THE FORMER English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, wrote in his 1651 book, Leviathan, that in the natural state of humankind, life is nasty, brutish, and short. For Hobbes, humankind exists in a natural state when there is no political community to order society. Essentially, in the absence of some kind of organising principle around which to order society, chaos reigns.
I must confess that I have often dismissed Hobbes’ view of humankind as too simplistic and deterministic. However, the condition of our world today does force me to concede that perhaps Hobbes was on to something.
A glance at the international response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic; the human catastrophe in Yemen; the chaos in Myanmar; and tensions throughout many parts of the world reveals the capacity of humankind to exact cruelty on humankind in the cruelest of ways. In short, the world appears to be broken and battered.
I have written about the current fractured state of multilateralism in these pages on a few occasions.
This state of affairs is reflected in some of the global responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Early in the pandemic, several countries placed export restrictions on personal protective equipment (PPEs) and other medical devices and technologies such as ventilators. This starved much of the developing world from quick, easy and fair access to some of the tools required to battle the pandemic. Now that vaccines and other treatments are available, the narrative is dominated by cries of vaccine nationalism and inequitable access to said vaccines.
The fight against COVID-19 is a battle to save lives and livelihoods.
This fight goes beyond the domains of public health and the economy. In essence, we are faced with a moral issue and to date, some countries are failing the moral litmus test. If the world was better organised around the principles of common development and equity, perhaps a less selfish approach would have emerged in the fight against the global health pandemic.
In places like Yemen, we are witnessing the ability of humankind to inflict grave violence and suffering on each other. In 2015, civil war broke out in Yemen over a failed political transition. Over five years later, the crisis shows very little signs of abating.
The United Nations (UN) describes the situation in Yemen as the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with over 24 million people, approximately 80 per cent of the population, in need of humanitarian assistance, including more than 12 million children. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the conflict has displaced more than one million people and given rise to cholera outbreaks, medicine shortages, and threats of famine. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Yemen has become a staging ground for a proxy war between regional powers in the Arab world.
The crisis in Yemen is complex and it has geopolitical implications as well.
In an ordered and more ideal world, human life and dignity would have taken precedence over geopolitical and domestic political considerations.
In Myanmar, the military recently seized control and implemented a year-long state of emergency. Prior to this situation, there was a global public outcry against the government of Myanmar over its ethnic and religious persecution (and some say genocide) of the country’s Rohingya people. This was a situation that global powers with the capacity to act largely turned away from, aside from the criticisms and expressions of concern. One can argue that had there been a concerted global response to the Rohingya situation, the democratic and possible humanitarian crisis currently unfolding would not have occurred.
Yemen and Myanmar serve as Exhibits A and B for what happens when the international community fails to discipline bad actors. Failure to act emboldens tyrants, makes the vulnerable more vulnerable and eats away at the very core of human dignity.
The world is certainly in need of a reset. We need a reset from the nasty and brutish chaos that is evident in many places.
This reset requires global agreement on some fundamental tenets about how the world should be ordered. In such a reset, there should be no place for bad actors to hide; and equity, justice and human dignity should occupy a place of prominence.