Monday, January 24, 2011

Embracing neighbours, eroding rights

New York, August 2001. It is a few weeks before the 11 September atrocities but I don’t know that yet. I am in a musty old Manhattan cinema, watching a film about the murder of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first prime minister after independence. My attention is drifting when a stony-faced US diplomat appears onscreen. America does not meddle in the internal affairs of other countries, the character says. The sparse audience erupts in a scornful laughter, a sound that will stay with me for years afterwards.

I was reminded of that laughter when I saw the reactions to the street protests that brought down Tunisian tyrant Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. “We can’t take sides,” Hillary Clinton stated. Her pal Cathy Ashton was more willing to salute the demonstrators’ courage. “The EU will stand side by side with Tunisians as they pursue their peaceful and democratic aspirations,” the Union’s foreign policy chief said.

Was this a glorious moment when the Brussels elite was championing the oppressed against their oppressor? No, it was a moment of sordid opportunism.

Far from despising Ben Ali, the West has courted him assiduously for much of his 23-year-rule. Under his yoke, Tunisia was something of a poster child for market fundamentalism. In 1985 – two years before he seized the presidency in a coup – the country embarked on a “structural adjustment programme” drawn up by the International Monetary Fund. Far-reaching privatisation ensued; the public sector was slashed so drastically that the rate of unemployment among university graduates became one of the world’s highest. Unconcerned about the limited prospects for young Tunisians, France, its former colonial overlord, heaped praise on Ben Ali. Jacques Chirac used to wax lyrical about the “Tunisian economic miracle”.

One part of the public sector was spared the knife wielded over the rest. Under Ben Ali, security would gobble up such a large proportion of expenditure that the country had 150,000 police officers for less than 10 million inhabitants. So it is little wonder that the US and its lackeys viewed Ben Ali as a valuable ally in the “war on terror”. Some of our governments thought nothing about sending Tunisians arrested on their soil home, despite the strong likelihood they would be tortured. The Italian authorities forced Medhi Ben Mohamed Khalaifia, a man previously convicted on terrorism-related charges, back to Tunisia in 2009. Held incommunicado for 12 days, Khalaifia has complained that he was beaten and threatened with rape by his interrogators.

In 2002, Romano Prodi, then the European Commission’s president, presented a plan to have a “ring of friends” around the EU. By that time Ben Ali’s status as one of the EU’s best mates had already been assured. Tunisia was the first of the EU’s Mediterranean neighbours to sign a fancy new type of “association agreement” with the Union in 1995. Entering into force three years later, the novelty in this accord was that it wasn’t only supposed to be about narrow economic issues but contained a legally-binding clause designed to protect fundamental rights.

Although assessments by the Commission’s own staff noted major deficiencies in Tunisia’s human rights record, the EU has contributed directly to propping up Ben Ali’s regime. Tunisia received €330 million from the EU’s budget between 2007 and 2010; it has also been allocated loans worth €3.6 billion from the European Investment Bank since 1978. Stefan Füle, the EU commissioner in charge of the European Neighbourhood Policy, may have signalled his support for the Tunisian protesters last week. One month earlier, Füle spoke about how his officials were in discussions with Ben Ali’s regime on how its relations with the EU could be elevated to an “advanced status”. That would involve bringing Tunisia into the EU’s single market for goods and services.

The caressing of Ben Ali is part of a wider pattern of letting political expediency triumph over the rights and needs of ordinary people in North Africa and the Middle East. In 2008 Morocco was granted the “advanced status” that Ben Ali coveted, despite how it occupies Western Sahara, plundering the territory’s natural resources in defiance of international law. The strengthening of EU relations with Libya, meanwhile, are being driven primarily by a xenophobic desire to keep Africans out of Europe. Tripoli has not accepted the 1951 Refugee Convention, which lays down basic rules on how asylum-seekers should be protected throughout the globe, yet this hasn’t stopped the Union from cooperating with it to push back – often brutally – those impoverished Africans who try to enter Europe via Libya.

Both Füle and Ashton are also involved in talks with Israel about giving practical effect to an agreement reached in late 2008 on “upgrading” its ties to the EU. Work on that dossier was slowed down because of the subsequent attack on Gaza but Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s openly racist foreign minister, is now trying to revive the momentum. When Ashton met him a few weeks ago, she spoke of how Israel-EU links are “strong and solid” and expressed hope that they will become stronger in the coming months. Ashton almost certainly knows that 1.4 million Palestinians do not have enough food to lead healthy lives because of the noose Israel has placed around the necks of an entire people. There are no reasons to believe that the noose will be loosened once the EU gets even closer to Israel; if anything, it could be tightened.

·First published by New Europe (, 23-29 January 2011

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