The world has no shortage of horrors, once you expand your lens beyond Western Europe. Horrors and humanitarian crises caused by repressive, authoritarian regimes are the norm in fact, not the exception. We should do what we can, but we can’t save everyone.
Europe is supposed to be different. These things don’t happen in the civilized world, or at least that seems to be the thinking underlying much of the media coverage of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Whether we call it Eurocentrism or outright racism, there is the sense that war crimes, refugees, atrocities, and assorted violence occurring in the “West” should or perhaps even must be treated differently than the rest of the world. This past weekend our TV and computer screens were filled with images of the unfolding refugee crisis as more than a million displaced Ukrainians, many single women with children, descended on Poland and other friendly countries with little more than a backpack. These tragic stories were accompanied by scenes of what they left behind: Burned out cities, destroyed buildings, the ugly wreckage of war as Russian troops encircled and bombarded major population centers in an increasingly aggressive campaign. Close to 400 Ukrainian civilians have been killed, many more wounded.
CNN typifies the coverage. Stephen Collinson writes, “Millions of lives could be destroyed to slake Vladimir Putin’s Cold War obsession. Less than three weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — a historic outrage 30 years in the making — the world is looking on in horror at the barbarity, human tragedy, appalling destruction and worldwide reverberations sparked by one man’s orders.” He continues, noting “Ukraine’s fate starkly underlines that even 20 years into the 21st century and despite the world’s vows to learn from history, a lone autocrat who has ruthlessly fashioned a political system to eliminate dissent and reality itself has the power to cause unfathomable human loss and misery.” This is undoubtedly true. President Putin has unleashed untold, unprovoked horrors on a sovereign country and the world seems powerless to stop it. At the same time, it is also true that the world has no shortage of horrors, once you expand your lens beyond Western Europe. Horrors and humanitarian crises caused by repressive, authoritarian regimes are the norm, not the exception.
Right now, a genocide is occuring in China. The Uyghurs are the largest minority ethnic group in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang. They are mostly Muslim, speak a language similar to Turkish, and generally see themselves as ethnically closer to central Asia than traditional Chinese. There are some 12 million in the Xinjiang province, a bit less than half the population of the region. In recent decades, China’s largest ethnic group, the Han, have emigrated to Xinjiang en masse as part of an effort to reduce the number of Uyghurs. Migration is not the only means they are achieving this goal. Currently, there are about 1,000,000 Uyghurs confined to what the Chinese Communist Party euphemistically refers to as “re-education camps.” Hundreds of thousands have also been sentenced to prison. The Chinese “re-education” program includes forced labor and even forced sterilization of women. Those who have escaped these camps report torture, rape, and other atrocities. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused China of crimes against humanity and outright genocide. The US government appears to agree, and yet China was recently “rewarded” by hosting the Winter Olympics.
Afghanistan has faded from the headlines after our ignominious retreat last August, but atrocities in the perennially war torn country continue apace. According to National Geographic, “Afghanistan is suffering through a humanitarian crisis of disastrous proportions. Three-quarters of the country’s public spending had been funded by foreign aid. When the United States withdrew and the Taliban seized control in August 2021, that aid was cut. Now, nearly nine million people face emergency-level food insecurity, according to the World Food Programme.” The situation is so severe that more than a million children under five years old are acutely malnourished, and one out of three adolescent girls suffer from anemia. All told, over half the population, some 24 million people are in “vital need of humanitarian assistance.” So far, the international community has done very little, leaving the Afghani people to cope with the crisis almost entirely on their own. The resurgence of the Taliban has made matters much worse. The United Nation reports that over 400 civilians have been killed since last August. More than 80% of these killings have been done at the hands of groups affiliated with the Islamic State, particularly what is known as ISIS-K. “The human rights situation for many Afghans is of profound concern,” explained Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights. Women’s rights and freedoms have also been curtailed, along with “a number of disturbing cases of enforced disappearances” of activists and protesters.
