Solidarity: trails, perils, choices

The idea of solidarity retains its moral force. Yet it is vulnerable to the same manipulations as any category of modern politics. Fred Halliday examines the paths of solidarity under colonialism, communism, and post-1989 democracy; its deformed applications to the Arab-Israeli conflict; two voices of universalism that give it life; and what it needs in order to flourish in the 21st century.

(This essay is published in memory of Fred Halliday, who died in Barcelona on 26 April 2010)

Fred Halliday
26 April 2011

In the course of the 20th century something strange and distorting appeared to happen to the concept of “solidarity” - a rough equivalent, for the purpose of this analysis, of the third of the great ideals of the French revolution: the “fraternity” that accompanies (and complements) “liberty” and “equality”. This essay attempts to identify the key elements in this evolution: the fates of solidarity.

Solidarity, both ideal and concept, has multiple implications across four dimensions:

* fraternity within countries - between similar social groups, communities and, in the language of modern socialism above all, class.

* support for those within countries who are in some way different but who have a claim based on common humanity, or common exploitation as a result of a shared system of oppression (such as women, ethnic groups, or immigrants); this, however, is often subsumed in appeals to cultural pluralism or multiculturalism

* support for those who are within the polity or society in question but are not from the same social or class group - those outside of or foreign to the community in question, but to whom support is owed (in the sense of what Immanuel Kant termed Hospitalität, or, in modern terminology, “duties towards strangers”

* international solidarity, in the conventional sense of supporting legitimate struggles, of (for example) workers or ethnic groups, in other countries.

Social and political categories do not have “essences” that persist across time and place, but they usually exhibit a set of core meanings. Solidarity maintains at its core a value enjoining support for other humans whose rights, collective or individual, are being denied. Yet even a relatively brief survey will illustrate that from its origins in the late 18th century the concept of solidarity has travelled a long way.

At its heart, and in keeping with its origins in the Enlightenment and the French revolution, solidarity rests on one important principle: namely, that of the shared moral and political value and equality of all human beings, and of the rights that attach to them.

The concept of solidarity presupposes that of rights. The two were so combined, in rhetoric and policy, in the French revolution. The reason to support others within our own society or in others is that they too have rights, by dint of the humanity we share. Hence the centrality, even if not always admitted or articulated, of a concept of rights within any conception of solidarity. In the words of the legal and penal sociologist Stanley Cohen: “Human Rights are the last Grand Narrative”.

This observation encapsulates both the historical origins and the contemporary destiny of solidarity, conceived of as support for other human beings, and of human rights themselves. The French revolution has bred many grand narratives, but that of rights remains the most important and enduring. In the vocabulary of the revolution, the term citoyen/citoyenne represented the equality of all persons as against the hierarchical system of estates, just as the term nation denoted a community of equal agents.

The crisis of universalism

It is against this background that it becomes possible to assess the difficulties into which discussion of human rights, and in related vein solidarity have fallen. In the long journey of solidarity from the aspirations of 1789, the concept has served as much to confuse and besmirch as to realise the political programme of those who supported it, not least the socialist and liberal movements. Among the many twists of this process has been the profusion of “declarations of solidarity” with states, movements and individuals that in their practice deny the very concepts of rights which ostensibly justifiy the effort in the first place.

At the same time, the ideal and practice of solidarity has been turned against those, in the communist movement, who most claimed to espouse it. Indeed, in the late 20th century the greatest internal challenge to a European communist state came from a movement of the industrial working class that adopted as its slogan, Solidarnosc.

This crisis of solidarity, and the related crises of universalism and of human rights, affect both those who are the self-conscious or self-proclaimed inheritors of the radical and liberal traditions of the Enlightenment, and many of those on the right (even though conservatism was from the start opposed to any conception of human rights and of a politics deriving from a shared humanity). But it is on the left that it is felt most acutely.

The contribution of the left and of “anti-imperialist” and marxist thinkers to denigrating rights, and to undermining the international institutions and conventions on which the rights regime is based, has become stronger (as reflected in the widespread use of the term “the imperialism of human rights”). There is on the left widespread disparagement of rights, either on the grounds that they reflect the values and pretexts of the imperialist and hegemonic countries or because they are a product of the oppressive rationalist rationalist Enlightenment (which is held as the source of most or all current ills).

This stance has manifold practical implications. They include support for nationalist and culturally specific derogation from universal principles; blind endorsement of guerrilla and armed groups even when they violate the conventions of war; and wholesale opposition to humanitarian intervention on the grounds that this is nothing but a mask of imperial interests.  

