When and how far should the rest of the world interfere in the affairs of Middle Eastern countries? Can we and should we try to stop repression by tyrannical rulers?

And what are the implications of unrest in the Arab world for autocracies such as China? These are fair questions, but there are no easy answers to any of them.

Libya has remained the main focus of attention. The United Nations resolution calling for all steps to secure the safety of the civilian population and the establishment of a no-fly zone came just in time to save the opposition forces based on Benghazi from defeat and a massacre of the population there, but it has not so far led to the defeat of Moammar Gadhafi’s forces. The fighting in the town of Misurata has been fierce.

Snipers and illegal cluster bombs have led to numerous civilian casualties, and refugees from the city have only been able to escape by sea. The limitations of air power in dealing with ground forces in close combat municipal areas have been demonstrated.

The Libyan conflict has been going on for too long and there are real fears of a stalemate in the current civil war. The opposition needs supplies and money. The Gadhafi regime in Tripoli, despite sanctions and air strikes on military targets, seems prepared for a long drawn out struggle. In the meantime the Libyan population suffers privation and the Libyan economy, deprived of immigrant labour, will stagnate.

U.S. British and French leaders have called for the ousting of Gadhafi. An utterly ruthless leader, able to recruit mercenaries from other parts of Africa, Gadhafi knows that the opposition, which has limited firepower, cannot retaliate in kind. He has been accused of war crimes and he should surely face the international criminal court one day if he escapes alive from Libya. African attempts to mediate were rebuffed by the opposition, which treats offers and promises from his regime with the contempt they deserve after his many deceits and lies.

Gadhafi has no friends in the Arab world, and even his few remaining African friends, such as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, may now be reluctant to offer him sanctuary.

Regime change is surely needed if Libya is to resume normal relations with other countries but how is it to be achieved?

The U.N. resolution on Libya precluded any kind of occupying force.

Assistance to the opposition is not forbidden, but stretching the resolution too far to allow more than a handful of military advisers to be sent to Benghazi could exacerbate strains within NATO, which has assumed responsibility for implementing the resolution.

A new resolution to allow more active intervention might fail to win a majority in the U.N. Security Council and could even attract a veto from China or/and Russia.

Within NATO Germany, which abstained on the U.N. resolution, is not taking part in the operations,while Italy and Spain have not been prepared to allow their combat aircraft to take part in the operations over Libya.

Turkey has shown disquiet, and the continuing support of Arab countries for the Libyan opposition has hardly been enthusiastic, despite Gadhafi’s unpopularity with other Arab rulers. Difficult though this is, NATO must continue to seek a consensus that will increase pressure on Gadhafi and lead to his early removal from the Libyan scene.

Unrest in Syria has grown. The response of the autocratic Assad regime has been a mixture of concessions and repression. The size of demonstrators in Syrian cities including the capital Damascus has grown and the number of demonstrators killed and injured has greatly increased. The repressive policies of the regime have been condemned by the U.S. president and other leaders, but outside intervention is unlikely.

There is little sign of Arab support for the overthrow of the Syrian regime. Action by NATO would be impractical and would not in present circumstances be backed by member states.

In Bahrain, popular calls for greater democracy have been repressed following intervention by Saudi forces and abuse of human rights has continued. Western pressure on the Bahraini Princes has been sadly muted.

In Yemen, the President has apparently agreed reluctantly to stand down, but it is not clear that he will in fact do so and the situation there remains unstable.

In Egypt, constitutional amendments have been approved, and former President Hosni Mubarak and his sons have been arrested. Some progress toward democracy seems to have been made. Much the same can be said of Tunisia where the first revolt began.

In Iran discontent remains rife, but the theocratic regime is not currently under threat.

Chinese authorities have done their best not only to prevent news of turmoil in the Middle East being reported, but have also significantly tightened the screws to suppress any signs of discontent. The arrest of the popular and internationally well-known eccentric artist Ai Wei-wei and of Christians attending churches which have not been recognized by the authorities suggest that hardliners have grasped the reins and lost their sense of proportion.

Supporters of democratic institutions and of human rights face real dilemmas. Our media are free and it would not be possible even if it were desirable to suppress public declarations of support for democratic forces.

Criticism by Western leaders may be used as an excuse for even harsher measures being taken against dissidents and may result in reprisals against our commercial interests. But if we sacrifice our principles and take hypocritical positions, we shall rightly be accused of double standards.

We should back democratic protest and condemn repression wherever it takes place. We should ostracize leaders involved in repression and, where possible, take steps to freeze the assets of tyrants and consider the effectiveness of other sanctions. The use of force against tyranny must be a last resort and only used when authorized by the United Nations.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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