Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, an advisor to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign, and Senior Analyst for East Asia to the international human organisation CSW. He is a former Parliamentary candidate
The fall of Afghanistan represents one of the most shameful defeats for freedom since Vietnam.
For Afghans, especially women, the LGBT community, civil society, religious minorities, anyone who worked with the international presence or just ordinary people who like books or music, it means being plunged back into the dark ages they thought had largely been left behind twenty years ago.
And for the West, it represents not only a surrender to extremist Islamist terrorists we thought had been overthrown after 9/11, but a shameful and unnecessary betrayal of our values and those in Afghanistan who shared them, that will have consequences for our own security for years to come. “America is Back” and “Global Britain” look very tarnished slogans today.
But this is part of what is becoming an all-too familiar story. The withdrawal from Afghanistan – and Joe Biden’s pathetic defence of it – is just the latest, albeit most dramatic and consequential, example of the free world’s retreat. Two other recent examples of inaction in the face of assaults on liberty – Myanmar (Burma) and Hong Kong – and our refusal to stop two recent genocides, of the Uyghurs and the Rohingyas – add to the sorry tale of Western failure. There are lessons to be learned from all these tragedies, and fast.
There are common threads between the crises in Afghanistan, Myanmar and Hong Kong.
In all three cases, freedoms advanced over recent years have been rapidly and cruelly torn up.
In all three cases, Britain has a direct responsibility which we have largely abdicated.
In all three cases, the beneficiary has been tyranny in general and the Chinese Communist Party regime in particular.
Our failure to prevent the genocide of the Rohingyas in Myanmar, or hold the perpetrators to account, had devastating consequences. Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, interpreted that inaction as a green light to intensify its persecution of other minorities and, ultimately, overthrow an elected government in a coup on 1 February this year. They calculated that their actions would be met with condemnation and a few token sanctions, which they could live with – and they were right.
Despite the killing of almost 1,000, the imprisonment of over 5,700 and the displacement of hundreds of thousands in the past six months, the international community has said little about Myanmar and done even less. Some welcome sanctions have been imposed against military enterprises, but given the scale of the crisis, the relative silence from world leaders is deafening.
The response to the total dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms, autonomy and rule of law has been similarly underwhelming. The entire pro-democracy camp has been thrown out of Hong Kong’s legislature, most democrats are now in jail, on trial or in exile, press freedom, academic freedom and judicial independence have been eroded, and trade unions and civil society are now under attack. Yet once again, the response has been handwringing statements, which do not bother Beijing.
To be fair, Britain responded to the imposition of the draconian National Security Law last year with a generous visa scheme for Hong Kongers – and the government deserves credit for that. But, unlike the US, the UK has still not imposed any sanctions for severe breaches of an international treaty, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which promised Hong Kongers basic freedoms. Nothing has been done to convey the message that riding roughshod over treaty promises carries consequences.
Having been colonial rulers in Myanmar, Hong Kong and Afghanistan, Britain has a responsibility to all three. Our obligations are particularly direct in Hong Kong and Afghanistan, as the relationship has been recent. But let’s not forget that in Myanmar many of the ethnic groups fought loyally alongside us in the Second World War, and expected that loyalty to be returned.
The beneficiary of our failure to defend the peoples of Myanmar and Afghanistan, beside the immediate victors, the Tatmadaw and the Taliban, is the Chinese regime – which is also emboldened by our limp-wristed response to their assault on Hong Kong and the genocide of the Uyghurs. Beijing has been quick to give Myanmar’s junta cover at the UN, and form “friendly relations” with the Taliban.
There is a real danger that Xi Jinping’s regime will interpret this weakness as a go-ahead to seize Taiwan. On Monday, Chinese media tweeted that “Taiwan authorities must be trembling”, adding: “Don’t look to the US to protect them. Taipei authorities need to quietly mail-order a Five-Star Red Flag from the Chinese mainland. It will be useful one day when they surrender.” The state-run Global Times said US abandonment of Afghanistan was an “omen” for Taiwan’s “future fate”. We must move fast to prove them wrong, and be prepared to defend Taiwan – and in so doing prevent a war.
So much of this crisis boils down to an absence of leadership. It feels as if we are living in the mid-1930s, an era of Stanley Baldwins and Neville Chamberlains. There is an apathy – or lethargy – about freedom, an all-too-quick willingness to appease, to seek “peace in our time” even in the knowledge that any deal with a tyrant isn’t worth the paper it is written on. We have swung from one extreme to another – from gung-ho invasion-without-a-plan mentality to a wash-my-hands-nothing-to-do-with-me mentality. Both extremes are dangerous. We need desperately to shape a new foreign policy based on thought-through, well-planned intervention, using all the tools available, to defend freedom.
Dominic Raab – for whom I have respect – looked risible when he said that he would hold the Taliban to account by “applying sanctions and holding back ODA”. Even that sounded marginally better, though, than the hand-wringing of Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, or Jacinda Adern’s naïve appeal to the Taliban to uphold human rights. Is this seriously what we have come to?
If we are reliving the mid-1930s, are we approaching the “darkest moment”? Is there a Churchill waiting in the wings? Or are we in a late 1970s era of “Ostpolitik”, where we tried to compromise with the Soviet Union, until Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II came along?
We need leaders for our times. In just a few days President Biden has proven a failure as leader of the free world. Let’s hope he either discovers his mojo or others step up. Failure to do so may lead to an unprecedented lethal cocktail: a reinvigorated Islamist terrorist movement, an emboldened aggressive Chinese regime, a continuously dangerous Russia, plus other dictators or terrorists seizing their chance at a power-grab. Those who believe in freedom and human rights must reassert themselves now, before it is too late.