Much of the critique of human rights and universal standards emanates from writers in the metropolitan countries, or by politicians and intellectuals in the global south (or as it was once called the “third world”). They have been joined by others: the rhetoric deployed by Osama bin Laden against western values, for example, is framed in a moral context that explicitly rejects universalism, appeals to the followers of but one part of one religion, and indeed celebrates the misfortunes of others (as in the declarations made about hurricane Katrina).

Thus militant Islamism has made a significant contribution to the weakening of universalism: in emboldening and hardening the right, in its grotesque celebratory contempt for the rules and norms of war (such as any claim to humane treatment of prisoners), and in its declaratory reinforcement of moral particularism.

Alongside these trends there has on the political right been a widespread embrace of nationalism and narrow national interest as the basis for action. George W Bush and his associates, notably his attorney-general Alberto Gonzales, did much to undermine respect for universal human rights and for international institutions. The United States’s resiling from international conventions (for example from the Geneva conventions on treatment of prisoners of war) and opposition to institutions tasked with implementing an international legal and humanitarian order have caused great damage.

All this has been made easier by the failure of political elites and others in the west to take seriously the lesson of the end of the cold war regarding the end of Soviet communism. For it was not (as the Ronald Reagan-Margaret Thatcher right argued) the pressure of western military power and expenditures that played the decisive role here, but rather the logic of the commitments the USSR entered to in regard to human rights (in particular the Helsinki accords of 1975) and the broader demonstration effect of western society, not least western European society, in combining broad respect for democratic and human-rights values with sustained economic growth.

In the collapse of communism in 1989-91 some (including opposition intellectual leaders in east-central Europe) did give credit where it was due, with their insistence on human rights - but many in the west did not hear the message.  

The legacies of history

The crisis of universalism of the 2000s is widespread and ominous. It will affect the workings both of individual states and of the international organisations charged with defence of human rights. It also negatively affects the work of, and public respect for, those non-state human-rights organisations that operate in the west.

This crisis of the early 21st century is not entirely new, however. For it builds on earlier histories of critique and rejection of, and embroilment with, power. Today’s crisis is in this sense the legatee of an earlier history, even if one that is only partly remembered. This history is important: as antecedent to current difficulties, and as indication that those now debating universalism may be repeating mistakes made in earlier periods.

The colonial moment

The first such period is that of colonialism. Much of the imperial project by western powers was associated with assertions of national or state interest, without any regard to moral justification. But there was always too an undercurrent of apparent principle and even historical mission in the way imperialism was presented.

Bartolomé de las Casas in the 16th century and a range of subsequent political, religious and literary writings reflected this quasi-universalist critique of colonial thought. Whether in the Spanish concern to convert the souls of heathen peoples of Latin America, the French mission civilisatrice, or the British with their “white man’s burden”, the claim to be promoting good in the world - even against those reluctant to accept it - was recurrent and insistent. This helps explain why from the early 19th century onwards, emergent liberal and democratic thinking in the metropolitan countries sought to apply its principles more widely: constitutional government, education, social reform, promotion of the rights of women (ultimately the most fundamental of all human rights and liberal principles), and national self-determination.  

It is impossible here to establish a balance-sheet of the association of liberal and progressive thinking (including on the part of some marxists) with colonialism; let alone to dissect the combination of motives that motivated those who sought to reform colonialism. Many episodes in this history will always allow of several different interpretations: the abolition of slavery, the independence of states in Asia and Africa after 1945, and the forms of development in non-European states of constitutional government, free media and their correlates, for example.

In any event, the impact on the colonial world of liberal and reforming constituencies had uneven effects. The reformers may have called for liberal principles to be shared with the colonies, but European powers continued to control their dependencies for many decades with little if any attention to the wishes or interests of their subject peoples.

The Spaniards fought to suppress successive movements for independence in Cuba until their final defeat in 1898; the British held on in Ireland till 1922, to India until 1947, and tried as late as 1956 in the Suez venture to impose control on the Arab world; the Italians massacred Libyans and Ethiopians through to the 1940s; the French drowned Algeria in blood in the independence war of 1954-62; the Portuguese conducted ferocious counterinsurgency wars in three African states until 1974; the US - latecomer to empire’s illusions, self-justifications and crimes - was to prove an expert in all these aspects itself for a century and more, in the Philippines, Vietnam and Iraq (to name but these).  

