Ukraine, Gaza and the rise of identity geopolitics

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Early in the Gaza conflict, a TikTok video of John Kirby went viral. In the first frames, the White House spokesman is composed as he describes civilian casualties in Gaza as part of the “brutal, ugly” reality of war. In the second part, he chokes up as he describes his horror at civilian deaths in Ukraine.

For the Biden administration’s critics, that video summed up America’s double standards. But the whole debate about the relative treatment of Ukraine and Gaza misses a wider point about selective compassion. The tragedies of Ukraine, Gaza and Israel all get far more attention than wars and humanitarian calamities elsewhere in the world. 

The threat of a famine in Gaza is currently making global headlines every day. But last week the UN warned that “Sudan will soon be the world’s worst hunger crisis” with 18mn people facing acute food insecurity. It highlighted an ongoing conflict that involves “mass graves, gang rapes, shockingly indiscriminate attacks in densely populated areas” and more than 6.5mn displaced people. Reports from refugee camps in Darfur describe children dying of malnutrition every two hours.

Like Gaza, Sudan borders Egypt. But the Sudanese conflict — and last week’s warning — has been largely ignored by the wider world. A UN appeal for $2.7bn in humanitarian aid for Sudan that was launched last month has so far raised $131mn.

Efforts to free the Israeli hostages held in Gaza have become a centrepiece of international diplomacy. Last week, CIA head Bill Burns got directly involved. By contrast, the kidnapping of 287 children in Nigeria — many of them mercifully released over the weekend — got very little international attention. 

Go a little further back and the world’s capacity to ignore mass killing and suffering — particularly in Africa — is stark. The war between Ethiopia and the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front that began in November 2020 cost around 600,000 lives, according to Olusegun Obasanjo, the former Nigerian president, who helped to negotiate a peace treaty. More than half the victims were civilians, many of whom died of starvation.

The slogan “Black Lives Matter” that began in the US was resonating globally in 2020. But the wider world — including the African Union — barely seemed to register the loss of hundreds of thousands of black lives in the Ethiopia-Tigray war. 

What is it that causes some tragedies and conflicts to command the world’s attention and others to pass almost unnoticed? 

The answer seems to be something that can be called identity geopolitics. A conflict is much more likely to spark international concern and outrage if large numbers of people identify with those who are fighting or suffering. Europeans look at fleeing Ukrainians and imagine their own cities under bombardment. Many Muslims and Jews identify with the warring sides in Gaza.

My guess is that if the Ethiopia-Tigray war had involved white people slaughtering black people — or vice versa — it would have caused global uproar. Without that element of racial or group antagonism, however, outsiders were much less likely to identify with one side or another. 

When mass atrocities are broken down into individual stories, the emotional and political impact is much more powerful. Global audiences know the faces and names of Israeli toddlers who were kidnapped on October 7, and whose fates are unknown, and of the Palestinian children and families who have been killed in Israel’s Gaza offensive. Millions will see the Oscar-winning film 20 Days in Mariupol about the brutal Russian assault on a Ukrainian city. 

Films and journalism that tell stories of individual suffering can feel almost too painful to watch. But the names and fates of the Tigrayan or Sudanese children who were murdered or died of hunger will never get the same attention, so they will never provoke the same sort of global uproar. 

There is a circular process to the lack of attention given to tragedies in places such as Tigray or Sudan. International news organisations notice that their audiences do not seem engaged by these stories — which are also expensive and dangerous to cover. So they do not document events in the detail that might actually trigger international concern. 

Supporters of the Palestinian cause sometimes say the reason they feel so passionately about Gaza, but are not marching for Sudan or Haiti, is that western policy is directly implicated in events there. The US supplies weapons to Israel, but not to either side in Sudan. 

This argument is powerful — but not conclusive. The largest buyer of both American and British weaponry has traditionally been Saudi Arabia. The Saudis used those weapons in a conflict in Yemen that, according to the UN, had cost 377,000 lives by the end of 2021. Like the Israelis, the Saudis were accused of indiscriminate bombing and of provoking a famine. But there was little public outcry about this in the west.

The issue that caused a real crisis in US-Saudi relations was the murder of a single prominent journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. His horrific story had the power to move emotions and shift international politics — unlike the deaths of thousands of other victims, who were destined to remain anonymous. 

World politics still seems to live by the infamous phrase, often attributed to Stalin: “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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