Racism and hypocrisy of the ‘civilized’ reaction to war

Racism and hypocrisy of the ‘civilized’ reaction to war - Article by Chris Doyle in Arab News, 5 March 2022


With each passing day, international support for Ukrainians grows. Landmarks across the world are lit up with the country’s yellow and blue, and many rightly praise the bravery of Ukrainians holding out against numerically superior forces. 

This is all a heart-warming reaction to aggression and occupation, but there are many oppressed people — not least in the Middle East — who can only dream of even a fraction of such international solidarity.

A key international legal principle underpins the world’s reaction to the latest Russian invasion, and forms the basis of the entire international order – the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory through war. Put simply, no state may gain land through conquest.

This was why an international coalition was formed to liberate Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion in 1990.  It is why,quite rightly, Russia is encountering massive opposition to what is clearly an illegal and unwarranted war against a neighbor who had threatened nobody and was living in peace.

For Palestinians, the West’s reaction to Russia’s war on Ukraine does not just leave a whiff but a stink of hypocrisy, double standards and even racism.

All of a sudden, international law matters. In Ukraine, the acquisition of territory is clearly not permitted, and must be countered with meaningful consequences. But Israel occupies Palestinian and Syrian land, and nothing meaningful has happened in 54 years; worse, all too often Palestinians are held responsible for their own occupation in an epic exercise in victim-blaming. Last week in the British Parliament one politician dared to claim that one should not compare Palestinians under occupation with Ukrainians under occupation, as if there were acceptable occupations and unacceptable ones.

All of a sudden, an illegal invasion and occupation are met with sanctions that will hurt the aggressor.  The Ukrainian government has handed its civilians weapons to resist the Russian forces. If the Palestinian Authority did that to fight off Israeli forces, international actors and Israel would be screaming “terrorism.”  One TV news correspondent even told a Ukrainian woman that she “understood” her decision to take up arms and resist the occupier. Can anyone imagine this being said to Palestinian civilians arming themselves to fight Israeli occupying forces? I do not recall Western journalists expressing such empathy for Iraqis who chose to fight the invasion of their country in 2003.

Syrians, too, might question where the outrage is when Russian planes have been bombing them, flattening their civilian infrastructure, and targeting their hospitals; in fact, Syria was the testing ground for the weapons systems Russia is using in Ukraine.  No one called for Russia to be thrown out of the World Cup, the Paralympics or the Eurovision Song Contest when its bombs were terrorizing Syrians.

The attitude to refugees is also telling. Too many in Europe and North America share the opinion of the Bulgarian prime minister: “These are not the refugees we are used to, people with obscure past, maybe terrorists … these are intelligent people, educated people.”

Daniel Hannan, a member of the British House of Lords and a leading member of the governing Conservative Party, wrote: “They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking … war is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone.” 

Charlie D’Agata, a reporter for a US news channel, said: “This isn’t a place like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades, this is a relatively civilized, relatively European city.” At least he had the decency to apologize later.

Another reporter declared: “Now the unthinkable has happened to them, and this is not a developing, third-world nation, this is Europe.” David Sakvarelidze, Ukraine’s former deputy general prosecutor of Ukraine, told a news channel how emotional he was at the sight of “European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed.” Another American commentator piped up with: “It just occurred to me that this is the first major war between civilized nations in my lifetime.”

Underlying all this is the reaction of sheer astonishment that war could be breaking out in Europe, with one state invading another. Many say this has not happened since the Second World War, conveniently forgetting what happened in the Balkans. Nevertheless, the overwhelming impression is that wars are meant to happen elsewhere in “uncivilized” places, and that those in the comfort of Europe and North America do not have to worry too much about the realities of these events and their roles in them.

The reaction to Russia’s behavior, the desire to hold Moscow accountable and to reverse the invasion of Ukraine, is laudable. It could even have been swifter, more decisive and unified. It should have been strong back in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea.

But it would have been so much more uplifting if these noble sentiments and this sudden newfound admiration for international law and accountability could be applied elsewhere too. Perhaps the more wealthy and privileged world could wake up to all the wars waged elsewhere, and the horrors they produce.

This racism must be addressed. Europe and America have a huge problem, once again highlighted in a crisis that will affect their relations with the rest of the world long after this war ends.