Don't heed these cries of 'colonialist'

‘You took out Duvalier! You took out Marcos,’ he said, referring to deposed dictators in Haiti and the Philippines. ‘Why not here?’

It was a question that I heard often over the years, in East Timor and Rangoon, in Malawi and Cameroon. It was usually posed by people who felt they had no other recourse against a repressive regime.

Intervention has been discredited in recent years, since the American and British-led invasion of Iraq. But there are still people clamouring for someone from outside – usually America or a former European colonial power – to come and rescue them.

And any hint at intervention, like any criticism, is deflected by authoritarian regimes that have proven deft at playing ‘the colonial card’. Expressions of concerns for human rights and democracy are ridiculed as a modern way for the West to ‘subjugate’ countries of the south. We have heard it from Zimbabwe, where British criticism of Robert Mugabe is routinely denounced as a new kind of imperialism.

Coming from the likes of Mugabe and his henchmen, playing the colonial card is self-serving justification. And the silence of others in the region and the world – of South Africa, in Zimbabwe’s case, of the south east Asian countries who continue to deal with Burma’s military regime – sometimes makes it seem as if concern for democracy and human rights are only European and American fixations.

That doesn’t mean there are not also real sensitivities involved.

I have to agree with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who observed several years ago that ‘the single most under-appreciated force in international relations is humiliation’. For Africa in particular, most of which has been independent for more than four decades, colonialism remains a source of humiliation and resentment and the cause of deep-seated inferiority complexes.

The fact that outside action has been required so many times over the years only deepens the humiliation. French troops have, by one count, intervened in Africa more than 45 times between 1960 and 2005. British troops have intervened in Africa as well, in places such as Sierra Leone, when rebels besieged the capital, Freetown … American troops have intervened, most disastrously in Somalia in the early 1990s.

If it’s not a lingering colonial mentality, ask African critics of such interventions, then why does France only intervene in its former colonies? Why does Britain put so much pressure on Zimbabwe?

It’s tricky, for it’s true that Europeans more readily step in where they retain residual interest and influence. The interest is not even-handed, but determined by history, geography, language and recent patterns of immigration. But that doesn’t make it wrong.

The British care about what happens in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nigeria, India and Pakistan. The French more closely follow events in the francophonie, specifically Congo, Rwanda, Vietnam and Cambodia. And Americans pay more attention to what happens in neighbouring Mexico and in the Philippines (along with places where it has economic interests).

These spheres of influence are fairly durable and in many ways necessary. America, Britain, France and Spain will continue to exert outsized influence – cultural, economic, military, political – on their former colonies, one-time clients or countries in their back yard. As long as that clout is wielded to promote universal principles, it’s not a bad thing.

In fact, people who have no way of standing up for themselves have come to expect it. It’s one of the lessons I learnt over nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent. My first overseas stint came in 1986 in Haiti, when I was sent to cover spreading street protests against the rule of dictator Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier.

Impoverished Haiti had a bit of a colonial split personality – colonised by France and now part of the francophonie, but on America’s doorstep and in the US sphere of influence. So it was no surprise that Duvalier was taken out of Port-au-Prince airport on an American cargo plane and bound for exile in the south of France and Haitians in the streets thanked America and France.

In Jakarta, it was a Portuguese diplomat, Ana Gomes, who became the most high-profile foreign critic of the Indonesian government’s treatment of East Timor, a former Portuguese colony. And within the EU, at the UN, before any forum that would listen, Portugal kept the plight of East Timor on the agenda.

Indonesian officials and diplomats always seemed particularly incensed at what they considered Portuguese ‘interference’ in East Timor. They played the colonial card, reminding journalists how the Portuguese in 1975 left Timor a chaotic mess. In Jakarta’s official narrative – that continues much to this day – Indonesia had gone to East Timor to restore stability.

Portugal, however, is hardly a military might. So it fell to Australia, the military power of the South Pacific, to lead the intervention that routed the militia and provided security in Timor. At the time of the mayhem in 1999, an American diplomat in Jakarta predicted this turn of events. ‘Australia will have to deal with it,’ he told me. ‘It’s their Haiti.’

The pattern will persist in international affairs until countries become less timid about speaking up about human rights abuses and atrocities in their own neighbourhoods and show a willingness to act to resolve them. That will take time and a capacity, militarily and otherwise, that most countries do not have.

And as Mugabe appears, once again, to strengthen his grip on power, turning Zimbabwe into a new Zaire with little public outrage from Africa itself, Britain will struggle over how to react.

Any action will raise the criticisms of neocolonialism, imperialism and racism. Past feelings of guilt might tempt Western countries to want to lower their voices and stand on the sidelines. But the louder voices will always be the ones from the streets, just like the ones I heard in Kinshasa and in Dili and in Rangoon: where are you? Why don’t you help?

· Keith Richburg is now the Washington Post’s New York bureau chief