Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Archive for August, 2015

Europe’s migrants: urgency and empathy needed

The 71 migrants thought to be Syrians – among them four children – found suffocated to death in a truck in Austria have added to the terrible toll of more than 2,400 people the UN says have drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year trying to get to the EU.

Events around Europe the day the bodies in the lorry were discovered serve to highlight both the sluggish and mean-spirited reaction in Europe to the thousands of people fleeing conflict and repression in the Middle East and Africa.

German Chancellor Merkel and EU Foreign Policy Chief Mogherini were holding a summit in Vienna with leaders from Austria, Greece, Italy and the Western Balkans when news of the gruesome discovery came through.

The meeting was already intended largely to discuss how to cope with the numbers of migrants passing through the region on their way to the EU. And while the expressions of shock from the leaders present were no doubt sincere, the fact the meeting was being held in late August when the flow of migrants began several months ago speaks volumes for the lack of urgency with which EU leaders have addressed the migration crisis.

It’s two months since they agreed in principle – with the exception of the UK, Hungary and Denmark – to share the burden of resettling asylum seekers. But as the numbers of migrants – and the number of deaths – has continued to climb, governments have continued to haggle over the details.

To her credit, Angela Merkel does now seem to have got the message. She has recently condemned as “shameful” an attack on a refugee centre in her own country and reacted to news of the latest deaths by saying “this reminds us that we in Europe need to tackle the problem quickly and find solutions in the spirit of solidarity”.

But will other European leaders follow suit?

In the UK, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has faced criticism for using inflammatory language talking of “a swarm of people” trying to reach the UK and his Foreign Secretary, Phillip Hammond, said migrants were “marauding” around the continent.

This is despite the fact the numbers trying to get to Britain are far lower than those trying to get to Germany – for every one Syrian applying for asylum in the UK, Germany receives 27 applications.

But the political and media climate in several countries shows it is not just governments that are falling short.

The same day the 71 bodies were discovered, the UK media was full of negative headlines criticising the government for failing to control immigration.

In his first term, responding to pressure from the press and opinion polls showing increasing public concern over immigration, Cameron promised to cut net immigration to under 100,000 a year. But the latest figures show his government is still a long way from that target. Net immigration has reached   330,000 and one in eight people now living in Britain was born outside the country.

Many journalists tend to conflate asylum-seekers and other migrants and the tone and emphasis of much of the coverage of migration this summer, especially since the disruption to cross channel links caused by migrants at Calais trying to get to Britain, has been – to put it politely – lacking in empathy.

In many reports you could be forgiven for forgetting many of these migrants are fellow human beings who have risked their lives to escape Syria, Iraq, Eritrea or Sudan and make their way to Europe to seek sanctuary.

Britain isn’t the only country where the politicians and journalists are neglecting the better angels of their nature.

Hungary, which is on the main migrant land route, has built a – largely ineffectual – fence to keep asylum seekers out. Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, didn’t even bother to go the Vienna meeting and his party responded to the discovery of the bodies in the truck, which was registered in Hungary, by laying the blame on the EU.

Unless Europe finds the political will and humanity to respond urgently and on the necessary scale to the flow of migrants, more people are going to end up dying.

But with the penny having seemingly dropped with Chancellor Merkel, Berlin appears to have decided it now has to act.

Germany is after all the preferred destination of most of the migrants with the country reportedly expecting up to 800,000 this year alone.

The country has also experienced mass influxes before in living memory.

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and the Nazis’ depredations in Eastern Europe, millions of ethnic Germans fled or were expelled from the region and were given refuge in their ancestral homeland. So, perhaps Germans are better able to feel sympathy for those fleeing conflict and oppression today.

Senior EU officials are also expressing optimism member states’ resistance to agreeing to accept quotas of asylum seekers is weakening as the death toll mounts.

We will see if the combination of German leadership and tragic news will galvanise other EU leaders and their citizens to respond to the needs of the moment with greater generosity and urgency.

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Japan: sorry seems to be the hardest word …. to accept

Imagine German Chancellor Merkel visiting a war memorial honouring senior Nazis. You can’t, can you?

