Australia's successful ascent to the UN Security Council will require it to address issues it had previously been happy to simply let pass by. One of these is the increasingly hypocritical attitude Western states have adopted towards democratisation in the Middle East.
While I was taught many years ago that hypocrisy is the language of international relations, I have always held that a middle power such as Australia could swim against the diplomatic tide and take a principled stand. One of those principles should be an unequivocal, rather than selective, support for Arab democratic reforms.
A few years ago it was possible to divide the Middle East into good and bad autocracies; the good ones were pro-Western and the bad ones anti. There was no serious thought to lending support to political opposition movements at this time. Those that did exist were either Islamist or communist or Arab nationalist or Arab socialist, which were neither friends of the West nor advocates of true democracy. There was no real incentive for Western political leaders to push individual rights and the like when there was no chance of making progress.
Then came the Arab Spring, and with the halting democratic gains made in the region as a result of the collapse of autocracies in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, the incongruity between which countries the West criticises and which it accepts is becoming increasingly apparent.
It is a difficult policy issue: how to promote equality, democracy and respect for the rule of law while some of your closest regional allies are doing their best to repress them? The UK is undergoing a partial retrospective about the balance between principles and pragmatism on this very issue. The dilemma the US faces on the Bahrain question has been canvassed, but the US also has massive interests in Bahrain and, more importantly, in Saudi Arabia.
Australia is normally in a good position in this regard: we are far enough removed from the Middle East to go about our business quietly and not allow ourselves to get mixed up in diplomatic hypocrisy. Except of course when we adopt the high moral ground without any consideration of the fact that it weakens our credibility to call for action in one country based on a set of principles not applied universally. Take, for example, Foreign Minister Bob Carr's forward leaning stance on anti-Western Syria when he remains mute on the same issues plaguing pro-Western Bahrain.
Below is an excerpt of an interview the Foreign Minister gave last week to George Negus on MSF-TV. By substituting a few words (in brackets) it is easy to see that Senator Carr's calls for action on Syria apply equally to Bahrain:
I mean with Syria (Bahrain), I think one key to it is that you've had this model of a dictator president (king/emir) for life in the Arab world. And even worse an inherited dictatorship for life. So Gaddafi's (choose Gulf ruler) son was set up to take over from the old man. Same with Mubarak, the Mubarak family in Egypt. And we actually saw a transition from one lifetime dictator, to the son of a lifetime dictator in Syria. Now decades of dictatorship by the one side, by the one family, by the one clan, leads to violent, bottled-up desire for change. And overlaid in the case of Syria (Bahrain) with these sectarian considerations, the anomaly of the Alawite (Sunni) community – 13% (35%) of the population having a monopoly of power, certainly in the respect of army and military for decades, was just going to lead to a reaction, and very likely a violent reaction, from larger elements of the population. And our job has got to be to in the context of a ceasefire to urge power sharing – a new power sharing formula – that results in an ethnic religious balance in the context of democratic institutions. It's a tall order.
I have searched for any criticism of the Bahrain Government uttered by Senator Carr but have come up empty handed. Even his predecessor Kevin Rudd managed to say something on Bahrain last year (even though he did join in the Sunni Arab game of muddying the waters by ensuring that 'Iran' and 'Shi'a' were included in the same sentence).
Senator Carr's silence is perhaps understandable given the intense lobbying that preceded the UN Security Council vote and Australia's desire not to upset voters with something as impolite as human rights and political freedom. Much better that we get a seat at the table.
So now that we have got the vote, our voice can be heard, right? Well, it would seem not. When Bahrain announced a ban on all protest gatherings last week, some muted criticism emerged from the UK and from the UN Secretary General. Even the US State Department professed to being 'deeply concerned', which is pretty strong language, diplomatically speaking. Like getting whipped with uncooked, rather than cooked, spaghetti. But nothing from Canberra.
So while the Foreign Minister advocates a somewhat 'ambitious humanitarian intervention in Syria, which says in the small print that it would 'ideally require' a Chapter 7 resolution from the UN Security Council, he remains mute on an issue in which our voice could carry more weight: the way in which a sectarian minority rules over the majority without any willingness to reform politically. As long as they are a pro-Western minority, though, it would appear that Australia applies a different set of rules.
Photo courtesy of DFAT.