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Many oppressive regimes in North Africa and the Middle East have been preserved in order to maintain regional stability. The U.S. and the EU have turned a blind eye to despots that have kept their countries in an iron grip, even going so far as to actively support regimes such as Egypt's Mubarak, Tunisia's Ben Ali, Libya's Gaddafi, the Moroccan royal family, Algeria's Bouteflika, Saudi Arabia's elite and others.

The importance of regional stability has been the world’s excuse for refusing to act against the brutality of dictators, decades-long states of emergency, repression of women and rigged elections. Indeed, the risks associated with regional instability – increased chaos, immigration, violence and extremism – are used as propaganda by despotic governments to perpetuate their own existence. When referring to these risks, they often ask, “You don’t want that, do you?”

Behind the scenes, there exist real political interests: searching for oil and other natural resources; controlling the Suez Canal; maintaining regional stability; and gaining generous contracts for Europe and the United States, often at the expense of the people and democracy. Hefty rewards for top politicians – including the exclusive holidays recently given to French ministers – comprise another factor. .

What is currently happening in the region is encouraging. People want to take control over their communities and thus their own lives. Many people’s involvement is based on a desire to speak their minds without fear of imprisonment and to gather and organize themselves without having a visit by the security police. They simply want to live in freedom.

Due to the EU’s history of tacitly supporting the region’s dictators, the people of North Africa do not always trust the EU. However, many opposition figures in the region remain inspired by European democracy along political and social dimensions, especially in terms of human rights.

The EU was formed primarily for its own member countries’ interests, but EU members must follow the commandment to do unto others as they would others do unto them. With this in mind, the EU has a responsibility to act on behalf of democracy and human rights in North Africa and the Middle East. In this, Sweden must take a lead role. Our lack of colonial history in Africa, combined with our historic commitment to freedom for oppressed people, gives Sweden the credibility needed to empower democracy’s legions. But Sweden has to act.

To this point, Carl Bildt, the Swedish minister for Foreign Affairs, has acted sparingly and his statements on such matters have been rather peculiar. In a meeting where EU foreign ministers were gathered to discuss the unrest in Libya, Bildt said: “It’s not about supporting one side or the other, it’s about achieving stability and fostering reasonable development.”

This attitude is as cowardly as it is dangerous. It is cowardly because it falters on the most pressing need: to support those who demand democracy against the incumbent dictators. It is dangerous because it could add to the already Eurosceptic opinion in the region, thus strengthening the forces that want to turn the opposition against Europe and against democratic values.

Also, the international community must consider the legal tools available to them through the United Nations. Can a government that conducts air attacks against its own people be considered its people’s protector? How can the International Criminal Court of Justice (the ICC) be used to examine crimes committed by the dictators of the region?

There will come a day when we will look back on these historic times and ask ourselves what we did. My opinion is that there are very few neutral sites from which oppression can be watched. Either you’re part of it or you’re struggling against it. As Aung San Suu Kyi said, “use your freedom to promote ours.”

Secretary-General, Olof Palme International Center

Published: 2011-04-07

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