Thursday, 8 July 2021

Learning the international lessons


One of the most difficult moral problems for humanity as a whole is the question of deciding when and how ‘the international community’ (a term which itself raises a whole host of issues) can or should intervene in the affairs of a sovereign state. In recent decades, the de facto answer has been ‘whenever one of the most powerful states decides that its interests are served by so doing’, a response which many would feel to be wholly inadequate, based as it is on the ugly principle that ‘might is right’. The idea of sovereignty is a powerful one, but other states must surely have some sort of right to protect themselves against the actions of states which decline to abide by internationally agreed standards. And what about a state which only endangers the lives and wellbeing of its own citizens – should the rest of the world simply stand by and watch, because ‘sovereignty’? Even those of us most opposed to the self-interested war-mongering tendencies of states such as the USA and the UK are left feeling very uneasy at the double standards which allow allegedly ‘friendly’ rogue states to oversee the deaths of thousands of their own citizens, and economic sanctions often end up impacting precisely those who are already the worst hit.

Insofar as it’s an issue that gets discussed seriously at all, it’s usually in terms of what ‘we’ should do about ‘them’. But perhaps we should also give it some thought in terms of what ‘they’ should do about ‘us’. Professor Richard Murphy drew attention this morning to this letter in the Lancet, signed by 100 scientists outlining why a policy of allowing mass infection by Covid should not be a policy option. This is a policy which certainly threatens thousands more premature deaths amongst UK citizens than might otherwise be the case, but as the authors point out, it doesn’t only impact the UK:

“… preliminary modelling data suggest the government's strategy provides fertile ground for the emergence of vaccine-resistant variants. This would place all at risk, including those already vaccinated, within the UK and globally. While vaccines can be updated, this requires time and resources, leaving many exposed in the interim. Spread of potentially more transmissible escape variants would disproportionately affect the most disadvantaged in our country and other countries with poor access to vaccines.”

That gives the rest of the world, and especially the poorest countries, a direct interest in the actions of what they might, entirely reasonably, perceive to be a reckless government which doesn’t even care about protecting its own citizens, let alone those of other states. Add to that a casual and increasing disregard for international law, treaties, and human rights, and it becomes legitimate to ask – at what stage should the international community start to take action, and in what form, against the rogue state which the UK is rapidly becoming?

Tongue-in-cheek perhaps, but not completely so. There are lessons to be learned from the pandemic, and they are not only the domestic ones from which the current government is incapable of learning as it strives to repeat them. There are also international lessons to be learned. As things stand, the world has shown that it is in no position to deal collectively with a viral threat to mankind. Yet there seems to be little thought being given to the changes we need at an international level to ensure a better state of collective readiness in future, and an ability to deal with states which decide to opt out of international actions. And the next novel virus could be a great deal worse than Covid.

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