But have you noticed how easy it appears to be to write that with so little interest in the examples cited? Almost every piece citing, instrumentally, the tragic circumstances of the peoples of these countries as a reason to do nothing about Libya seems to run out of space just before making any suggestion about what, if anything, might be done if any of these cases.
Indeed, were anything proposed in one of these countries instead of Libya, there would surely be a knockdown objection: whaddabout Libya?
Of course, these are mostly weak, tangential answers to the question: "what could be done to prevent crimes against humanity in Libya?"
To call a double standard, you still need to decide which side of the fence you are on.
And there are good as well as bad reasons for making distinctions between different cases. The bad reasons often relate to the old 'stability over democracy' argument which the Prime Minister has criticised, and an apparent free pass for allies doing what adversaries can not.
But there are relevant differences too.
First, the immediate humanitarian danger. Many terrible and intractable examples are cited. The scale of immediate risk to human life through gross violations of rights, and the risks to regional and international peace and security generated, are on a different scale right now in Libya than most other cases.
Second, practicality: the moral case for outside involvement, in whatever form, depends on there being something important that can realistically be achieved. Foreign engagement can take many forms - forms of support for a legitimate and threatened government; diplomatic and coercive pressure short of force; in extremis, the use of arms. But part of the ethical assessment over whether any such course is right depends on the consequential calculus of the chance of achieving a significant outcome, against the risks both of failure and of doing nothing. it would be perfectly daft to claim that moral consistency demands that approaches with a decent chance of success somewhere must also be replicated in contexts where they would almost certainly be futile. While this may be sad news for, say, Chechnya, being unable to act in one situation is not in itself a case against acting somewhere else where it is possible.
Third, legitimacy and what domestic actors want.
The strongest principled argument for having different approaches would be this: those who we might want to assist or demonstrate solidarity might recommend different causes of external action, again because the situations are different.
This is the case for contextual universalism: the first question is "what do those who we might want to support think we should do (and not do), taking very seriously their advice about what might help and hinder. The form that external solidarity takes should be shaped by advice from within.
Those worrying about "western imperialism" in this case might at least have been given pause for thought by the views of the Arab League and the scenes from the street of Benghazi. There are other cases - Iran or Zimbabwe - where western states should take a lower profile, for fear of assisting the oppressor. That the ANC lobbied for sanctions on apartheid South Africa was a strong point in their favour; the argument might have been different if they had taken a different view.
The influence of outsiders is limited, but it is rarely nil or negligible. For example, there will certainly be cases where international action could act to prevent a massacre, but the task of creating a political settlement afterwards will depend primarily on local actors, with international support and sponsorship.
So why not take the whaddabouters at their word, as wanting to raise international consciousness of other crises and potential humanitarian emergencies? There are serious voices trying to do that, mostly while being constructively and critically supportive of the UN approach to Libya.
Wouldn't it be great to think that the Whaddabouters will now be swelling the advocacy ranks of those organisations like the excellent International Crisis Group, who plug away at what can be achieved on the most apparently intractable crises whether they are in the headlines or not.
Next Left's modest contribution is to begin a quick occasional "whaddabouter's guide" to some of the key crises that suddenly seem to be of renewed interest:
(1) Whaddabout Cote d'Ivoire?
The escalating political crisis in Ivory Coast ought to be of immediate concern to the UN Security Council as well as the African Union and Ecowas. As Foreign Policy reports, the Libyan crisis may be taken as an opportunity to restart the country's civil war.
The context is straightforward: President Laurent Gbago lost the Presidential election last year, and is using the force of arms to try to stay on. The UN, the African Union and Ecowas have all certified that his opponent Alassane Ouattara was the legitimate election winner, following agreed processes of international oversight, but Gbago doctored the results and is fighting to stay on.
The African Union has been mediating in the crisis - trying to manage the transition to the legitimate President Ouattara, while suggesting negotiation could find some junior power-sharing role for the defeated Gbago as part of the transition.
Gbago seems willing to fight on at all costs, and is inciting a return to civil war. The UN Secretary-General suggests Thursday's attack on civilians, allegedly by forces loyal to Gbago, may have been a crime against humanity, and
The opposition's approach has been that that it is useful to have won the elections, and to be internationally recognised as having the legitimacy to govern, but that it may yet be even more useful to have sufficient forces on the ground to take power as well. Well informed observers suggest they may well have the military means to prevail, though it is of course an important international concern to minimise the human costs.
Even realist whaddabouters might see why Ivory Coast offers a clear example of why the generic (and morally relativist) "don't get involved in civil wars" principle is often a weak one in specific cases. The international community should seek to prevent the threatened civil war, by doing everything possible to support current African efforts to bring the elected government to power without one. Security Council resolutions, sanctions against the illegitimate regime and investigating the case for ICC indictment may prove useful tools here. The outgoing government accuses Nigeria of assisting and arming the legitimately elected "rebels", and one perhaps contentious approach will be to consider ways to confer international legitimacy and support for them if Gbago does insist on fighting rather than talking.
(2) Whaddabout Bahrain?
While citing Chechnya or North Korea are primarily rhetorical, Bahrain is the case where the double standards charge is most acute, and ought to trouble the multilateral system and western powers.
