West confronts double standards in Arab response

Female protesters demand the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa on Monday Keystone

A senior Swiss diplomat, Peter Maurer, has admitted being frustrated at double standards present in the international community’s response to the Arab Spring.

This content was published on October 19, 2011 - 13:46
Sophie Douez,

Speaking at the Foreign Ministry’s annual human security conference in Bern on Tuesday, Maurer, State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, said it was fair to question the “unequal response” of the international community to events in different countries.

“I am often very frustrated by how the international community reacts in a double standard way,” Maurer told the more than 800 people who attended the conference titled “Uprisings in the Arab world: between hope and fears”.

“And in response I can only say that the effort is guided by other interests. If I could speculate, I would say that oil plays an important role in how the international community reacts to certain situations.”

Maurer was named president of the International Committee of the Red Cross on Wednesday and will take up the position in July 2012. He was responding to a question posed by Maryam Al Khawaja, a 24-year-old democracy activist from Bahrain. She asked why the international community chose to impose sanctions on Syria but not on Yemen or Bahrain.

Al Khawaja told the conference that young people in Bahrain felt “completely abandoned by the west”.

“The situation in Bahrain is not going away, if anything it is getting worse,” she said.

Maurer said finding a political consensus in the international community was often difficult. He pointed out that while there was strong support from Arab countries to “get rid of” Moammar Gaddafi in Libya for example, the inverse was true for Assad’s regime in Syria.

Christian Berger, Director for the Middle East at the European External Action Service of the European Union, said such decisions often came down to the avenues of engagement available in particular situations.

“For Bahrain and Yemen, there is still a way of addressing issues through normal diplomatic channels,” he said.


With the discussion focused on the response of the west to the so-called Arab Spring, it was clear that both Switzerland and the EU have been scrambling in recent months to determine the best way to engage with the new political realities in North Africa and the Middle East.

“We see a transformation of the relationship between individuals and regimes in the Arab world,” Berger said, adding that the transformation “is focused on values like dignity and justice”.

Maurer said a new political approach was needed to overcome political “fault lines” in the region. He said that Swiss foreign policy had previously viewed the Arab world as “almost one world” – whereas in fact it is highly fragmented.

“We have to rethink, and actors in the region also have to rethink how they will position themselves in the global world,” Maurer said. “We are very cautiously trying to find our way in those countries and identifying where and who are the legitimate partners.”

Policy response

Future successes in the region depend on establishing mutual economic and political interests between the partners, Maurer said. Switzerland’s priority was to focus on economic development, and in particular supporting the establishment of small businesses and job creation for the young.

“But we have to be realistic,” Maurer said. “The media hype gives the impression that the outside role is bigger than it is.”

Berger said the EU had been forced to review its policies with regard to the region following intense criticism of its support for autocratic regimes in the past. He said the EU was pursuing a policy of “deep democracy” in the region, which included fostering human and women’s rights, for example, and not just participation in elections.

Addressing the lack of proper political parties, socio- economic problems such as unemployment, poverty and the rights of women were key policy objectives for the EU, Berger said.

EU parliamentarian and former Bulgarian minister for foreign affairs Nadezhda Neynsky evoked her own country’s revolutionary experiences in the late 1990s and warned that the most difficult times come after a revolution.

She said constructing democratic institutions, reforming the judiciary and investing in education were paramount to future success of building a new future.


The conference was marked by the testimonies of three female activists from Syria, Yemen and Bahrain who made impassioned pleas for the struggles in their countries not to be forgotten or indeed glorified.

Hens Nasirie, 21, took part in initial peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations which began in Yemen’s universities. Since then her house has been raided and friends have died.

“Let’s not forget the courage of young people taking to the streets and demanding freedom … knowing that they might not come home,” said 29-year-old Lubna of Syria – speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals upon her family.

Al Khawaja said that per capita and among all the Arab countries which had embarked on pro-democracy movements in recent months, Bahrain had experienced the second-highest number of deaths and the highest number of people imprisoned.

“I am disturbed by the west’s beautification of the Arab Spring. People in hospital beds are not beautiful, spilled brains on the streets, fathers being tortured are not beautiful,” she said.

Swiss response to Arab Spring 2011

Jan 19: freezes assets of former Tunisian President Ben Ali

Feb 11: freezes assets of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak


Feb 24: condemns use of violence in Libya, freezes assets of Moammar Gaddafi


March 2: increases humanitarian support in Libya


March 4: imposes sanctions against Libya


May 6: expresses concern about death sentences given in Bahrain


May 11: legal experts sent to Egypt to advise on release of blocked funds


May 18: imposes sanctions against Syria, orders freeze on assets held by members of regime


Aug 18: recalls ambassador to Syria


July 11: reinforces presence in Benghazi


Sept 12: tightens Syrian sanctions


Sept 29: appoints new ambassador to Libya


September: deploys human security advisor to Tunis


October: deploys human security advisor to Cairo

Source: Foreign Ministry

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