Why some people choose to stand on the sidelines in the face of evil
The United States has come under fire recently for failing to officially condemn the sectarian violence that has taken place in Delhi.
The ruling party of Bangladesh is being scorned for doing the same thing. While it is easy to dismiss the former as the actions of a comparable demagogue and the latter as the work of a nation too afraid to stand up for itself, the truth is a little more complex than that.
For example, the United Nations, one of the most powerful bureaucratic bodies of the entire world, removed Saudi Arabia from a child’s rights blacklist in 2016. While prevailing conspiracy theorists argue that the UN is nothing more than a shadow organization that is designed to help the needs of the US and Israel, if that were true, Saudi Arabia shouldn’t have received any favour from the body.
This begs the question: Why do nations and international bodies turn their backs on the morality that they themselves preach when it comes to international and local crises?
To answer this question, we need to take a deep dive into the world of international relations.
In the past, it was possible for nations to limit their interactions with foreign countries and live on the fruits of their own labours. A prime example of this was Japan, which went as far as to even isolate themselves for two centuries, up to the 19th century.
But any nation attempting to do that in this day and age would be akin to a person committing suicide.
Only focusing on the trade front alone, countries would fail to realize the benefits of comparative advantage and even basic necessities would become scarce.
For nation states like Singapore, which depend on imports to satisfy almost half of its water needs, situations like this could prove fatal.
In the age of international commerce and cooperation, every nation influences other nations to an extent, but it is not equal. Due to their different statures and geographical locations, the degree of influence varies, and it is specifically due to this fluctuation that some nations dominate while others become submissive.
Let’s go back to the issue of water and focus on India and Bangladesh using this framework. The major river network of Bangladesh is the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta. It flows out of India and comes into Bangladesh.
The Farakka Dam has been an issue of contention is this regard as India has used it many times to cut off water supply to Bangladesh or overflow it with water, which has led to many disasters along the water line. There has been an international attempt to curtail these proceedings, but at the end of the day, the ultimate power to make decisions in this regard is up to India, which ultimately gives India power over Bangladesh.
The whole of international relations can be summed up using this framework. Due to either military, economic, or resource-based reasons, some nations have power over other nations. This creates an unequal power dynamic which can help the powerful nations get away with practically anything and leave the helpless nations in the gutter. Reversing this is almost a no-go in today’s climate, and this is specifically the reason why many nations can’t raise their voices against injustice.
Now let’s take a look at the players mentioned in the beginning. In 2018 alone, India purchased around 48.2 million barrels of US crude oil. Indian students enrolled in the US education system also contributed around $7 billion to the economy in the same year. India is also a key strategic partner of the US in the Southeast Asia Region.
Bangladesh is widely dependent on India in water alone. We share around 54 rivers with the nation and if they want to, they could turn the entire country into a desert.
Couple that with the numerous trade and energy deals made with the country, which are needed for the current structural existence of Bangladesh, and it isn’t conjecture to conclude that India holds a massive amount of power over us.
The case of the UN is more concerning. As the international body is dependent on the funding it gets from other nations, it won’t be difficult to argue that cutting off its source of funding can destroy its entire existence.
In 2016, when Saudi Arabia was removed from its blacklist, the Middle Eastern nation and its allies threatened to do just that. Taking this into account, it isn’t difficult to see why the UN had to cave to Saudi’s unlawful demands.
In all of these cases, we can see a nation at fault using its influence into silencing countries that can otherwise take a stand against them. While it is easy to preach about sacrificing everything in order to do what’s right, it isn’t easy to walk the talk when millions of lives depend on the decision you are about to take.
How many lives are worth standing up for what’s right? Is empathy even worth it when your entire existence comes into question?
This is a moral dilemma, and everyone will have their own views on this. While it would be justified to sacrifice lives for the greater good for some, more practical/cynical people would think that the cost is too much.
And in a world where the greater good isn’t guaranteed, where just surviving in our day-to-day lives is a battle, it is understandable why some people would choose to stand on the sidelines in the face of evil.
It doesn’t make the world fair, true, but for those of us who can keep our heads above the tide, at least it makes the world liveable. And that’s more than most can ask for.
Nafis Shahriar is a freelance contributor.