The disaster movie in which we are living has revealed its latest twist, as comic book psychopath President Vladimir Putin has gone “full tonto” in the words of the UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace. With the assistance of his henchman, Alexander Lukashenko, the archetypal dictator of autocratic vassal state Belarus, Putin hurled his military machine into a democratic European nation. These two tyrants are perhaps apex representations of toxic masculinity. We who are not in harm’s way watch in disbelief, united in our heartfelt anxiety and empathy for the Ukrainian people and our outrage on their behalf. They are enduring far greater horrors.
Many throughout the West retort, “We didn’t see that coming!” Did we not? Indeed, are we not in part responsible for such wild acts of geopolitical disorder and criminality? Have we not encouraged a sense that despots, tyrants, and other violators of human rights now enjoy complete impunity? The response in our timid age of non-interventionism has been to make strongly worded statements and to apply sanctions: the virtue signaling of international affairs. Over the past decade, there has developed an understandable public distaste for distant, rudderless foreign campaigns with opaque purposes and yet which cost us dearly, both financially and in the blood of our young men and women. This public mood has created the environment in which leaders, focused more acutely on strategic and financial gains, can do so at the expense of international geopolitical and humanitarian concerns. Putin will have assessed the landscape and observed peak Western navel-gazing and self-loathing in the form of the Biden administration, a “Pontius Pilate President” who washed his hands of moral responsibility for the people of Afghanistan. Putin must have asked himself, “Why would a President that presided over the cowardly and inept retreat from and consequent destruction of Afghanistan suddenly develop the moral instincts and backbone that would prompt any kind of defense of Ukraine?”
To be clear, it is right and good for governments to be devoting attention to the work that brings prosperity and security to their own citizens, but their responsibility to their own citizens includes a responsibility to other nations and peoples who are not being permitted lives of peace and freedom. Though it can be challenging for governments to find the balance, these are not always conflicting or mutually exclusive interests for nations to pursue. Our democratically elected governments do not represent us well when they choose to overlook the crimes of other leaders and governments for our strategic and financial gain. It does not serve the public to erode our innate national sense of compassion and responsibility. Absolving ourselves of responsibility has international and local consequences.
In truth, what is striking about the Free World’s response to the invasion of Ukraine is that it has been unusually decisive. The war in Ukraine seems to have stirred the Western world from its non-interventionist slumber. To date, responses have fallen short of a “no-fly zone” or “boots on the ground,” as there is perhaps reasonable concern about the potential for unimaginable escalation by an unpredictable and well-armed Russia and her allies. However, there have been an array of targeted responses that have been more comprehensive than President Putin would ever have imagined. They came, no doubt, as a surprise to Putin in part because Western nations have been willing to act in spite of the cost to their own economic interests. Responses have been well-designed to isolate Russia financially and more generally from the international community, and smart warnings have been issued stating that evidence of war crimes was being collected for presentation in the International Criminal Court. All such actions have told a compelling story of a world united in its determination not to let this stand.
That being said, there is another drama playing out that exposes a grotesque and perversely ironic inconsistency in responses to the egregious acts of barbarity committed by governments. The International Olympic Committee has rightly expelled Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing at the Paralympic Games. However, this is fairly meaningless when those Games are being hosted by China, which not only continues to take a broadly hostile posture against the Free World, but also mysteriously hasn’t been called to account for the virus that brought the world to its knees over the last few years. China, moreover, continues to tighten its stranglehold on Hong Kong, and, most appalling of all, has been committing a genocide against its own citizens. At least a million Uyghur Muslims have been held in concentration camps, subjected to torture, extreme sexual abuse, enforced abortions, and mass sterilization amongst other revolting inhumanities. I imagine these Uyghurs might be bemused by the IOC’s ruling.
China is by no means the only offender that appears to believe it is above any meaningful standard of decency and justice and is beyond the reach of any external means of accountability. All over the world, a blind eye has been turned in recent decades to countries that have been committing appalling human rights abuses or have not responded adequately to abuses committed within their borders. We can look at headline-grabbing conflicts such as Syria or Yemen. We can look at unrelenting rights abusers such as Iran and Myanmar. There’s the Taliban misrule in Afghanistan. The people of Sudan are desperately seeking support from the international community as they try to claw back their hard-won democracy. The regime in Algeria has clung doggedly to power in spite of widespread pro-democracy protests over several years. Vicious episodes of mass violence in Nigeria remain unaddressed. The list, obviously, is a long one.
The religious freedom dynamics at play are more obvious in some of these cases than in others. However, the fundamental human right to freedom of religion remains a “canary in the coalmine.” Russia has already exported its brand of intolerance toward religion to parts of Ukraine that it has occupied. In Russia there are laws against evangelism, which is a central and peaceful tenet of many religions. There are also bans on religious groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Ukraine on the other hand is comparatively open and free. These dynamics might seem to be fringe concerns while Russian bombs are falling on maternity hospitals, but they are significant.
In Algeria, authorities have long been closing churches, prosecuting religious leaders on unjust charges, and denying the basic rights of minority religious groups such as the Ahmadiyya community. In Afghanistan, some of the Taliban’s most brutal cruelty targets Christians and Hazara Muslims. Whilst it may be a subject widely misunderstood or disregarded in international affairs, we cannot pretend that there aren’t dynamics relating to religious freedom in those places where abuse and instability are prevalent and growing.
Comparisons between the current conflict in Ukraine and the outbreak of World War II shouldn’t be made as casually as they have been. However, it is pertinent to consider the religious freedom dynamics as the Nazis developed their handle on power in Germany, and their hate-fueling propaganda about the Jews. World War II was about the defense of sovereign nations against the aggression of invading powers, but it was also about standing against a profoundly evil ideology that set about eliminating an entire ethnoreligious presence. It is noteworthy as well that Hitler remarked, in expectation of impunity for his own atrocities, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” He was referring to the systematic destruction of over a million Armenian Christians around 25 years earlier. The lack of consequences for the earlier genocide emboldened Hitler to commit those unfathomably monstrous crimes.
This is further reason for decisive, strategic, intelligent, and wherever possible multilateral intervention by comparatively upright nations. We need to realign our priorities and develop new mechanisms for positive influence. There must be genuine consequences for the Putins, the Xis, the Raisis, the Tebbounes, their inner circles, and their like around the world. We need to take a stand earlier and deal in principled ways with the perpetrators of abuses, even when it is costly to our own strategic and financial interests. If the Ottomans had not benefited from impunity during and after the First World War, would Hitler have had the confidence to do what he did? If Putin had been punished adequately for the myriad human rights abuses he has committed within Russia, or the earlier annexing and interference in parts of Ukraine, would he have brought a new war to Europe in the way that he has?
Even if it doesn’t involve military intervention, the Free World needs to rediscover its identity and its confidence as a global force for good, with lower thresholds for taking decisive, unified action, and greater attentiveness to “canary violations” like those against religious freedom.