Leading article: Double standards from the West will only feed the suspicions of the rest

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:29

A divided country; a leader who refuses to recognise the writing on the wall; an opposition movement backed by global opinion; the threat of a massacre of civilians: the similarities between the situation in Libya and Ivory Coast are striking. And yet the former has dominated the world's attention and prompted a humanitarian intervention, while the latter has elicited nothing more than an international shrug of indifference.

There are, of course, differences as well as similarities between the two emergencies. In Libya, it was the illegitimate despot, Gaddafi, who last month was threatening a massacre. In Ivory Coast the danger comes as a consequence of the United Nations-recognised opposition's push to take control of the Abidjan stronghold of Laurent Gbagbo, who lost last month's election but refuses to step down.

In Libya the rebels and the Arab League had explicitly requested outside military assistance. There have been no similar calls for intervention in Ivory Coast, beyond the existing UN force on the ground, from the opposition to Gbagbo or the African Union.

But efforts to put the two crises in separate categories are still not convincing. The UN's Security Council resolution 1973, authorising a no-fly zone over Libya, was passed because of the imminent danger of massacre of civilians. That same risk would appear to exist in Ivory Coast. Human Rights Watch has expressed its concern at the prospect of "mass atrocities" over the coming days.

The threat in Ivory Coast comes not from the rebel assault, but from the brutal militia groups and mercenaries that have been armed by the Gbagbo regime. Over the past three months, these forces have been responsible for executions, rapes and beatings of Ivorians believed to support the opposition. And a larger social collapse could be in store. Since last November's election, the economy has ground to a halt. A country that only a decade ago enjoyed the highest living standards in Africa thanks to its thriving cocoa exports is on the verge of chaos. Abidjan, once known as the Paris of Africa, lives under the shadow of destruction.

At the very least, those Western politicians who were banging the drum so loudly about the threat posed by Gaddafi in Libya should be raising similar concerns about the situation in Ivory Coast. UN appeals for funds to help the estimated million Ivorians who have fled the violence have so far raised little. And without the strong backing of Washington, Paris or London, they are unlikely to do so.

One of the persistent criticisms of Western-led military interventions in the developing world is that humanitarian rhetoric is used as a smokescreen to conceal commercial interests. That is not the case in Libya. If the West had been motivated by access to that country's oil, it would have been simpler to bolster the Gaddafi regime, which had been co-operating with the international community since 2003. Yet through its hyperactivity on Libya and its silence on Ivory Coast, the West does indeed give the impression of double standards.

While powerful nations pick and choose over where in the world they intervene, and on which humanitarian threats deserve attention, suspicion and mistrust about Western motives will thrive. If the principle of humanitarian intervention is ever to enjoy international legitimacy, it needs to be built on some minimum standard of consistency.

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