The voices of those with a more liberal and universalist orientation often found it hard to be heard against this background, The optimism of the utilitarian and liberal thinkers James Stuart Mill and John Stuart Mill with regard to good governance in India in the 1840s was drowned in the counterinsurgency of 1867. Many well-intentioned and liberal ideas were promoted with regard to Ireland, but in the end force of arms (both international war and local war) played a major role in the path to independence in 1922. The same combination of factors - metropolitan-colonial in the bilateral context, geopolitical in the global context - led to the defeat of the European colonial powers. Some individual anti-colonialists and critics of metropolitan violence apart, there is today little credit remaining in the broader historical narrative for those who sought to link the spread of European empire to concerns of human rights.  

The communist moment

The second chapter in this unhappy linking of human rights and its emancipatory potential to broader trends in world history was written by communism: the most widespread, determined and comprehensive attempt ever seen to reform western society and thus to transform the world according to a different set of economic and political principles.

Communism’s run lasted from 1917 to 1991 - more or less a human lifetime, and around the same span as that of European colonialism at its height from 1870 to 1945. There is a similarity too in that calculations of power, interest and violence were never far from the actions of states and of social movements in this period; and in that many supported the communist project on grounds of moral solidarity, belief in its goals or crude sense that it represented in some positive teleological manner the path of history, the “future”.

That the communist project too had its costs and bloody mistakes was taken for granted; but these, so it was argued, paled before the atrocities and waste of human potential associated with capitalism. There were also times when the sheer enormity of the deaths perpetrated by communism (during Stalin’s purges of the 1930s, China’s famine of the late 1950s, the Khmer Rouge era in Cambodia from 1975-79) was hard to conceive; as had been the slaughter in the Americas by Spanish and Portuguese, or the death of millions in King Leopold’s Congo.  

The idealism of those who supported communism, and the subsequent moral and intellectual crises this provoked, now seem less current. But the association of liberalism and reform with communism (in this general sense of historic optimism and solidarity) had a terrible and enduring cost. Among those directly associated with this project it bred a widespread culture of cynicism and ruthlessness, masked as historical expediency and decisiveness. Lenin’s casual remark on the need to break eggs in order to make an omelette is often cited, less so though equally revealing is Jean-Paul Sartre’s unreserved endorsement of the calls to violence in Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.

This culture also affected those outside the communist organisations (including their associates or “fellow-travellers”) who defended the system. That justification involved a contempt for truth, for open discussion, for law, and indeed for democracy, which was supported by myriad ways of delegitimating and discrediting opponents. A remarkable feature of this culture is that decades after it began to lose influence it lives on in many parts of the left, even among prominent radical intellectuals with no anterior linkage to communism.  

Communism inflicted another cost. This lay in the loss of human optimism and commitment it occasioned: the disillusion of many who had thrown themselves with idealism into the cause, seeing in it the path to the general emancipation of mankind. The consequences were enormous and crushing: in the depoliticisation and alienation of millions of people who left or were expelled from communist parties; in the disgust of those under communist regimes who experienced directly the corruption, mendacity and inefficiency of the system; and more broadly in the discrediting on a world scale of the moral and political goals of a programme that had put human liberation at its heart.

In the perspective of modern world history, colonialism and communism were successive gravediggers of the global moral imagination. Their legacy continues to echo in the post-cold-war world of liberal internationalism, humanitarian intervention, democratisation, and the evolution of international human-rights regimes.  

The democratic moment

The world, notwithstanding some vicious local conflicts, appeared bright in the early 1990s. The cold-war’s end had removed the conflict that blocked effective functioning of the United Nations and in particular the Security Council; the successful campaign to free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in 1991 seemed to presage a new commitment to legal and effective defence of human rights and international law; the end of communism produced a new international legal and moral climate in which fundamental differences of principle appeared absent; democracy appeared to be advancing against dictatorships of left and right, in all continents; and with Bill Clinton as president, the United States was committed to a more open and liberal agenda in the political, economic and social fields.

In this context, liberal organisations and individuals campaigned to intervene in the public realm in support of a range of progressive causes - from women’s rights and the environment to development aid and debt relief. Many, if with varying degrees of misgiving, called for military intervention in the wars of the Balkans from 1992, as indeed happened in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999. There were at this time apparently major advances in the international institutions associated with the liberal project: expansion of the European Union, the Kyoto protocol on the environment, the International Criminal Court. “Global civil society” appeared on the scene - linking activist groups in many countries, placing many demands on the agenda, lobbying major states, institutions and companies for more transparency and more responsible policies.

