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In times of terror, world leaders put their allies first and civilians second

An Iraqi boy who was injured due to airstrikes, receives treatment at a hospital in Erbil, Iraq on April 12, 2017. ( Yunus Keleş/Anadolu Agency )
An Iraqi boy who was injured due to airstrikes, receives treatment at a hospital in Erbil, Iraq on April 12, 2017. ( Yunus Keleş/Anadolu Agency )

Over the past two months, the world has witnessed some truly gruesome attacks and the loss of innocent civilian lives around the world. On 22 March, four people were killed in London when a car was driven on the pavement across Westminster Bridge and the driver stabbed a police officer outside parliament; one victim was knocked into the River Thames by the impact. Last Friday, four more people were killed when a truck ploughed into crowds of people outside a department store in central Stockholm; 15 others were injured.

Also in March, a US air strike killed 50 people as they prayed in a mosque near Aleppo in Syria; the Pentagon has now admitted that US forces were responsible for an air strike in the Iraqi city of Mosul that killed 200 civilians. Syria's Bashar Al-Assad, meanwhile, oversaw a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 80 people in Khan Shaykhoun; a Russian-made fighter jet then bombed a hospital where victims were being treated. On Palm Sunday, Egypt witnessed twin terrorist attacks on two churches – one in Alexandria and one in Tanta – that killed almost 50 people.

As the world struggles to comprehend the devastation caused by this series of brutal attacks in quick succession, it is natural that we look to world leaders for an answer. After all, the attackers have killed numerous innocent people and any response should have the protection of civilians at its heart.

Read: Syrian lives are worthless compared to ours

It is true that strong words have been uttered. Following the Westminster attack, British Prime Minister Theresa May gave a fairly predictable speech about our duty to protect the values that parliament represents: democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law. Do her actions match her words, though?

May waited barely a week after the killings in Westminster before flying off to Saudi Arabia to strengthen relations with the Gulf kingdom. She insists that the intelligence shared between her government and Riyadh is vital for counter-terrorism efforts, but has less to say about the Saudi regime's use torture, forced confessions, the death penalty and crucifixion-style executions (as well as public beheadings).

In fact, British police officers have not only trained their Saudi colleagues in the investigation techniques that have led to the abuse of detainees' human rights, but May's government also backs Saudi-led air strikes on Yemen, which have killed hundreds of civilians. Britain has actually approved the sale of around £3.3 billion worth of arms to Riyadh since the Saudi air campaign began in 2015.

People gather to protest against the twin bombings in Egypt that killed at least 43 people and injured scores, in Bethlehem, West Bank, April 10, 2017. ( Mamoun Wazwaz - Anadolu Agency )

People gather to protest against the twin bombings in Egypt that killed at least 43 people  on 10 April  2017.
( Mamoun Wazwaz – Anadolu Agency )

When news of the Palm Sunday bombings in Egypt reached America, President Donald Trump called his counterpart Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to reiterate his support for the Egyptian president in his fight against Daesh; he also expressed his confidence in Sisi's commitment to protect all Egyptians, including Christians. The same Donald Trump who ordered almost 60 cruise missiles to be fired at a Syrian air force base in response to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons was thus openly endorsing a regime responsible for killing at least 1,000 pro-democracy demonstrators in just one day in 2013, and imprisoning 60,000 others since then.

In response to the church bombings, Sisi himself implemented a three-month state of emergency in Egypt. This gives the Egyptian authorities the power to try suspected terrorists in special courts where little evidence is required and they have no right of appeal. The emergency law will help to entrench and widen the vast powers that the former field marshal already has, including his ability to censor newspapers and electronic communications.

Read: An American colony from Mosul to Al-Raqqa

Putting the strikes in Aleppo and Mosul to one side, the US has also been responsible for some appalling destruction in the Middle East over the past few weeks. The NGO Airwars tracks civilian casualties in Iraq, Libya and Syria. It has said that US-led coalition air strikes killed almost 1,000 non-combatant civilians in Iraq and Syria in March. "These reported casualty levels are comparable with some of the worst periods of Russian activity in Syria," it concluded. Trump has also authorised the easing of restrictions on counter-terrorism air strikes in Somalia, which were put in place to prevent civilian casualties.

The UN Security Council isn't doing very well in trying to bring to account the international leaders responsible for the deaths of civilians. Russia used its seventh veto at the UN recently to protect the Syrian government from a resolution which would have seen the imposition of sanctions on Damascus for the regime's alleged use of chemical weapons; China also vetoed the proposal. This should not surprise us, though, as the Security Council has long harboured divided loyalties, with each country protecting its own allies; the US, for example, has vetoed dozens of resolutions critical of, or affecting, Israel.

The G7 members haven't fared much better. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson attempted to use the summit in Italy this week to gather support for targeted sanctions against senior Russian officials but failed after European allies told him that sanctions would have to wait until a full investigation into the chemical weapons attack had been carried out. Johnson himself, meanwhile, appears to have made a U-turn in his position on Assad; in 2015 he wrote in an article that he felt "elation" when the Syrian army took back control of Palmyra before suggesting that Britain should work with Putin and Assad – "the Devil" – to defeat Daesh. This week he cancelled a planned trip to Moscow amidst tensions over Syria.

Read: The more that civilians are killed by US bombs, the more that Trump seems not to care

Warm relations with Moscow are no longer important for Britain because Trump – a key ally – no longer regards a close relationship with Russia as important. He demonstrated this when he ordered the missile strikes on Syria, with which Russia is allied. Falling in and out of alliances with different leaders to suit our current interests may not be a new tactic, but when considered against the grave loss of innocent lives that the world has seen in recent weeks, the hypocrisy of it all is still shocking.

The response of our world leaders and international institutions has been both contradictory and ineffectual. Indeed, their dithering and double standards are actually a huge part of the problem; when leaders operate without integrity, there is little hope of putting an end to the state and terrorist violence which claims civilian lives around the world. In these trying times of global terrorism and states using violent means to impose their stamp on international affairs, it is clear that world leaders put their allies and interests first; the lives of innocent civilians come in a poor second place.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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