Having swapped his political fez for the humanitarian beret of the International Rescue Committee, David Miliband is calling world attention to the spectre of polio outbreak in Syria. He has seized on a tragic development. Rising polio numbers play out like a dead canary in a coal mine. At once powerfully symbolic of the calamity of Syria today and a frightening omen of Syria tomorrow.
Coincidentally, polio confirmation comes just as chemical weapons inspectors have declared that equipment for producing, mixing and filling chemical weapons has been destroyed. Cut to fist-pumping Western nations? I mean, progress on CWs is relatively good news, no?
In an astute exchange on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (yesterday, around the 2:10 mark), Miliband and John Humphries aired the rather stunning conclusion that the world has breathed a sigh of relief since the chemical weapons deal has been made. Guard down. Attention elsewhere. Result: in the hoo-hah around chemical weapons – well-deserved though it may have been – Assad found a “licence to carry on what he was doing – slaughtering an awfully lot of people” (Humphries). This analysis, shared by many others, makes for a cautionary tale.
The only law left standing in Syria today may be the law of perverse consequences. MSF played an instrumental role in sparking attention/reaction to the chemical attacks (see my previous blog). As if Western governments justifying potential retaliatory strikes were not enough of an unintended consequence, there is also the sidelining of a truly unprecedented humanitarian crisis. As Christopher Stokes eloquently explains: Syrian people are now presented with the absurd situation of chemical weapons inspectors freely driving through areas in desperate need, while the ambulances, food and drug supplies organised by humanitarian organisations are blocked.
Absurd? Yes. Predictable? Why not? What chunk of this hindsight should not have been foresight? We all knew that U.S. or French militaries would twist the outcry against chemical weapons to suit their own ends. We should also consider it no surprise that Western governments, desperate for a chance to demonstrate action/resolve/victory will jump on any issue that masks their protracted, utter inability to do something about the horrors of Syria. Action is generic in that regard. Action acts as a pressure release. Action is solution. No need for further attention. Chemical weapons? Sleep easy. Mission accomplished. You could airlift 2 million ab-tronic exercise devices to Syria and the US public would coo in the comfort at good being done.
And it is not just governments. It is no surprise that the media needed a new angle to this Syria tale, that NGOs needed to show success, that we were all emotionally drained by trying to think of the ever-worsening big fat disaster. In other words, did we not know enough to understand that one major risk of speaking out against chemical weapon attacks was that the international effort would be diverted away from the millions of starving, abused, sick, wounded and frightened people? Absurd = perverse, does it not?
Now: what of polio? In one breath, Miliband laments the negative impact of chemical weapons as distraction and then raises the issue of polio. Obviously, it may turn out differently. And obviously, dealing with polio is a good thing. But this is Syria 2013. We ignore the law at our peril.
In the end, it is quite sad that ten cases of polio are able to generate more attention, and perhaps more momentum for change, than massacre after massacre, month after month, million after million. A new outcry: Stop the killing! Humanitarian ceasefire! We need to stop the polio!
Miliband is shrewd. He comprehends the symbolic value in a polio outbreak. He trumpets the potential for a polio campaign to give rise to a new “humanitarian bridgehead” inside Syria. Polio vaccinations as a silver bullet? That makes for a nice soundbite, but it ignores the governing law of the land. The risk is that depoliomacy produces a great campaign and an even greater distraction.