The fiftieth anniversary of the UN in 1995 and the sixtieth in 2005 were surrounded by talk of reforming the organisation. Even if this proved unfeasible, there was considerable policy development inside the UN, as reflected in the high-level commissions that reported on peacekeeping, and on the “responsibility to protect”. The then secretary-general Kofi Annan was able to commission senior experts to develop norms of intervention in 2005, reflecting the momentum behing liberal internationalism that even after the George W Bush administration had led the invasion of Iraq.

Yet within a few years, and in a more rapid rerun of the risky association of liberal optimism with global trends even than in the days of colonialism and communism, matters came to look very different. Much of the liberal agenda had come to nothing, and the very attempt to relate such an agenda to the policies of major powers came back to discredit the principles and sentiments that had underlain the association in the first place.

Many reasons for this outcome can be adduced. Among them were an inherent lack of realism in much of what was originally envisaged during the 1990s; the dramatic shift to the right in the US’s political centre of gravity seen in the elections of November 2000; the very serious and negative impact on the US and western Europe of 9/11 and the subsequent jihadi attacks; and the rise of community- and identity-based politics in many countries.  

But two events above all were decisive in impelling events: the al-Qaida attacks on the US of 11 September 2001, and the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Together they served to undermine the commitment to universalism and to human rights in the international arena and among western and middle-eastern publics. 9/11 dealt a serious blow to liberal optimism and to a US commitment to global values and institutions; the invasion of Iraq and all that followed - from the deceit of the US and its allies to the violations of human rights at Abu Ghraib and many other locations - discredited the cause of humanitarian intervention and of western commitment to human rights and respect for the rules of war.

What the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968 were to the cause of international communism, the US enterprise in Iraq in 2003 was to the ideals and legality of humanitarian intervention. Yet the biggest damage of Iraq was less the US mix of lying and grotesque mismanagement than the way in which both sides of the argument about Iraq allowed historical and moral simplification to prevail.   

The middle east: contours of solidarity  

The general interaction of liberal and radical universalism with historical forces and states can take the argument only so far. There is also a need to see how the concept and practice of solidarity has run into difficulties in particular regions of the world. Here too there are countless examples of how an initially open and internationalist support for other peoples or states, derived from a concept of their shared entitlement to rights, can turn into partial and instrumental; and in addition entail denial of rights by the very peoples and states which offer such solidarity. The case-studies include southeast Asia and southern Africa, Cyprus and the Balkans, Ireland and the Caucasus. Yet arguably no region of the world so illustrates the political and moral contradictions of solidarity than the “greater middle east”, the broad west Asian region within which the Arab-Israeli question plays a significant part.

The association of debates on solidarity with the middle east can be observed by examining many episodes in the region’s recent history where issues of political engagement have arisen in conditions of confusion and disarray. The Iranian revolution of 1978-79 is one; this convulsive event prompted very different responses outside as well as inside Iran, with much of the international left supporting the clerical regime that emerged from that revolution.

When a communist regime was established in neighbouring Afghanistan at the same time as the Islamic revolution took power in Iran, it received almost no international support - even less when it called on Soviet troops to protect it. It was out of the subsequent war in Afghanistan in the 1980s that a transnational jihadi movement emerged, crystallised around the al-Qaida nucleus; this led eventually to 9/11 and all that followed.

The inadequacies of international arguments about solidarity were reflected too in the response to Ayatollah Khomeini’s condemnation of Salman Rushdie in February 1989, and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. The Rushdie case was at heart a matter of free speech, yet the fatwa was met by many with reinforced condemnation of the author, mawkish appeals to relativism, and “respect” for the authority of clerics. In regard to Kuwait, most of the left opposed the United Nations decision to expel the Iraqi invaders even though Saddam’s takeover was as clear an example of state aggression and violation of the United Nations charter as could be imagined.

The middle east seems in this light the graveyard not only of imperial ambition - British, French, Russian and now American - but also of clear-headed moral and legal discussion of the challenges it poses. The  point is reinforced by attitudes to the “Palestine question” - the most prominent of the region's inter-ethnic and inter-state conflicts. Here the history is of one-sidedness and partisan engagement modified by quite dramatic shifts of partisanship along the way. In its origins, the state of Israel was widely supported by the left. The USSR recognised Israel before the US; it supplied, directly and indirectly, the arms that helped the Israelis win the war of 1948-49. In the 1950s and early 1960s the overall liberal and socialist consensus in Europe and the US was in favour of Israel, paying scant attention to the rights of the Palestinians.

