Guardian
Throwing our weight about

Seumas Milne

Monday September 11, 2000


Any thought that the aftermath of Nato's Kosovan imbroglio might have dimmed Tony Blair's enthusiasm for "humanitarian wars" has been dispelled. His government has emerged as the most interventionist British administration since decolonisation. No opportunity is now to be passed up, it seems, to raise the 21st-century crusader's flag across the globe.

The increasingly grim Sierra Leone adventure, with its kidnappings and yesterday's bloodstained, military rescue, is the third time in 18 months that New Labour has used British armed force outside UN control. Sierra Leone has also been the biggest independent British overseas military operation since the Falklands war.

Thirty-nine years after the union flag was hauled down in Freetown on almost two centuries of bloody colonial rule, British squaddies have now been back in significant force for months, their commanders directing the conduct of a gruesome and intractable civil war.

With barely a murmur of public debate at home, British troops are once again shooting Sierra Leoneans dead in their own land, while Royal Navy gunboats patrol the west African coast and the limb-hacking rebels of the Revolutionary United Front are routinely compared to Nazis, the standard designation for all post-1945 British enemies.

The scaled-down British "training mission" and its backup security units - denounced by the UN commander for their "Rambo tactics" - are embroiled in a wider conflict with, among others, renegade British-armed militias. More paratroopers have been shipped out to hold an indefensible line. The declared intent is not only to rescue hostages and maul the erstwhile government-supporting "West Side Boys", but also to take back control of Sierra Leone's lucrative diamond fields.

The Blair administration's intervention sprees began with the four-day Anglo-American missile onslaught against Iraq in December 1998. The bombing raids there have continued, outside the terms of UN resolutions and opposed by a majority of the permanent UN security council members, while the US and Britain's enforcement of the failed sanctions regime - described by US Democratic congressman David Bonnier as "infanticide masquerading as a policy" - is now almost universally recognised as having created a humanitarian disaster.

But it was Nato's self-proclaimed war of values over Kosovo that triggered Mr Blair's clarion call last year in Chicago for a new wave of worldwide intervention, based on what he described - echoing the liberal imperialists of the late 19th century - as a "subtle blend" of self-interest and moral purpose.

A year on, reverse ethnic cleansing proceeds apace in Kosovo.

But the full flowering of Mr Blair's new line has been in Africa, where the Unites States still fears to tread in the wake of its Somali debacle of the early 1990s. After weeks of British interference in the internal crisis in Zimbabwe - with British ministers repeatedly championing the cause of white landowners who made up the backbone of the racist Rhodesian regime, while denouncing the black leadership which defeated it as "uncivilised" - Blair's paratroopers were despatched to Freetown to fill the vacuum left by the disintegrating UN peacekeeping force Britain refused to join a year ago.

The fact that Iraq, Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone are all former British colonies does not seem to trouble the cheerleaders of the new "doctrine of international community", enveloped as they are in a blanket of cultural amnesia about the horrors of Britain's colonial past. It is less than 50 years since British soldiers shot dead striking Sierra Leoneans on the streets of Freetown, were paid five shillings for each Kenyan Kikuyu they killed, nailed the limbs of Mau Mau fighters to cross-roads posts and had themselves photographed with the severed heads of Malayan guerrillas.

With such a record, it might be thought that Britain was the last country on the planet to sort out the "savagery" of its once-captive subjects. The world, we are told, has moved on. But for the people of Africa - burdened with western debt, arms, mercenaries, mineral-hungry multinational companies and commodity prices that have been falling for more than 40 years - it has not moved on enough.

After supporting one corrupt dictator after another in Sierra Leone, Britain has thrown its military and diplomatic weight behind President Kabbah and his supporters, who Tony Blair insists are the democratic "good guys", against the rural-based RUF, led by vice- president Foday Sankoh until his capture by British soldiers in May.

But the 1996 elections which brought Kabbah to power were held when the country was already engulfed in civil war, did not include the RUF and were undermined by violence and ballot rigging claims. While the RUF has the worst record of atrocities, according to Amnesty International, Kabbah and his kamajor militias have also been heavily involved in torture and extra-judicial killings, and his ally Johnny Paul Koroma is responsible for the mutilation and massacre of thousands of civilians. These are the people British troops are supporting - until Koroma's former proteges, the West Side Boys, started kidnapping British soldiers.

The reality is that Britain and its friends are part of the problem in Sierra Leone and that no outside force can impose the necessary internal settlement. If Mr Blair wants to build a genuine international community, he should be working through the UN and universally accepted regional bodies - rather than, as Nelson Mandela charged earlier this year, playing "policemen of the world" with the US and "introducing chaos into international affairs" by acting unilaterally.

The record shows that the more effective peacekeepers in Sierra Leone have been regional forces. The most useful contribution Britain and other western states - which still refuse to write off the debts of countries such as Nigeria - could now make to Sierra Leone would be to support an African solution to an African crisis.



Original article