This autumn, I was due back to my old desk at the UN General Assembly, as a new president of what is the nearest thing to a global parliament prepared for world leaders to arrive in New York. For family reasons, I was unable to return to the UN.
Frankly, I am relieved that I did not.
To be British, even to be an internationalist Brit, and to try and look others in the eye at a time when the government of this country is aiding and abetting Israeli war crimes in Gaza, would have been too much to bear. As a seasoned UN diplomat said to me recently while surveying the bulldozed wreckage of international law and the much-vaunted ‘multilateral rules-based order’ from UN headquarters, ‘the Global South will not forget this’.
Nor should it. My old colleague’s country, Trinidad & Tobago, has been lectured for years about the importance of the rules-based order, despite it having once been a British colony and a country that has never threatened any of its neighbours near or far. Twenty years ago, its representatives listened attentively as President Bush and his acolytes told the United Nations about the weapons of mass destruction that Iraq never had. They watched as Afghanistan was bombed and pointlessly occupied for even longer, and they witnessed a ‘humanitarian’ regime change in Libya, courtesy of Britain and France, for reasons they can be forgiven for forgetting. They saw the impotence of the UN Security Council, riven as it was by divisions amongst the Permanent Five and allowing Syria to virtually bleed to death.
To add insult to injury, last year another Permanent Five member, Russia, invaded Ukraine. This time, the West was on firmer ground; it waxed fulsomely about the illegality of the occupation; the fact that international law was being ripped asunder as hospitals and schools came under attack. And then came 7 October and the unspeakable Hamas attacks and the Israeli response. All of a sudden, international law became something of a plaything, it could be applied to the Russians but not the Israelis. In Britain, Keir Starmer made it clear that ‘self-defence’ could include collective punishment, stopping food and water from getting to civilians.
In Ukraine, we arm the occupied. In Israel/Palestine, we arm the occupiers even more.
Trinidad & Tobago, whose former Foreign Minister, Denis Francis, is the elected President of the UN General Assembly this year, unsurprisingly voted with two-thirds of other Member States for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. It had been impossible to get a similarly worded resolution through the UN Security Council because of the US veto.
If there was a percolating stench in the UN headquarters, it was of Western hypocrisy.
Not so long ago, there used to be talk of a ‘global Britain’ post-Brexit. Always something of a chimaera, today it is quite dead in the water. It is no more. Britain’s slavish support for the USA and Israel leaves it at odds with most of the rest of the World. Only Germany, for obscure and abject reasons of its own, continues to bury its head in the ground and also not see war crimes being committed. Britain is probably more internationally isolated than at any time since the disastrous attempt to wrest back the Suez Canal in 1956. Remember, back then it was the US who read the riot act to the British and French?
The only saving grace is that the overwhelming majority of people in this country want a ceasefire and for this war to end. And then you look at the decayed carapace of politics and media that makes up the crutch for Netanyahu and his assembled thugs, and you realise that these are the same people who would and did support Apartheid South Africa and Ian Smith’s racist Rhodesia, and who have been unerringly wrong on virtually every major international issue over the decades. Israel today stands as isolated as South Africa once did before the winds of change finally caught up with it.
If there is a difference today it is that the post-war generation of politicians that had actually seen war close up and were determined, along with the United Nations they helped create, to end the scourge of it, have gone. They have been replaced by a pusillanimous bunch of professional politicians, aided and abetted by a truly parochial media. You know that this is an abject breed when, from Badenoch to Lammy, Starmer to Shapps, you hear the low whine that ‘Israel must minimise civilian casualties and abide by international law’, even as they see and know that Israel is doing the exact opposite. And it does the exact opposite because it knows that it can.
When the late former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai Lai — who former Tribune UN correspondent Ian Williams once famously drank underneath a table — was asked, ‘What are the effects of the French Revolution? He answered, ‘It is too early to tell’. Benjamin Netanyahu, as he prepared to unleash his dogs of war, told them that they were going to ‘re-make the Middle East’. That bit, he may have got right, although it is, of course, too early to tell.
But we may not have that long to wait for the cold fury that is currently coursing through the veins of all right-minded people at the utter perfidy of their leaders to surface. We have all seen things that we never thought we would see. We have heard and read things that we never dreamed of in our worst nightmares.
And then, the same enablers — the Bidens, the Shultzes, the Sunaks and the Starmers of this world — will have the temerity to ask us for our votes.