This was before the emergence of the Palestinian guerrilla movement. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) had been set up in Cairo in January 1964; it was initially under the control of the Arab states, and of Egypt in particular, with its first armed action a year later being an attack on a water-pumping station near Galilee. For nearly everyone in the west, the Palestinian issue was then one of “the refugees” rather than of a people’s right to land or self-determination. The focus was on the obstacles to resettlement (by Israel and the Arab states respectively): as if the Palestinians were (twenty years after the second world war) a residual contingent of the millions of “displaced persons” and others whom the European conflict had shunted across frontiers.

For much of the world in the 1960s, “solidarity” - understood as respect for the rights and political aspirations of the group supported - attached to Israel. The murder of Jews in Europe was still recent; the Palestinians were not a visible or organised force; Israel enjoyed enormous authority, not so much as a close ally of the west, which at that time it was not (the alliance with the US took shape only in the late 1960s) but as the site of an experiment in socialist economics and living, epitomised by the kibbutz system.

If there was on the left some sympathy for Arab causes, it focused more on the experiment in “Arab socialism” under Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and on the forms of workers’ control and peasant cooperatives that had arisen out of the Algerian war; perhaps also, for a few, backing for the remote but accountedly resolute imamate of Oman (which in fact ceased to exist by early 1959).

This balance of affections was to change after the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967, which was followed by the emergence of the Palestinian resistance movement in the West Bank and in Jordan and the gradual loss of sympathy for Israel across much of the world. The redrawing of battle-lines following the conquest by Israel of all of mandate Palestine included the rise on the international left of a movement of solidarity with the Palestinian people. Yet the arguments of the more four decades since the 1967 war - languages of identification and rejection, historical points of dispute, controversies over particular events - have brought almost nothing new.

A marxist, a liberal, and the Palestine question

To gauge how little discussion of the Arab-Israeli cause has advanced over these decades, it is worth recalling some universalist propositions on this conflict by an independent marxist (Isaac Deutscher) and a courageous liberal (Hannah Arendt).

Isaac Deutscher struck a note that is almost wholly absent in more recent debates - where claims of identity prevail over universal principle, where exclusionary identification with one side or the other predominates, and where atrocities of war and callous political blunders are often common on both.

Deutscher’s argument rested on three clear and courageous premises: that Arab and Israeli leaderships were alike guilty of demagogy and of misleading their own people, above all by promising a victory that was unattainable and by stoking hatred of other peoples and religions; that the histories of the contending peoples (genocide in Europe for the Jews, and denial of national rights for the Palestinians) could not be deployed to legitimate the maximal current claims of either; and that the Israelis and Palestinians were each peoples with legitimate claims that should be recognised on a sensible and lasting territorial and political basis.

Isaac Deutscher was clear too - in tones of anti-clerical and universalist disdain, all too lacking in these days of grovelling before “identity”, “tradition” and “faith communities” -  in rejecting any invocation of the sacred, the god-given, in political debate. He would have had as little time for the Orthodox rabbis of the West Bank as for the discourses of Sheikh Fadlallah.

Hannah Arendt’s work was not directly related to the Arab-Israeli question, but the internationalist approach of one of her key works has immense relevance to it and to the arguments taking place in the broader world about it. This is her study of the trial in Jerusalem in 1961 of the Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann.

Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) is best known for the controversial phrase, born of watching this shifty and apparently “normal” man in the glass dock, “the banality of evil”. Yet this controversy is undeserved, as anyone who has studied the vast literature on killing in other dictatorships and massacres across the world can testify: for it applies as much to Stalin’s gulag, the massacres of Rwanda and Bosnia, and Slobodan Milosevic’s appearance at his trial in The Hague.

What should have been much better noted was Hannah Arendt’s critique of the legal and moral case made by the Israeli prosecutors against Adolf Eichmann. For whereas the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi war criminals had been conducted under what at least purported to be some form of “international” law (the precursor of later codes of universal jurisdiction, crimes against humanity and the International Criminal Court), Eichmann was prosecuted for the taking of Jewish lives and in a Jewish court.

A legal case that had, in 1946, been weak in some points of principle, but confident in its universalist aspirations - that of the International Military Tribunal - had by the early 1960s been converted into something that derived its authority and legitimacy from the ethnicity of the victims. And this ethnicisation of the victims was at the same time deemed to convey a particular right, if not responsibility, on the state that lay claim to representing those victims, namely Israel.

