It has not gone unnoticed in the UK that this week, the 30th anniversary of the “no-fly zone” resolution of 1991 that saved Iraq’s Kurdish region from yet more murderous attacks from Saddam Hussein, a street in the regional capital Irbil has been named after Sir John Major.
The former UK prime minister played a pivotal role in driving UN Security Council Resolution 688. His work, and the intervention of states to safeguard those under shameful attack, have never been forgotten.
It was a high watermark of liberal intervention, when powerful actors — from near and far — had the will, confidence and capability to act effectively to save lives, in conjunction with those in affected states who believed that their lives were worth more than the hell in which they lived, and that better days were to come.
Times have changed. Interventions from liberal democracies and their allies have either come, as in Iraq, or not come, as in Syria, with equally disastrous consequences.
The UK is engaged anxiously now in encouraging prospects for peace in two places where its engagement has been rather more questionable — Libya and Yemen — while continuing to back a return to diplomacy with Iran through a revived nuclear deal. The British government’s narrative of intervention with NATO in Libya is much disputed, not least in the UK Parliament itself.
But echoes of what David Cameron’s government tried to support, after the gruesome ousting of Muammar Qaddafi, can be clearly seen in the roadmap being pursued by Libya’s government of national unity now that the weariness of war and the stalemate of forces have given way finally to an opportunity for that better future which is deserved by the people of Libya.
The UK was not alone in believing in 2011 that foreign boots on the ground were counterproductive to local efforts to reconcile political, military and tribal factions. Britain put its efforts into determination to help build the institutions of government denied to Libya for so long under Qaddafi’s rule. In the event, such efforts were premature, with seven years of misery prior to the recent historic meeting in the Libyan city of Sirte.
But at the heart of the agreement that has been reached, after strenuous efforts by local politicians and UN envoys, are the building of those institutions and fair elections without the presence of foreign troops to seek to impose their will on the Libyan people.
The Libyan government, with the prominent inclusion of high-profile women, seems determined to demonstrate that new voices will be heard, and it must be essential for the harmony of the region that this effort succeeds. If foreign forces return and undo all that is being attempted, the impact will not just be felt in Libya.
The UK was not engaged in a similar way in Yemen, but in backing the coalition that sought to prevent the Houthi ousting of the legitimate government, it has faced severe domestic criticism. Media in the UK have been slow to be even-handed in describing the conflict, often missing the impact of Houthi rule in affected areas, and concentrating on the impact of coalition airstrikes elsewhere.
However, as penholder in the Security Council, the UK has painstakingly sought to work with all parties to support the UN envoys striving to secure a solution, having made publicly clear some time ago that it saw no military solution to the conflict.
There can only be the diplomatic and political conclusion that gives Yemen the chance to recapture the opportunity of the post-Ali-Abdullah-Saleh National Dialogue, allowing the true voices of Yemenis — especially youth and women — to make their own future for the country.
The UK still holds to its view that a world in which Iran abides by an agreement not to pursue nuclear weapons is better than one in which it is not, so it supports the tentative return to negotiations that is the subject of much shadowboxing at present.
The rest of the world, far from blameless in its recent or more remote history, has grown used to a Middle East and North Africa of endless, unresolved conflict or dispute. The recent pandemic has given us a new phrase — “no one is safe unless all are safe” — endlessly repeated by governments of all stripes fearing the impact of contagion. How different the world and region would look if we adapted that concept and said “no one is at peace unless all are at peace,” or “no one is fed unless all are fed.”
The contagion we should all worry about are the areas of unrest, of growing numbers of young people with seemingly nothing to lose as the rest of us recover from the virus. We fool ourselves if we think such contagion is easily containable.
- Alistair Burt is a former UK MP who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as parliamentary undersecretary of state from 2010 to 2013, and as minister of state for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK
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