The final question of this afternoon’s lesson was, “who should have protected the Jews?” It was a lesson on the anti-Jewish laws enacted by the Nazis between 1933 and 1942, challenging material for Year 8 students. There was no real answer to the question, who was there who would have protected powerless people?
I remember 1991 when the Coalition forces were sweeping north through Iraq; crushing an ill-equipped Iraqi army. Alec, my neighbour, a countryman not given to radical opinions, watched the progress on his small television. “Do you know, Mr Poulton, if Kuwait had fields of cabbages and not oilfields, no-one would have gone to help them”.
I nodded agreement, but felt that I should demonstrate some sort of establishment view, “But Alec, isn’t it right that we should defend a country against aggression?”
“Aye, certainly”, he said, “but it seems odd that we can only do the right thing when there’s something in it for us”.
My mind had gone back then to some twelve years from that conversation, back to 1979 and David Owen speaking at a student union meeting. The government in which he had been Foreign Secretary had lost power the previous May and Owen felt free to express his own views. “The first duty of the Foreign Secretary”, he asserted, “is to protect the national interest”. No high principles; no doing what was right for the sake of it; no asking what is good and what is true; the national interest, plain and simple.
Perhaps it was always thus, perhaps self interest and profit have always been the determinant of policy; even the religious wars of the Middle Ages, fought for supposed reasons of “faith” were deeply motivated by the belief that if one engaged in such conflicts it would bring tangible eternal rewards.
It is twenty-five years since the Rwandan genocide, and Alec’s words were as much true for that time as they would have been in the 1930s The British, French and Americans did not intervene because there was nothing in it for them. Foreign forces went into Kigali to take out the foreign nationals; the Africans were completely incidental. The United Nations force lacked the strength to save more than a minimal number of lives.
How many genocides have passed while the world discussed the merits of intervention and passed resolutions at international conferences? A blind eye was turned to the atrocities in Darfur because the Chinese were actively involved in the Sudan and no-one could afford to alienate the Chinese; it would not have been in the national interest.
Nearly a million people died in Rwanda during these days in 1994 while the outside world did no more than listen to reports on the radio. There was no profit in intervention then as there was no profit in intervention in the 1930s. No-one cares for those who have nothing to offer.