It is dangerous to compare atrocities… there should be no league table of mass death
There are no words to describe what you have shown. We must learn and never, ever forget.” This was the message written by David Cameron in the visitors’ book at the Kigali Memorial Centre that commemorates the Rwandan genocide. I followed the Tory leader on his tour round the museum that day in July 2007, surveying pictures of mass graves, of brutalised humanity. It was difficult not to be overcome, and he was. Cameron was right: there were, truly, no words.
Six years later, this summer, the Prime Minister met survivors of the Srebrenica massacre on the first official memorial day of that atrocity, when 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered by Serbian forces. Cameron told the widow of a man murdered in July 1995 that he would never let Britain forget what had happened. He said it was a “crime that shamed Europe”, saying later that day: “We owe it to the victims to learn the lesson of Srebrenica: that evil must be confronted if humanity is to be protected. We owe it to the victims to ensure that those indicted for this appalling crime are pursued relentlessly until they are brought to justice.”
It is dangerous to compare atrocities, to say one is similar to, or greater than, another. There should be no league table of mass death. But what both Rwanda and Srebrenica have in common is the failure of a UK government, led by a Conservative prime minister, to heed warnings, to take bold, risky action, military-backed, but on humanitarian grounds, until it was too late. If Ed Miliband felt the chill of the ghost of Iraq at his shoulder last week, then Cameron must surely have been haunted by the failure of John Major’s government to act decisively in these two 1990s atrocities.
Yes, Mr Cameron’s judgement, his political choreography in Westminster, was lacking. But to step away from the turbulence of Westminster, of the crisis in the whips’ office and the ministers stuck in the Reasons Room, just for a moment, it is clear to see how Cameron’s determination to do something in Syria has been shaped by past failures of Conservative leaders.
Then there are those close to him who have their own experiences: Ed Llewellyn, his chief of staff (and the man who seems to have done a lot of the whipping on behalf of semi-present chief whip Sir George Young), worked for Paddy Ashdown in Sarajevo when the former Lib Dem leader was the UN’s representative in Bosnia during the early part of the past decade. Both he and Lord Ashdown saw Bosnia try to recover from the horrors of the Balkan wars. Lord Ashdown, who was key in persuading Tony Blair to intervene in Kosovo in 1999, has been vocal in his support for intervention in Syria, describing his “shame” at Parliament’s failure to vote on Thursday.
Finally, there is Cameron’s wife, Samantha. In March this year, as an ambassador for Save the Children, she met Syrian mothers who had witnessed their children being killed, and children who had watched their parents die violent deaths after being shot by snipers. They had been forced to flee to refugee camps in Lebanon. As Mrs Cameron said at the time: “No child should ever experience what they have. With every day that passes, more children and parents are being killed, more innocent childhoods are being smashed to pieces.”
No 10 plays down her influence, insisting that reports this summer that she was instrumental in persuading her husband to take military action against the Assad regime were overdone. But it is impossible to believe she will have kept her counsel when discussing Syria with her husband this week, hard to think she will not have reminded him about the parents and children at the refugee camp. Because, after all, we are talking about dead children, suffocated by gas. There are indeed no words.
Twerking not working
I am not ashamed to admit I had to look up a few things this week. One of which was the acronym “TL;DR” – Too Long; Didn’t Read – a handy marker for those more used to 140 characters to say they can’t be bothered to read full articles online. I also had to research the word “twerking” – I assumed this meant tweeting while you should be working, which is what many of us spend our time doing. I had no idea it was a gyrating, bottom-thrusting dance which has been part of rap culture for 20 years, which means I am surely already middle aged. And who was doing this “twerking”? I’m afraid I also had to look up who Miley Cyrus was.
Power – a new role model
Now that I’ve correctly identified Miley as a former Disney child star turned singer, she is everywhere I look. But it is depressing to note that the most ubiquitous women in the news this past week are hardly great role models for girls. They are either dressed in bikinis with tongue out (Cyrus); the wife of the second, and mother to the third, heir to the throne (the Duchess of Cambridge, who was on her first public outing since the birth of Prince George); or reportedly having an affair with the founder of Google (Amanda Rosenberg). Even a female cabinet minister – a post to which young girls should aspire – is in the news because she missed the vote on Syria after failing to hear the Division Bell.
To try to correct this, I have decided to launch Women Watch, an occasional series keeping an eye on female role models. A very good place to start would be with Barack Obama’s impressive ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power. There could even be an acronym to focus the minds of all of us on true female role models: MTH – Must Try Harder.