Adrian Hamilton: An ethical foreign policy is still within reach

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The Independent Online

No apologies for returning to the subject of human rights and an ethical foreign policy. It's what concerns a great many people. And it isn't just because of a knee-jerk reaction to horror pictures on the television. Out there, among ordinary citizens, there is a feeling that it shouldn't be like it is, not in this day and age of global communication and huge wealth.

And to those who dismiss those concerns as a naive demand that governments "do something", just look at the fate of the Chinese ship taking arms to Zimbabwe or the course of the Olympic torch as it makes its way around d the world. If it was up to governments, the arms would have been unloaded in South Africa and be already delivered by truck to Harare. If politicians had their way, the Olympic torch would have been relayed through the world's capitals with barely a murmur of protest.

In fact, the dockers of South Africa, by refusing to unload the cargo in Durban, have forced the arms ship to wander the high seas like the Flying Dutchman, unable to make landfall on any of Zimbabwe's coastal neighbours. In the same way, the Tibetan protesters have forced the torch relays to scurry along foreshortened routes not just in the Western cities of London, Paris and San Francisco but in the Asian locations in Japan and Jakarta.

Whether this will do much good for the poor people of Zimbabwe or Tibet may be open to question. They're in the end just gestures. Some would even argue that they will only serve to make the accused governments treat their oppressed people even worse. But then gesture is an essential part of politics. To keep a ship from docking, or force country after country to limit the route of a propaganda parade, is not to be dismissed lightly.

The point about these incidents is that they make it much more difficult for the politicians of the home countries to brush the questions aside. When South Africa's ministers or Japanese officials go to Zimbabwe and China, they are going to have to keep justifying in public their stance. Even President Sarkozy, desperate to get out from under the pressure of Chinese counter-demonstrations against French business, cannot renege on his previously announced concerns about human rights.

Yes, of course it's easy to be cynical about it all. If you look at the issues of most public concern at the moment – Darfur, Burma, the Middle East – all that has been achieved by outside condemnation is to show up Western impotence. We've huffed and we've puffed and we haven't even blown the garden shed down, never mind the house. But that should be a cause for sober reflection not despair.

The reality of today is that the military solution so beloved of Tony Blair and President Bush has proved disastrous. The idea that the US, Britain and whoever they could rope in as allies would march around the world, re-ordering regimes at will, has been shown to be entirely counter-productive. Indeed the whole concept of righteous Western intervention is looking a throw-back to the Victorian past. There is at least an argument that the most positive thing that the West could now do for human rights around the world is to shut up and look to its own. Its constant meddling – in Haiti, Somalia or Iraq – has done nothing but harm.

And yet people in the democracies (and that includes countries such as Japan, South Africa and Brazil as much as the West) have a right to feel that others should have a right to the privileges they enjoy and that their governments should support those principles, abroad as at home. The world would have been a better place if we hadn't sucked up so much to Saddam Hussein and almost every dictator round the world (we still do, viz Central Asia and the Arab world).

Even short of largely counter-productive measures such as sanctions, there are pressures that government can apply, if only in denying relationships and agreements to regimes which are inimical to us. Never underestimate the effect on people within those countries of knowing that their cause has support outside.

On a more practical level, we could and should be doing far more to offer asylum to the persecuted and endangered and to give more aid and protection to refugees fleeing across borders. It is a standing rebuke to the West that it has found it so much easier to mouth condemnation of offending regimes while doing so little for the refugees from Iraq, Burma, Tibet, the Congo and all those other peoples we claim to care about.

Humanitarian intervention may have died a deserved death, but an ethical foreign policy is far from moribund and far from a Western construct. Just ask the dockers of Durban.