Saudi Arabia is playing a decisive role in helping to suppress Bahrain's citizens, who began making moderate calls for more accountable and representative reforms, and who have been greeted with extreme repression, and even now the symbolic destruction of Pearl Roundabout, the focal point of the protests.
On Bahrain, I would find it difficult to disagree with much in this description from The Guardian's left-wing columnist Seumas Milne (though without sharing his conclusion about the Libyan case).
Saudi Arabia's dangerous quasi-invasion of Bahrain is a reminder that Libya is very far from being the only place where hopes are being stifled. The west's closest Arab ally, which has declared protest un-Islamic, bans political parties and holds an estimated 8,000 political prisoners, has sent troops to bolster the Bahraini autocracy's bloody resistance to democratic reform.
Underlying the Saudi provocation is a combustible cocktail of sectarian and strategic calculations. Bahrain's secular opposition to the Sunni ruling family is mainly supported by the island's Shia majority. The Saudi regime fears both the influence of Iran in a Shia-dominated Bahrain and the infection of its own repressed Shia minority – concentrated in the eastern region, centre of the largest oil reserves in the world.
Considering that both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, home to the United States fifth fleet, depend on American support, the crushing of the Bahraini democracy movement or the underground Saudi opposition should be a good deal easier for the west to fix than the Libyan maelstrom.
Saudi Arabia's regime has been briefing international journalists about how different their domestic context from the democratic upheavals elsewhere. Part of the story of their intervention in Bahrain is that they are considerably more nervous than that.
With Saudi fears of Iranian influence in Bahrain, this is shaping up as the classic case of a "stability versus democracy" strategy. British Prime Minister David Cameron has said that we won't be repeating those mistakes in future. The US administration is pursuing the argument that the self-interest of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia's rulers is in pursuing democratic reforms, but with little sign
“Our message to Saudi Arabia is that if you want to avoid the fate of Mubarak, you need to move toward genuine and gradual reform,” said Mr. Malley of the International Crisis Group. “But what the Saudis are hearing instead is that reform is actually the path to Mubarak’s fate.”
(3) Whaddabout Burma?
The highly repressive Burmese regime is not currently engaged in live military activities on a similar scale to those in Libya. However, there is every case for a resolution similar to that which was adopted in February over Libya, namely an international commission of inquiry into human rights abuses, and a reference to the International Criminal Court.
The independent Burmese exile magazine Irrawaddy makes the point, in comparing the two cases, that the UN is stalling on the recommendation of its own human rights rapporteur:
In early 2010, Tomás Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights to Burma, took an unprecedented move in a report to the HRC, calling for a Commission of Inquiry into possible crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma. Neither the HRC nor the UNSC have acted on this recommendation to date.
Again, there is a realpolitik problem here. A significant block to consistent UN action on Burma is the close relationship of the Chinese government with the Burmese Junta.
It is interesting that the Chinese government saw that it would face reputational damage if it vetoed the Libya resolution. At some point, perhaps when the international focus of the current crisis has passed, there should be concerted Parliamentary and citizens' pressure on EU and other democratic governments in the Human Rights Commission and UN Security Council to act on the Special Rapporteur's report.
If China does wish to block this, they could at least own and defend the position. It might even prove trickier than they anticipate.
Whaddayathink about that, whaddabouters?
Seriously, the whaddabouters need to be put under more pressure to say something sensible about the cases that they raise - including, foundationally, to decide if they believe in any framework of international law and institutions at all.
The point is most often a call to argue that "we can't be the world's policeman" (ie, those who can not do everything should do nothing), with "we" usually meaning Britain and/or the US. The same people are often, on realist grounds, deeply sceptical about any multilateral response.
The idealistic notion that "we" could ideally mean the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court, with the US, EU, African Union, Arab League, other regional alliances and states playing a hands-on role where most relevant is also being rejected. The history and contemporary practice is not quite as this parochial viewpoint seems to think. Britain got involved in Sierra Leone and Australia led in East Timor; Nato and the EU led in Kosovo or Macedonia; the UN carries out many missions you hear little about, with Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Nigeria providing more troops for UN missions than any other nations.
'We can't all make a reasonable contribution to protecting the human rights we've signed up to from the most gross and systematic violations' seems to me a weak argument.
And the whaddabouters might also be asked to demonstrate how the UN resolution over Libya has in any way assisted the dictatorships they are (at least rhetorically) concerned to discomfort. Much may depend on the outcome, but the Libyan case has the potential to provide something of a watershed moment in internal repression being cited as a chapter seven threat to international peace and security at the UN. (Interesting that the Zimbabwean reports that Robert Mugabe has committed 500 troops to assist his close ally Gaddaffi, which is one way to use the resources of a collapsed economy).
So, yes, the Libya decision ought to now create pressure on the international system to be bolder on other similar cases of extreme internal repression than it has in the past. The threshold at which sovereignty is forfeited by using it as a licence to kill will remain a very high one.
But, if you can carry a whaddabout analogy, you might just have a point for diplomatic action, rather than universal inaction and inert despair.
That's enough whaddaboutery for now. But we would very much welcome constructive advice, information and links about these and other key international issues which ought not to be ignored during the Libya crisis.