Adrian Hamilton: Bravery on one side, shame on the other

International Studies
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The Independent Online

Never mind Britain's failure to react effectively to the wave of uprisings spreading across North Africa – egregious although it has been. The real failure of response has been the EU's.

This has been the first crisis to hit Europe since the appointment of a Union President and a European Foreign Minister, in Lady Ashton. It has happened at Europe's backdoor in a region which Europe knows well, has extensive interests in and close political relations, too.

And what has been the policy reaction? The answer is little more than gestures. Urged on by the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was caught with his pants round his ankles, the EU has at last imposed sanctions on Colonel Gaddafi and his family. Other than that it has all been talk, with an extraordinary council meeting finally called for 11 March.

Just what good that will do, some three weeks after the Libyan troubles first broke out and a full month after Egypt went into revolt, is anyone's guess. More pronouncements of outrage, dire threats of intervention and a few sanctions gestures is the obvious assumption.

"2011," said the Deputy Prime Minister in Brussels yesterday, "is certain to be a defining moment for north Africa. But it is a defining moment for Europe, too."

Fine words, but it might be pointed out that, when the crisis blew up, Mr Clegg was on a skiing holiday and didn't, to anyone's knowledge, leap to the telephone to press for urgent action. Nor, indeed, did his speech yesterday contain any firm proposals other than a general call for the EU "individual member states, businesses and civil society" – to 'step up to the plate'.

This is not a plea for military intervention, or even the immediate imposition of a no-fly zone. The simple reality of the moment, as Washington seems to have recognised as it tones down its warlike rhetoric, is that the West cannot just declare a no-fly zone, let alone send in troops, of its own accord without some kind of UN sanction.

It may come to that. As John Major, who appears more and more an elder statesman of weight as the years go by, argued earlier this week, you have to evolve policy as circumstances dictate. Should Gaddafi send in planes to deliberately bomb civilians, then Nato could feel obliged to intervene, as it did when Saddam Hussein went for his Kurdish population after the first Gulf war.

Short of that, however, a no-fly zone would involve far more complications of tackling air defences and air control, let alone legality, than its benefits would warrant. As the US commander of the region said this week, it's not just a matter of announcing a no-fly zone and thinking it will happen of its own accord.

The trouble with these calls for arms is that they become alternatives to useful actions, not a route towards them. The rhetoric makes politicians feel better but it does nothing for the people on the ground.

Something can be done. Something should have been done, even on the most basic humanitarian grounds. When the young revolutionaries took over Benghazi and eastern Libya, it was up to us to have helped with aid, doctors, food or whatever in support. Finally, over the weekend, Sarkozy sent in two plane-loads of assistance. He was right. But it would have been much better if it had been, and was now, an EU effort of a much bigger scale.

Now we have a refugee crisis developing on both the Tunisian and Egyptian borders, with not a squeak from Europe as to how they might help. Yet both these countries are nations which have got rid of autocratic rulers. Why are we not helping them cope with this particular flood of refugees and why are we not doing more to assist them as they reach for a new order?

Sanctions against Gaddafi, no-fly zones, threats of military intervention – these are political responses which amount to direct interference in another country's affairs, hence Russia and China's reluctance to support them in the UN. Civilian aid is not, but the message it sends out to the people supported is clear and remembered.

The EU has never got its relations with North Africa right. Its efforts at a Mediterranean policy have been stymied by France's desire to use it for their own ends and by a general and growing anti-Muslim feeling amount the public and their governments.

On that score, Nick Clegg is right. The countries of the EU do need to match the bravery of the civilians grasping at change in the region. "They are creating a new world," as he puts it, "we need a new response."

Christians of the world unite

I never thought to say it, but it is time for Christian countries to stand up for Christian communities around the world. It has the wrong historical connotations, of course, what with Gladstone and the Balkans. And everyone remains terribly nervous of confrontation with Islam.

But the murder of the Pakistani Minorities Minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, is not just a blow against liberalism in that country (it's actually another blow against law and order of any sort), but also a sign of how far the fundamentalist drive for political power through religious purity is becoming an anti-Christian Jihadist crusade. All over, in Iraq, Coptic Egypt, Nigeria and South-east Asia, churches are being burned and religious minorities massacred because they are of a different faith.

Europe, as the Americas, has every right at this point to say: "No, if you attack our brethren, that we regard as an attack on our selves."

Of course you have to be careful not to play the religious card in an esssentially political situation. Of course it is important that you make clear that it is not only Christians, but all religious and ethnic minorities, that you care about.

But when it comes to it, we do have a special position toward co-religionists everywhere. There's no shame in expressing it.