Refugee crises are also not unique to Ukraine. The civil war in Syria has caused what World Vision describes as the “largest refugee and displacement” crisis of our time. The war itself has been ongoing since March 2011, hundreds of thousands have died, and some 6.8 million people have fled the country as refugees along with 6.7 million displaced within the country, about half of them are children. In total, almost 11.1 million people in Syria need humanitarian assistance. World Vision reported “Healthcare centers and hospitals, schools, utilities, and water and sanitation systems are damaged or destroyed. Historic landmarks and once-busy marketplaces have been reduced to rubble. War severed the social and business ties that bound neighbors to their community.” “On top of the strain on families’ ability to secure basic food rations and household items, the economic impact of the war continues to drive serious child protection concerns, including negative impacts on education,” explained Barrett Alexander, a senior policy advisor for the group. “Parents are forced to remove children from school due to the inability to pay fees, and teachers are not receiving their salaries. Some children go to schools in the displacement camps but arrive covered in mud, having walked miles upon miles to attend. Many girls who drop out of school are severely impacted by child marriage.”
There are also ongoing humanitarian crises in parts of South America and Africa. Africa in particular has been ravaged by Boko Haram, a radical Muslim group that routinely commits atrocities, and has been since 2009. This is after some 900,000 people died over three months in the Rwandan genocide less than 30 years ago. In South America, the Venezuelan people have been in crisis for over a decade, suffering from shortages of everything including toilet paper. Vice President Kamala Harris has been charged with fixing the “root causes” of mass migration to America from Honduras and other countries in the region. The stark difference in coverage between the crisis in Ukraine and the rest of the world has prompted some to cry racism. CNN reported recently on “How the Ukraine war exposed Western media bias.” The reporters noted that “Western war reporters, more used to being deployed in Middle East conflict zones, were quick to make comparisons. Some of those comparisons went overboard, causing outrage in the Arab world.” They cite examples like CBS News foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata, who said “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, you know, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. You know, this is a relatively civilized, relatively European… city.” Others have pointed out that these refugees were “white,” “Christian,” “middle class,” “blonde,” and “blue eyed.” The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association issued a statement condemning the “pervasive mentality in Western journalism of normalizing tragedy” in places like the Middle East. The group’s president, Hoda Osman, explained, “What is sad this time is that the [offending] comments came so casually, spontaneously, and as a result, revealed existing bias, something we would expect a journalist covering an international event to be above. Sadly, we were not shocked. The remarks got some attention thanks to social media, but we knew this kind of bias and racism exists.”
Personally, I am not sure if I would go that far, but there is undoubtedly some truth to the stark difference in treatment. For whatever reason, the idea that tragedies and atrocities are acceptable outside of Europe pretty clearly underlies much of the coverage. To some extent, this is an understandable impulse: It’s been over 80 years since Europe has seen a war on this scale and it is shocking, especially in the internet age with near live streamed videos of tanks running over cars going viral almost daily. I would also suggest another factor: Many of these reporters and correspondents are ignorant of the reality of life in Eastern Europe for much of the last century, confusing the stability of Western Europe with the upheaval in the east after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ukraine itself was a Soviet satellite state until 1991. The country we are watching being torn apart by Russia is barely 30 years old. They did not adopt a constitution until 1996. Ukraine came dangerously close to a civil war in 2004, when the Presidential election was contested with claims of vote rigging and fraud. Countries nearby were engulfed in civil wars as late as the 1990’s. The Bosnian War began when Yugoslavia dissolved, prompting different factions of Bosnians, Croatians, and Serbians to take up arms against each other, ultimately killing close to 100,000 people, about 28,000 civilians.
None of this should be seen as excusing Russian aggression. Unprovoked wars and civilian casualties should be condemned at every turn, but neither should we lose perspective. The world is home to untold horrors far in excess of what is occurring in Ukraine right now; horrors that have been either shrugged off entirely or receive barely any coverage as something that happens over there, not here, or not in Europe at least. Therefore, we should not be misled into aggressive action of our own that could cause even more damage. If our failed attempt to rebuild Afghanistan has taught us anything, it should be that there are limits to US power and we cannot solve the world’s problems. We should help where we can, but avoid doing what we can’t. As President Harry Truman’s legendary Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, put it way back in 1949, the first time we faced an aggressive Russian regime, “The proper search is for limited ends which soon enough educate us in the complexities of the tasks which face us. That is what all of us must learn to do in the United States; to limit objectives, to get ourselves away from the search for the absolute, to find out what is within our powers.”