Herein lies the core of much contemporary confusion and passion about the Arab-Israeli question - and indeed, about the numerous other inter-ethnic conflicts across the world where local rhetoric and partisan international “solidarity” prevail, as if one side were angels and the other devils - Cyprus, Bosnia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Northern Ireland, to name but a few. In regard to the middle east, Muslims and Arabs across the world identify with the Palestinians (or, since the expulsion of the Israelis in July 2000 from Lebanon, Hizbollah) on ethnic, religious and communitarian lines; many Jews do the same, in support of Israel. Solidarity is here interlocked with particularism. Even many of those Jews who oppose the policies of the state of Israel speak as Jews (“not in my name”).

Yet there is arguably a regression here, of ominous import - insofar as membership of a particular community, or claims of affinity, ethnicity or religious association with others, is deemed to convey either particular rights or particular moral clarity on those making such claims. In purely logical and rational terms, this is a nonsense.

The war over Lebanon of July-August 2006 offers an example. The crimes of the Israelis (in wantonly attacking the infrastructure of Lebanon, and denying Palestinians their national rights) and those of Hizbollah and Hamas (in killing civilians, placing the lives and security of their peoples recklessly at risk, hurling thousands of missiles at civilian targets in Israel and fomenting religious and ethnic hatred) do not require particularist denunciation: that the one killed Arabs or Muslims, and that the other spilt Jewish blood. They are crimes on the basis of universal principles - of law, decency, and humanity; and should be identified as such. Particularism undermines the very basis of the denunciation, which presupposes universal principles.

The dominant current political orthodoxy in Europe and the US inclines to granting a legitimate, even privileged, place to “communities”; and especially those with a particular outlook on the international issues that most concern them (Armenians, Kashmiris, Irish, Tamils, Muslims and Jews). A directly countervailing argument can and should be made, however: that ethnic and religious communities based abroad should be the last people from whom rational explanation or moral compass is expected or sought in regard to these issues.

In early 2005, when interviewed by a BBC panel set up to consider accusations of bias in regard to the Arab-Israeli dispute, I was given a list of the British-based groups the panel had consulted - Muslim and Arab on one side, Jewish and Zionist on the other: my recommendation to the panel was to ignore completely what any of them said; and to question whether they should have any standing in the matter.

The recovered path

The development of thinking and policy about human rights in general, and debate on the Arab-Israeli dispute in particular, re-emphasise the need to reaffirm the core principles that inform the concept of solidarity. A good place to start is to recognise that a condemnation of the actions of militarised states and violent groups on account of their demagogy and chauvinism is insufficient: there must also be recognition of and respect for the existing body of rights and legal instruments - such as the Geneva protocols of 1949, the additional protocols of 1977, and related documents.

Many movements of “solidarity” invoke universal principles of war to justify support for (for example) Hamas or Hizbollah, yet fail even to attempt to apply such principles to the guerrilla groups they favour, even though many of the latter are guilty of murder, intimidation and violation of civilians, and fostering of intercommunal hatred. Some prominent voices of the left, high on “anti-imperialist” rectitude, revelled in the slaughter of civilian UN officials in Iraq; others condone the killing of civilians in Israel and the wanton sacrifice of the Lebanese people’s security in the name of a self-proclaimed “national resistance”. Such distortions of solidarity come even more ill when exerted on behalf of groups that for years sought to destroy the one chance for coexistence and peace between Israelis and Palestinians that did arise, in the Oslo accords of 1993.

Solidarity, to be true to its universalist premises, cannot be embodied in partisan and morally selective campaigns of support for one or other group of combatants. It must rest on a range of qualities - including moral authority, intellectual integrity, consistency of principle, and factual accuracy - that transcend the sectarian world of “solidarity” groups.

Such qualities are to be found in the work of journalists, researchers, scholars, diplomats and human-rights organisations that seek honestly to document and highlight human-rights violations, and that condemn the crimes and political follies of all sides.

A consistent advocacy of respect for the rules of war, and the protection of combatants and civilians alike in situations of conflict, has long been the priority of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). It is the sustained courage, independence and clarity of vision of such bodies that should guide understanding and discussion of the modern world’s fractures. Human rights may indeed be the last grand narrative, but it has more than sufficient intellectual and moral authority to last for many years yet. There is no solidarity worth the name without it. 

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