Yet Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has done the equivalent, visiting the Yasukuni Shrine where high profile war criminals are commemorated.

His last visit in December 2013 met with loud protests from Japan’s neighbours China and South Korea who arguably suffered the brunt of Tokyo’s empire building in the first half of the last century. Even close ally the US tut-tutted about it.

Hoping to avoid another row, Abe has not visited since, but apparently tone deaf to the way this is perceived abroad, he has sent offerings, including on the anniversary last year of the end of World War 2 when the Japanese Emperor announced the surrender to the Allies on August 15th 1945.

This matters in the here and now because it adds to tensions in East Asia that are already rising as China’s growing power sees it trying to reassert its influence, upsetting the US-led post-war order in the region.

In the run up to this year’s 70th anniversary of the end of the War, there was much speculation about what Abe would say in his speech to mark the milestone.

Would a man known for his nationalism and whose own grandfather served in the wartime military government stand by the statements of several of his predecessors and apologise for Japan’s aggression and the suffering it wrought on its neighbours during its brutal invasions and occupation?

In the event he largely did.

He expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology”. He used key words like “aggression” and “invasion” that his critics were listening for. In the Q & A with journalists after the speech he also said he stood by the Murayama Statement, considered the benchmark for Japanese apologies.

However, if Abe was wishing to avoid criticism for being less than fulsome in his sentiments, there was more than one hostage to fortune.

The language he used to describe ‘’comfort women” – the euphemism used to describe the women, many of them Korean, who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military – was a bit oblique, talking of women “whose honour and dignity were severely injured”.

He also rather unnecessarily sought to explain – some would say justify – Japanese expansionism by saying the Great Depression of the 1930s and protectionism by western countries and empires isolated Japan and led to Tokyo resorting to war.

While there is some truth in this, you can rightly quibble with this interpretation given Japanese expansionism began well before the 1930s when they seized Taiwan from China in 1895 and occupied Korea in 1910.

But ultimately these equivocations are by the by.

Japanese leaders have repeatedly apologised for their country’s aggression and wartime actions and yet they have failed to convince many, especially in China and South Korea (it’s difficult to know what North Koreans think) that they are really sincere.

Germany is often held up as the example for Japan to follow.

Germans – despite the recent flare up of name calling over the Greek debt crisis – have successfully reconciled with their neighbours and largely been forgiven for the aggression and atrocities committed by the Nazis.

What explains the difference?

There is that lingering sense in Japan that western economic protectionism pushed the country into a corner in the 1930s, even if the resort to war by Tokyo was misguided.

The remorseless bombing of Japanese civilians during the War, including the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, may also help to explain why there is a stronger sense of victimhood in Japan than in Germany, where the Allies also directly targeted civilians.

Then there’s a heavy dose of politics and diplomacy.

In Europe, the Cold War led to reconciliation between European countries because Germany was central to the project of building a strong, united Western Europe as a counter to the USSR.

In Asia meanwhile, attempts at reconciliation took a back seat as the US built up Japan as a base against the spread of Communism after Mao’s victory in the Chinese civil war in 1949 and the Korean War in the early 1950s.

Japan didn’t establish diplomatic relations with China until 1972 and even then people to people contacts remained limited and the two governments avoided much discussion of the past in the interests of improving economic ties.

In more recent years, leaders in China and South Korea have used nationalist sentiment against Japan to bolster political support at home and Japanese leaders, especially Abe, have harnessed apprehension of growing Chinese power for similar purposes.

All this doesn’t mean the Prime Minister should not have apologised again in his 70th anniversary statement.

But it does mean that more needs to be done on all sides to overcome the bitterness of the past.

It also means if Abe – and others on the right in Japan – want their remorse and apologies to be accepted, they need to make sure their actions reinforce the message and don’t contradict it.

In other words, Japanese leaders need to stop visiting or sending offerings to Yasukuni or trying to imply that the aggression and atrocities of the past were somehow explainable at the time.

Yemen: proxy war and war by proxy

There’s more than one nasty war going on in the Arab world.

