialist and neo-imperialist interventions by those who cant get missions civilisatrices and other bad old habits out of their system.

It is evident that quite a lot of uncertainty and misunderstanding persists about the nature and reach of the R2P concept. For the record, as one of the inventors of the concept, perhaps I can emphasise its three most central characteristics.

First, R2P situations are narrowly defined: those where large-scale killing or ethnic cleansing or comparable crimes against humanity are occurring or imminently likely to occur, or the situation is likely to deteriorate to this extent if not untended. R2P situations are not about less extreme human rights violations, or conflicts that do not have this atrocity crime dimension.

Secondly, R2P applies at three different stages along a continuum: it involves the responsibility to prevent, the responsibility to react (by all appropriate means, starting with persuasion, and coercion short of force) and the responsibility to rebuild societies after they have been torn apart in this context.

Thirdly, when it comes to the most extreme form of reaction, military force, that has to be done in accordance with carefully defined prudential principles. Proponents of R2P identify five in particular: the seriousness of the harm being threatened (which in the case of internal misbehaviour would need to involve large scale loss of life or ethnic cleansing to prima facie justify something as extreme as military action); the motivation or primary purpose of the proposed military action (whether it was primarily to halt or avert the threat in question, or had some other main objective); whether there were reasonably available peaceful alternatives; the proportionality of the response; and, not least, the balance of consequences – whether overall more good than harm would be done by a military invasion.

If these principles are understood, there is no guarantee that there will always be absolute agreement about what is a proper case for the application of the R2P concept, and in particular for the use of force. But there will be much less scope for the kind of hypocritical ad-hocery which has plagued so much of the debate on these issues in the past, and which has made it so much harder to develop an appropriate reflex international response when another Rwanda comes along, as we must continue to feel it will.

Inconsistency in Balancing Peace and Justice

Another context in which the absence of clear international rules, and of any kind of consistency in the behaviour of key players, has been deeply unhelpful, is managing the trade off between peace and justice.

This has become an increasingly central – and difficult – issue for those of us passionately committed to both human rights and conflict prevention. The existence now of the International Criminal Court, with its broad ranging mandate to attack once and for all the problem of impunity, has made it much more practically salient, as witness the current debates over the wisdom or otherwise of pursuing the prosecution of key figures in the Sudan government over Darfur, and the LRA rebel leadership while Northern Uganda peace negotiations are still under way.

Mixed messages and inconsistency of approach in this area have been less the product, I think, of deliberate double-standard intent than of genuine puzzlement as to what to do. But there are some guidelines that can get us through the morass, and it’s important in future that they be observed:

  • First, we should let the prosecutors and the courts get on with the task of prosecuting and overcoming impunity – with bulldog intensity. Their job is to focus on the interests of justice, not peace. If the interests of peace are however in play, and in a particular situation there is strong reason, backed by good evidence, to believe that a compromise on justice will produce a sustainable peace, and save thousands or more lives in the process, then that's a decision that can defensibly be made – but it should be made by someone else, with a political rather than legal role. In the case of the ICC, that power is vested in the UN Security Council under Article 16 of the Rome Treaty.
  • Secondly, if an amnesty or safe refuge decision is made in the interests of peace, that deal should stick. The classic case is Nigeria's initial grant of asylum to Liberia's murderous Charles Taylor in 2003, not at all unreasonable given the prospect then looming of thousands more deaths in the final battle for Monrovia. But the deal wasn't honoured: after the change of government in Liberia, Nigeria, under international pressure, subsequently handed over Taylor for prosecution, without making any serious attempt to prove that he had acted in breach of the conditions of his asylum. And the person who has taken most notice of this, and who constantly refers to it whenever it is suggested that he might, in the interests of his benighted country, take the option of a graceful exit from public life, is Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

Hyprocisy and Nuclear Disarmament

This final example of the risks associated with hypocrisy and double-standards in international affairs is probably the most familiar of all.

On the one hand we have the systematic unwillingness of the five original nuclear weapons states under the NPT to acknowledge that the disarmament provisions of the treaty mean anything substantive in their application to them; the unwillingness of most of them for years to acknowledge the reality of Israel's nuclear weapons status; and their comparative indifference to the acquisition of weapons status by India and Pakistan.

But at the same time we have an insistence by most of them that the absolute letter of the non-proliferation part of the treaty must be observed by the non-nuclear weapons states, with this issue coming to a head now with the ever more coercive action being threatened against Iran for doing essentially what it is entitled to do under the Treaty, viz. acquire full fuel cycle capability.

The unhappy truth of the matter is that with things having got to the stage they have, there is only one way out of the Iran dilemma, namely accept the reality of Iran's civilian ambitions (not least because of the complete unwillingness of most of the rest of the world to accommodate them) and draw a new red-line that is genuinely principled, consistent with the Treaty, and that will get universal buy in. This would involve Iran taking no steps toward weaponisation; having in place extremely intrusive monitoring to ensure that (justified by Iran's less than full disclosures in the past, which have rightly aroused suspicion); and all hell being credibly threatened – including in an extreme case military action – if that line is crossed. For all the brinkmanship in which Iran has so far engaged, and for all its clear ambitions to be a major regional player, there is every reason to believe that – with an appropriate combination of incentives and disincentives – this is a deal waiting to be negotiated.

Concluding Thoughts

Every one of the policy dilemmas I have described involves highly complex issues. Of course it is the case that national interests will intrude all over the place – as they always do – making the resolution of every individual case difficult.

The point I am making is that just as it is part of the essence of liberal democracy that the rule of law prevail, there be no arbitrary decision making and that so far as possible like cases be treated alike, so too it is the essence of a rule-based international order, as distinct from a wholly anarchic order, that like cases be treated alike, that rules and principles be developed and applied to cover the kind of situations that will go on arising, and that those rules and principles be observed, by the great and small alike, consistently, without double standards and without overt hypocrisy.

My own favorite line on exceptionalism – the dangers inherent in applying different standards to oneself than others, and thinking not in terms of creating and applying rules but of exercising raw power – comes from Bill Clinton, speaking a few years ago (and before the understanding of the scale and speed of China's rise was anything like as acute as it is now):

America has two choices. We can use our great and unprecedented military and economic power to try and stay top dog on the global block in perpetuity. Or we can seek to use that power to create a world in which we will be comfortable living when we are no longer top dog on the global block.

When the United States finally gets to understand the point of having rules consistently applied to which everyone is bound, there really will be no excuse for the rest of us behaving any differently. Hasten the day.