The Guardian is having a bit of fun at the expense of Tony Blair, following this interview with him and Liberian President (and Nobel Laureate) Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, during which he sidesteps the issue of gay rights and refuses to answer the question when asked whether governance and human rights go hand in hand.
On one point I think they are both right: that Tony Blair’s presence in Liberia is restricted to a few specific development issues. He is not in Liberia as a senior global statesman promoting peace and love: he is there as a hired contractor to the Liberian government, who have hired his Africa Governance Initiative to advise them on delivering in some key policy areas. Criticising him for not pushing gay rights in this context is kind of missing the point: if Sirleaf had thought he was out to make trouble for her in a sensitive policy area, she would never have awarded the contract. Besides – and I think he missed a trick by not pointing this out – the work he does with the Liberian government probably does advance human rights, just not the ones the journalist is asking about. In my work on HIV I work on rights, including gay rights, but I would find it pretty absurd if a journalist criticised me for having had no impact on access to education or on extrajudicial arrests. It’s a shame that the journalist in this case fell into the common trap of reducing all African human rights issues to gay rights.
Nonetheless the interview is embarrassing. It is profoundly depressing that a Nobel Peace Laureate should have the attitudes Sirleaf has. Blair’s discomfort is palpable. Given his record on gay rights in the UK though, I suspect it is partly his embarrassment at the things Sirleaf was saying. But I really don’t see what the problem would have been with Blair giving a straight answer to the question of whether governance and human rights go hand in hand. Given his championing of interventionist foreign policy in the cause of advancing human rights when he was Prime Minister, it would be nice to see him nail his colours to the mast. It is certainly nonsense to hide behind the notion that this episode is an example of “country ownership” and that no-one outside Liberia has the right to comment. It reminds me of that silly statement a Foreign Office minister made a few months ago which seemed to imply homophobia is OK if it is “traditional”. If human rights isn’t an issue that transcends borders I don’t know what is, and I would have thought no-one knows that better than Blair.