John Kerry speaks about the situation in Crimea during a town hall meeting with university students at the State Department in Washington on 18 March. Photo: Getty
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For our most powerful and hypocritical leaders, crimes are those that others commit

There is egregious hypocrisy and unctuous sanctimony at the heart of western foreign policy.

Is there a better case study in brazen hypocrisy than the ongoing crisis in Crimea? Not just on the part of the loathsome Vladimir Putin, who defends Syria’s sovereignty while happily violating Ukraine’s, but on the part of western governments, too.

Where to begin? Speaking at the US embassy in Kyiv on 4 March, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters “how incredibly moving” it had been to “pay my respects . . . at the site of last month’s deadly shootings”. He extended his condolences to people who “battled against snipers on rooftops”. What they stood for, Kerry continued, “will never be stolen by bullets . . . It’s universal, it’s unmistakable, and it’s called freedom.”

Unmistakable? Universal? Nice try, John. On 14 August 2013, at the Rabaa al-Adawiya square in Cairo, Egyptian security forces attacked a sit-in by Muslim Brotherhood members which had begun in July after the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Brotherhood. As in Kyiv, snipers on rooftops fired on the crowds below. More than 900 protesters were killed that day, in what Human Rights Watch called the “most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history”.

And Kerry’s response? He went through the motions of a condemnation, describing the violence as “deplorable”. Yet just three months later, on a visit to Cairo, he restated his view that the generals in Egypt were intent on “restoring democracy” and were “working very, very hard” to do so. There was no rousing rhetorical tribute to the brave Egyptians who had battled against snipers; no trip to Rabaa al-Adawiya to pay respects to the dead. The message was clear: our concern for the dead is shamelessly selective. So, too, is our outrage.

When Viktor Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine and an ally of Putin, oversees the killing of at least 70 protesters in Kyiv, he is deemed a criminal and a tyrant. When General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, head of Egypt’s military junta and ally of the west, oversees the killing of 900 protesters, he is “restoring democracy”.

Then there is the rather hysterical, if self-parodying, response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea from Kerry and his British counterpart, William Hague. “You just don’t invade another country on phoney pretexts in order to assert your interests,” pronounced the US secretary of state. “The world cannot say it’s OK to violate the sovereignty of another nation in this way,” declaimed the Foreign Secretary.

Really? Do these guys not have aides to check their statements in advance? Phoney pretexts and violations of sovereignty? In October 2002, Kerry voted in favour of the illegal invasion of Iraq, claiming that “the threat of Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction is real”.

Like Kerry, Hague voted in favour of the Anglo-American assault on Iraq and, as recently as three years ago, was still defending it. “We are leaving [Iraq] a better place and it was worth doing what we have done,” he told the BBC in May 2011.

“For the powerful,” as Noam Chomsky once remarked, “crimes are those that others commit.” For instance: it is “illegal and illegitimate” for Russia to try to detach Crimea from Ukraine by means of a dodgy referendum, Hague says. Indeed, it is. But was it any less illegal or illegitimate for the west to detach Kosovo from Serbia in 1999 with a 78-day Nato bombing campaign? Territorial integrity matters – until it doesn’t.

How about the west’s double standards in the Middle East? Fresh from berating Putin over his Ukrainian land-grab, David Cameron arrived in Israel, where he refused to allow the words “occupied” or “occupation” to cross his lips in a speech to the Knesset and described a halt to the construction of Israel’s illegal settlements as a “concession”. Can you imagine our PM calling a Russian withdrawal from Crimea a “concession”? Or threatening Israeli leaders with sanctions and visa bans? For the record, Israel has been occupying both the West Bank and Syria’s Golan Heights, in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions, for 47 years.

Most of these examples will be dismissed by the more fanatical apologists of western foreign policy as “whataboutery”. This is the term said to have been coined by the Northern Irish politician John Hume to denounce the practice of deflecting attention from a particular crime or abuse by bringing up a similar crime perpetrated by others.

Yet the point here isn’t to deflect or divert attention. Few on the anti-war left pretend Putin is anything other than a thug who yearns for the dark days of the Soviet Union, or that Yanukovych wasn’t a corrupt autocrat. Rather, the point of so-called whataboutery is to expose the hollowness of our leaders’ claims to hold any kind of moral high ground in the international arena – or to be ethically motivated by the loss of lives in faraway lands.

Yes, their hearts bleed for the victims of Putin, but not for the victims of el-Sisi. They are outraged at attempts by Yanukovych to call on Russian troops to help suppress unrest in Ukraine – but not by the pro-western king of Bahrain’s reliance on Saudi troops to stifle protests in his island nation.

The truth is that “whataboutery” is a term deployed to cover up the egregious hypocrisy and unctuous sanctimony at the heart of western foreign policy; to shut down any discussion of our glaring and shameful inconsistencies when it comes to matters of war and peace. Ironically, it is the accusation of whataboutery, not the whataboutery itself, that is the ultimate moral evasion. Because double standards matter. 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.