Early on Saturday morning, British jet fighters, alongside partners from the US and France, undertook joint airstrikes attacking chemical weapons facilities claimed to belong to the Syrian government.
Shortly afterwards Theresa May, who sanctioned such action without the consent of parliament, made a statement outlining how the government had both a moral and legal basis to act. Later that afternoon Downing Street published the government’s legal position asserting – in the absence of any rulings, precedents or specific legislation – that striking a weapons facility was tantamount to “humanitarian intervention”. That such words were chosen with regard to military action speaks volumes about our establishment’s moral compass.
In late 2014 Operation Mare Nostrum – a year-long search and rescue operation for refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean – came to an end. A response by the Italian government to the Lampedusa tragedy the year before, where more than 360 people died, the operation had saved as many as 150,000 lives. But the cost of such extensive commitments were too high for Italy to continue alone, and the EU decided to replace it with a multinational effort called Operation Triton.
Costing a third of that of its predecessor and overseen by Frontex, the EU’s border agency, Triton was more an exercise in surveillance and border enforcement than saving lives. The following year at least 3,700 people would die trying to reach southern Europe – including Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old child whose body was washed up on a Turkish beach in September.
Those deaths were the result of a political choice collectively made by Europe’s interior ministers at the time, including our prime minister. Indeed, Britain led calls to scale back rescue operations, with Baroness Anelay – then Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs – telling the House of Lords that high chances of survival had created a “pull factor” attracting refugees.
The very same people who undermined coordinated efforts to save thousands from drowning off the shores of Europe – including Theresa May – now label missile strikes a “humanitarian intervention”. It is as gruesome as it is shameful.
Such hypocrisy is at the heart of Britain’s foreign policy, particularly so in the Middle East. In the last few weeks Israeli forces have killed around two dozen Palestinians protesting at the Gaza border – around the same number of people killed during a month of protests in Iran last winter.
And yet despite similar numbers of fatalities, the establishment presents the former as an almost inevitable tragedy – with the victims partly to blame – and the latter as betraying an undemocratic tyranny teetering on the brink. Nobody mentions regime change in Jerusalem, or blames the dead in Tehran or Mashad.
This double-standard extends to Turkey, a country which has purchased illegal oil from Isis and has thereby helped fund its operations. Turkey is meant to be on ‘our’ side in the Syrian conflict and yet its primary objective – rather than defeating Isis or Assad – is eliminating the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a vital player in overwhelming Isis so far. It is perfectly clear that Ankara is on a path at odds with Britain, France and the US – and yet nothing is said.
What’s more, Turkey increasingly resembles an autocracy. More than twenty people arrested in connection with the 2016 coup have died under suspicious circumstances while imprisoned, and it is an open secret that torture is once more in use among the state apparatus. Meanwhile more than forty newspapers have been shut down amid an unprecedented clampdown on freedom of speech. Yet rather than criticising such a regime, Britain sells weapons to it.
But even this unprincipled relationship looks stainless compared to our associations with Saudi Arabia. When King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz died in 2015, Downing Street released instructions to fly flags at half mast. This for a man in charge of a country where, at that time, women could not legally drive, vote or open a bank account.
Then there is the country’s new crown prince – Mohammed bin Salman. Praised as a moderniser across the west, his recent purchases include a $500m yacht, a Da Vinci painting that cost $450m, and a French chateau for $300m. During that time he has been a major player in prosecuting war in Yemen, where more than one million people have contracted cholera.
Rather than being criticised by our government, Bin Salman – perhaps the ultimate expression of autocratic power, avarice and greed – had his face plastered across London when he met Theresa May and Queen Elizabeth in March. Instead of sanctions, the City of London is eager to host any public listing of Aramco – the country’s giant state oil company – in the near future. In the place of demanding an end to war in Yemen Britain is set to build more jet fighters for the Kingdom than it does for its own air force.
Then there is Egypt. When Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won re-election as the country’s president in April, the prime minister called to congratulate him “on the chance to take Egypt further along the path of democratic transition”. This for a former general who led a coup d’etat against an elected government only five years earlier. He had just ‘won’ 97% of the vote.
Compare that to Downing Street’s response when Vladimir Putin won the Russian presidency a few weeks before. There the government highlighted a report which isolated multiple shortcomings in the country’s election. No doubt much of that was justified – but given the praise heaped on el-Sisi only a fortnight earlier, and the red carpet extended to Bin Salman – it said as much about the integrity of British politics as it did about Russia’s.
None of this is lost on the general public. While government ministers might talk about enjoying the favour of the international community, the truth is that when it comes to foreign policy, they aren’t even trusted at home. As much as our clear double-standard is losing Britain respect abroad – rendering it unable to be a fair broker in issues of diplomacy – it is also eroding faith in our system of government. Add the fact that recent action was prosecuted without parliament and ebbing legitimacy should be of concern to our politicians. Instead they label any dissent as ‘weak’ or the ravings of conspiracy theorists.
There is an alternative. Britain can be a pillar of a rules-based global system while helping the world’s vulnerable – particularly those subject to forced displacement and war. What that requires, however, is integrity, consistency and abiding by international law. This is infinitely preferable to being cajoled by an impulsive, duplicitous Washington or the narcissism of any single domestic politician.
As much as anything else, the last thirty years has hollowed out any belief that states can be a force for good in the world. Indeed to demand as much seems almost revolutionary. And yet that is what we must do. It is time for Britain to be a conduit for peace, prosperity and dialogue in the world – not distrust and double-dealing.