By Imran Garda
Here’s a little help if ambition ever drives you to one day hope to be a spokesman for the US government. Alternately, if decoding why very similar events can be officially responded to in completely dissimilar ways gets you as excited as it gets me - read on.
Secretary of state Hillary Clinton - after the watershed popular uprising in Egypt against Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year, authoritarian rule, where police have gunned down protesters from Cairo to Alexandra - urged "restraint on both sides".
The post-election crackdown in Iran in 2009, involving fewer cities, fewer protesters, and arguably less heavy-handed firepower from the government, provoked this warning from US president Barack Obama: "The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching...”
And as Churchillian in his eloquence as he always has been, he added:
"We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost. We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people. The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights."
State department spokesman PJ Crowley was similarly eloquent about Egypt with, "we want to see restraint on both sides"... or maybe not.
Twenty-one years ago, in December 1989, a month after the Berlin Wall fell and as Eastern Europe agitated to emerge from the failures that the worst of the Soviet Union had imposed on them for so long, Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu was ruthlessly cracking down on protesters very similar to those in Egypt today: protesters calling for democracy, freedom, economic opportunity and the need to speak freely and release the asphyxiating yoke he held round their necks.
They didn’t have the internet in Romania back then for Ceausescu to pull the plug on; there was no Twitter or Facebook to block and no Al Jazeera to close down; but reporters were barred from entering and telephone calls in and out of the country received 'busy' signals.
The White House, no ally of Ceausescu, had this to say:
"The repressive measures undertaken by the Romanian government are totally unjustified and stand in stark contrast to the positive changes taking place elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The United States condemns the brutal use of police force by the Romanian government."
Kim Jong Il’s subjects in North Korea, living in abject poverty as they praise the dear leader morning and evening, have it so tough that they would probably pine for a leader like Ceausescu. When he shelled the disputed Yeonpyeong Island, killing four South Koreans, we heard "The United States strongly condemns this attack and calls on North Korea to halt its belligerent action".
You don’t need a master’s degree in international relations to know that the little North Korean leader with an aversion to growing sideburns has few allies around the world, and you didn’t need to watch the spoof film “Team America” to know he’s certainly no friend of the United States.
When allies drop bombs
When allies drop bombs, and shell civilians populations however, the condemnations become more nuanced.
The special relationship with Israel was in evidence way back in April 1982, when successive Israeli air strikes targeting the PLO in the Lebanese towns of Damour, Aramoun and others killed 23. The state department said it “calls for restraint from both sides” and condemned unspecified “violence against Israelis”.
The Gaza War of December 2008 and January 2009 saw more than 1400 Palestinians killed, the vast majority of them civilians, according to the UN.
Israel bombarded the strip incessantly, and even used the illegal chemical white phosphorus in densely populated urban areas, a chemical which burns to the bone.
Hamas and other Palestinian factions fired homemade rockets at the Israeli towns Sderot and Ashkelon. Thirteen Israelis died in the war, ten of them soldiers. For the US, it was again a case of “both sides” needing to exercise restraint according to then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, with no hint of proportionality.
President Bush even went a step further, blocking the implementation of a ceasefire until Israel could meet its objectives:
“This recent outburst of violence was instigated by Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist group supported by Iran and Syria that calls for Israel's destruction...The United States is leading diplomatic efforts to achieve a meaningful cease-fire that is fully respected. Another one-way cease-fire that leads to rocket attacks on Israel is not acceptable, and promises from Hamas will not suffice. There must be monitoring mechanisms in place to help ensure that smuggling of weapons to terrorist groups in Gaza comes to an end,” said Bush.
While Bush was in the last moments of his presidency, the president-elect, the Arab world’s great hope, Barack “you had me at Salam’alaykum” Obama, refused to comment, saying there could “only be one president at a time”. The rule of one-at-a-time didn’t apply when he strongly condemned the Mumbai bombings two months before, saying: “These co-ordinated attacks on innocent civilians demonstrate the grave and urgent threat of terrorism...The United States must continue to strengthen our partnerships with India and nations around the world to root out and destroy terrorist networks.”
The protesters in Egypt are pinning their hopes on a US insistence that Hosni Mubarak step down - as they have insisted with Cote d’Ivoire’s incumbent Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to step down despite international observers, the UN and African Union experts having cast-iron evidence that he lost the recent presidential election to Alassane Ouattara.
Gbagbo was an ally of sorts. An ally-lite if you like. He ran a relatively stable West African state that was a healthy cog in the global economic machine that feeds our chocolate cravings, but he wasn’t of much greater geopolitical value besides that.
PJ Crowley explained that there was no room for negotiation with Gbagbo, and no place for him in the country’s future: "No resolution should include a power-sharing arrangement…The results of the election were clear."
And on another occasion Crowley pointed out: "For the future of democracy in Cote d'Ivoire and West Africa, he (Gbagbo) should step down."
But with Egypt, Clinton called for “a peaceful, orderly transition to a democratic regime”.
Cote d’Ivoire is still clawing back from the sludge of years of ethnic, religious and tribal tensions that sees a Ouattara-friendly Muslim-majority north and a Christian-majority south today; an army that supports Gbagbo, a man who continues to unleash additional militias on Ouattara supporters and UN peacekeepers in Abidjan and its surrounding areas.
Ouattara supporters, for their part, have driven thousands of Gbagbo supporters across the border into refugee camps in Liberia.
Each attempt to threaten Gbagbo with force, demand him to get out because he’s lost fair and square, only plunges Cote d’Ivoire further into a quagmire. But that’s okay, because it’s just Cote d’Ivoire - the stakes are not high enough to demand an "orderly transition" - let the African Union, ECOWAS and UN deal with the mess.
So this is how it works:
When an ally (who may well be the type to wonder what happened to the missing 0.1 per cent when he wins 99.9 per cent of votes at each of the last 12 elections he’s rigged) mows down peaceful protestors in the streets calling for change, or if an ally has a penchant for bombing civilians to smithereens, here is the template:
“We continue to monitor the situation and are very concerned about recent events in ______. We call for restraint on both sides. We urge President/Prime Minister/King ______ to facilitate dialogue and provide concrete steps towards a peaceful resolution.”
Luckily, there’s more flexibility if you’re not dealing with an ally - there is no stock template.
Try to throw in as many colourful condemnatory adjectives as possible. Toss in a couple of reminders of International Law, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Conventions; dig up a few things about what Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have to say - and basically be honest.
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