John Kampfner: Who will fight Europe's last dictator?

It sticks in the craw to hear William Hague disparaging the honorable approach Robin Cook adopted as Foreign Secretary

Thursday 30 December 2010 01:00 GMT

On the morning after elections were rigged in Europe's last dictatorship and KGB thugs beat up and arrested presidential candidates, the home page of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website led with a tribute to Brian Hanrahan and a warning about the weather.

Hanrahan was an excellent journalist and lovely man. Snow was certainly causing havoc at our hapless airports. But the fact that these two stories were given greater prominence than an act of thuggery in Belarus, a country on the doorstep of the European Union, says everything one needs to know about the priorities of British foreign policy.

Later in the day, the Europe minister, David Liddington, put out a proforma statement of rebuke. Forty-eight hours after that, William Hague finally mustered the energy to express his "extremely serious concerns" at "what appear to be forced recantations". The Foreign Secretary offered no view about the rigged elections, even though OSCE monitors declared the honesty of the outcome to be either "bad" or "very bad" in half of Belarus's polling stations. Hague's mild statement was sandwiched between departmental praise for improved relations with the Netherlands and a five-year strategy for South Georgia and the South Sandwich islands.

Compare this to his language in 2006, when President Alexander Lukashenko last stole the elections. It was time, the then shadow Foreign Secretary declared, to support the people of Belarus "and take a harder line against a government that is forfeiting its legitimacy, and it is certainly time for more European governments to say so".

Everywhere one looks, authoritarian regimes have never had it so good. Democracy promotion is as good as dead – not that it really functioned as a coherent philosophy. A number of facts have caused its demise.

The first, inevitably, is the record of Tony Blair and George W Bush. Not only did Iraq destroy humanitarian intervention as a central tenet of international policy-making, but the record of the US and UK governments in promoting or tolerating torture, secret "rendition" flights and other abuses of international law denuded their actions and assertions of credibility.

The second is the economic rise of China, and the surprising resilience of Russia. China's overt rewarding of lucrative deals to countries that turned a blind eye to human rights abuses has produced clear winners and losers. Those governments that have caused trouble – such as, briefly, President Sarkozy's ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics – have been heavily penalised. The boycott of Carrefour stores in China was spectacularly successful. French business leaders lobbied ministers against any such repetition.

Now when leaders visit Beijing they go through the motions of complaining about the imprisonment of dissidents; but they know how far they can push. Developing countries, particularly in Africa, have for several years seen the merits of economic deals with China, with no political strings attached: the so-called Beijing Consensus.

As for Vladimir Putin, he is increasingly confident in parading the might of Russia's political, business and security elite working to each other's mutual benefit. The further sentencing this week of Mikhail Khodorkovsky – the oligarch who failed to play the game – was a telling reminder of the hegemony of the 21st-century variant of state power.

The third rationale regards the first two as a given. Officials privately point out the futility of British initiatives at the United Nations. Ever since Iraq, the Brits have had to hide behind others to get any of their business through, knowing that thanks to that misadventure their clout was spent.

Shortly after taking office, David Cameron called for a more "hard headed, commercial" approach to foreign affairs. He saw the damage that had been done by Blair's combination of Manichean fervour and supine support for the United States. As he once famously put it, there was little point in promoting democracy from 30,000 feet in the air.

Now, with spending cuts, it is unlikely that the UK could make an effective contribution to a US-led military intervention, even if it wanted to. Cameron's re-balancing back towards an unromantic notion of national interest brings foreign policy back to the pre-Blair era, when John Major stood by and watched the genocides take place in Bosnia and Rwanda. He had safety in numbers. The Americans and Europeans were doing the same – until the scale of the horrors galvanised governments into action. From that point, the international community (much, although by no means all of it) coalesced around the notion that universal values took precedence over national sovereignty. In other words, where human rights were being trampled on, others had the right to intervene, by force if all other means failed.

None of this is happening now. Barack Obama is grateful to be out of Iraq and is keen to divest the US of Afghanistan as soon as possible. He cannot be blamed for seeking to shed these two inheritances. Elsewhere, the Americans are doing all they can to ensure they do not get involved.

Perhaps Obama, Cameron and their like are bowing to the inevitable. It sticks in the craw, however, to hear Hague disparage the honourable approach adopted by Robin Cook, when he became Foreign Secretary in 1997. Cook sought to place human rights as a pivot of UK foreign policy. Gradually this emphasis was watered down, and now barely exists – although Hague pays rhetorical lip service.

Belarus is not a faraway country about which we know little and care even less. Or at least it shouldn't be. Sandwiched between Poland and Russia, it suffered horrifically during the Second World War; it absorbed more radioactive contamination from the Chernobyl disaster than its neighbour, Ukraine. Unlike Ukraine and other former Soviet states, Belarus's flirtation with democracy was cursory. Unlike Russia, its security service didn't feel the need to rid itself of the name KGB.

With the KGB at the fore, Lukashenko has over the past two weeks undertaken a clampdown brutal even by his own standards. Seven of the nine presidential candidates have been arrested, alongside an estimated 1,000 people taken into custody. Many have been severely beaten, with rumours of systematic torture. Key figures in the Belarus Free Theatre, which my organisation hosted alongside Jude Law, Sienna Miller and others at the Young Vic less than a month ago, have been rounded up.

Every day we receive several reports of violence and intimidation. We – and others – do what we can to draw attention to the plight of pro-democracy activists. The response? Governments go through the motions. The Germans at least summoned the Belarussian ambassador to Berlin. They, the Poles, Czechs and Swedes, are making more noise than the rest. The EU tried for years to win round Lukashenko with the offer of trade deals in return for loosening up. This might have worked, but didn't. Instead, Putin – who had been critical of the Belarussian dictator – now has him back on board, selling him cheap oil in return for fealty to Moscow.

Realpolitik is back with a vengeance. We have learnt lessons from Iraq and other misadventures, but they are the wrong ones. In place of hubris, we now have cowardice.

John Kampfner is chief executive ofIndex on Censorship and author of'Freedom for Sale'. To sign the pro-democracy petition for Belarus go to:

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