Iraq and Syria get most of the headlines in western media given the current focus on the threat from Islamic State to European and American interests and citizens, as well as the direct involvement of western military forces in the campaign against IS.

But there’s also a war going on in Yemen, which since neighbouring Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies intervened in March has claimed nearly 2,000 lives and caused a humanitarian crisis as Saudi forces have imposed a tight blockade on much of the country.

The Saudi-led coalition intervened when the complex on-going Yemeni civil war appeared to shift decisively against the government of President Hadi and in favour of Houthi rebels – Shi’ites seen as close to Iran.

The fighting appears to have escalated with Houthi forces being driven out of the strategically important port of Aden and a nearby airbase (which the US has used in the past to carry out drone strikes on al-Qaeda and its allies in Yemen and the region – told you it was complicated).

Reliable press reports suggest what seems to have turned the tables on the Houthis is the recent arrival of ground troops – both regular and special forces -from the Saudi-led coalition.

Saudi Arabia has also been funding Sunni rebel groups in Syria against President Assad, while Iran – rather than Russia – has been the main source of foreign support for the beleaguered Syrian government.

This aspect of the Syrian conflict is very much an old-fashioned proxy war and it has added greatly to the complexity and destructiveness of what is also a civil war.

The parallels with Yemen are clear. Though unlike Syria, Yemen is next door to Saudi Arabia and so direct intervention is a practical option.

To Sunni Saudi eyes, the Shia Houthis are like the Syrian government, which is dominated by Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam. They are apostates and allies of Riyadh’s great Shia rival for influence in Middle East – Iran.

But the Saudis are not freelancing. Its coalition’s intervention has the full backing of the United States, which is supplying arms and intelligence.

The US Navy has also been deployed off Yemen to prevent Iranian ships docking, citing suspicions they may be carrying arms for the Houthis.

So for Washington, Yemen is more like war by proxy against Iran.

In this way it resembles some of the conflicts of the Cold War where the US backed one side and the Soviet Union another.

What is also striking is the absence of any talk of “humanitarian intervention”.

There have been “humanitarian pauses” in Yemen where the two sides have agreed to (frequently broken) ceasefires to allow delivery of aid to civilians by the UN and NGOs.

But there has been no hiding that the intervention in Yemen is part of a good old-fashioned, geo-political power struggle.

Saudi Arabia moved when it thought its side was losing.

Perhaps after the debacle of Libya where the Responsibility to Protect was invoked and NATO, endorsed by the UN Security Council, intervened leading to the overthrow of Colonel Gadaffi and the country’s collapse into its current anarchic state, there is a realisation the humanitarian rhetoric just doesn’t wash any more.

Also, since Libya there’s been Syria.

If anything has demonstrated that the era of Sierra Leone and Kosovo in the late 1990s where western intervention in local conflicts was justified on moral grounds has passed, it is the international response to the Syrian conflict.

Instead of trying to help end an escalating civil war, the US, its western and Turkish allies took sides early against President Assad, who has been backed by Iran and Russia.

Despite this though, there has been a reluctance to get directly involved in the battle against Assad. Instead, the US has used its diplomatic muscle to try to undermine his government’s international legitimacy and support his non-Islamist opponents, as well as ill-fated efforts to train so-called moderate rebels.

For their part, Moscow and Tehran have propped Damascus up with arms – and in Iran’s case with money and military advisors.

In all this, the humanitarian interests of Syrian civilians have seemingly counted for a lot less than the struggle over the fate of President Assad.

The UN-led aid operation to help those forced to flee their homes has been chronically underfunded and most western countries have been reluctant to accept Syrian refugees – helping to drive the surge in migrants trying to get into the EU by any means.

So as the World continues its transition from one dominated by the US to one where there are competing centres of power prepared to back different sides in conflicts – and stymie UN action when their interests are directly involved – we can expect to become more familiar with proxy wars and wars by proxy like the one in Yemen.

PS

I was going to write about the EU migrant crisis this week but could not have said anything more poignant than my friend and former colleague, Robin Lustig. You can read his blog here.

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