The past week has been an unedifying one in the world of international diplomacy.
World leaders have been at the United Nations in New York for their annual gathering at the General Assembly where they immediately disappointed with a watered down agreement to consider reforming how they deal with the growing numbers of refugees.
If that were not enough, the proceedings were then overshadowed by an outbreak of finger pointing between the Americans and Russians over the collapse of the Syrian ceasefire.
Washington accused Russia of bombing the humanitarian convoy in Syria that killed at least 20 and undermining the ceasefire.
Russia denied it was involved. But that hasn’t stopped the Americans continuing to stoke outrage against Moscow in same week the US itself had helped undermine the ceasefire by killing 63 Syrian troops in an air strike – an attack the US insists was unintentional.
Whether or not Russia did carry out the convoy strike, and past experience of the veracity of American allegations in conflicts where it has taken clear sides gives pause for thought (remember Defense Secretary Cohen’s claim ahead of NATO’s attack on Serbia in 1999 that 100,000 Albanians had been killed in Kosovo), Washington’s attempt to take the moral high ground over Syria is undermined by its actions in Yemen.
The Americans are supplying weapons and intelligence in support of the Saudi-led intervention in the Yemeni civil war that’s involved similar attacks on humanitarian workers, particularly hospitals and clinics.
Moscow is unlikely to feel under much pressure to change its approach in Syria as long as Washington doesn’t change its approach to Yemen
And it’s not just the Americans backing the Saudis.
As my former colleague, Robin Lustig, has pointed out in a powerful piece, the UK’s new Prime Minister, Teresa May, has brushed off criticism of British arms sales to Saudi Arabia emphasising Riyadh’s cooperation against Islamist terrorism.
The hypocrisy and double standards of the major powers and their allies – be they the Syrian or Saudi governments – are more than just words though.
They also directly undermine attempts to bring an end to the fighting and suffering of civilians that all parties claim to want – as I’ve argued before in the context of Ukraine.
With both sides effectively saying “do as I say, not as I do” and, in the eyes of their opponents, being rank dishonest, it makes it extremely difficult to build even the minimum of trust that’s needed for a durable peace effort.
As the siege of Syria’s second city Aleppo intensifies again and the Saudi campaign in Yemen grinds on, there is an urgent need for the main powers to get back round the table and at least agree to stop fuelling the conflicts.
But this week has shown that prospect seems remote.
So, one could forgive ordinary Syrians and Yemenis – living under siege and bombardment or having fled their homes to seek refuge elsewhere – for looking at the images from New York and being reminded of Nero and his proverbial fiddling as Rome burned.
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