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Bermuda’s obligation to stand with its fellow democracies

Courageous: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a press conference in Kyiv last week. (Photo, press office of the Ukrainian presidency via AP)

This newspaper generally avoids commenting on foreign affairs, leaving it to those who cover international events on a daily basis or have special expertise in areas that extend well beyond these 20-odd square miles.

But Bermuda is a part of the larger world and its people are global citizens as well. So there are times, and this is one, when global events affect this island and its people and where, even to a small degree, Bermuda should make its voice heard.

The event now is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In any event, Bermuda is directly affected, albeit in a relatively small way. Its Aircraft Register had a large number of aircraft operated by Russian airlines on it, which contributed to Bermuda’s government revenues before they were sanctioned. There are at least ten vessels on Bermuda’s shipping register which appear to be owned by Russians who may be affected by global sanctions.

Russian oligarchs may also have international companies and trusts registered here, although they seem more likely to be in other less well regulated financial centres. Nonetheless, the tendency of oligarchs to stash their money in offshore centres means Bermuda will be caught up in efforts to corral their wealth.

More broadly, the economic ramifications of the war are being felt, most particularly in terms of rising prices and scarcity of goods, especially in the event of a long-term conflict, which seems ever more likely.

These are the economic effects of the war and the Government will have to deal with them, even as it grapples with Covid-19-related problems and other issues.

There is a bigger issue at stake.

Bermuda is a British Overseas Territory, which does not have full say over its external affairs and it is a small player in global terms. But it is also a liberal democracy in the best sense of the word and a member of the free world.

It has an elected legislature, an independent judiciary and a Constitution based on liberal democratic principles. Apart from some foreign affairs and external defence issues, it is self-governing.

In this sense, it is joined with other members of the free world, which now include most of Europe, North America, much of the Caribbean, parts of Africa, Asian countries, such as Japan and South Korea, and Australasia.

These countries are characterised by adherence to the rule of law and respect for sovereignty, fundamental individual rights, constitutional elections and economic liberty based on property rights. They promote freedom of speech and association, tolerance of others, equality of individuals and the barring of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion and other differences.

From the end of the Cold War until the financial crisis of 2008, these ideas were on the ascendant.

Since then, the rise of populist and authoritarian politicians from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to the US’s Donald Trump and increasing divisions within democracies themselves showed liberal democracies were on the wane.

This decline was in part self-inflicted. The overreach of the United States’ invasion of Iraq; the excesses of untrammelled free-market capitalism leading to the 2008 financial crisis; the rise of identity politics; and the success of non-democratic regimes such as China all undermined the credibility of traditional liberal democracies, which also became complacent and self-absorbed.

Bermuda too has seen a rise in populism, evidence of xenophobia and attempts to divide the island. Over the past 20 years there have also been efforts to stifle freedom of the press. But they pale in comparison to countries such as Russia and Hungary.

Now Russia has done the unthinkable and invaded a neighbouring country for utterly specious reasons.

Rather than fold, Ukraine, under its inspiring president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has fought back. Ukraine is not a perfect democracy. As it emerged from communism, it was wracked with corruption and was distracted by internal squabbles. But it aspired to better things and sought to take its place with other liberal democracies.

That, and that alone, was too much for President Putin, who set his armed forces loose on that country.

That invasion has caused massive displacement and suffering. That would be reason enough for Bermuda and the rest of the free world to support it. But for those who question why Ukraine should be supported when the free world has failed to intervene elsewhere, there is more.

Russia is a nuclear-armed power which has not been afraid to threaten to use those weapons. President Putin will not stop if he is successful in subduing Ukraine.

Ukraine wishes to be a functioning liberal democracy, representing all that that entails. Why would any other country aspire to do the same if the free world’s response is to turn its back on it? Would that country then look instead to a Russia or a China?

This is not simply a question of Russia being stopped in Ukraine and therefore being deterred from more aggressive expansion. Standing firm in Ukraine will also deter other authoritarian leaders from expanding elsewhere. Failure to do so would encourage other authoritarian leaders to expand and would encourage populist parties within liberal democracies as well.

Now is the time to stand with other democracies to fight for liberty and against oppression.

Bermuda is a small country. In a world where only might is right, it will be crushed. To be successful, it needs to compete in a world where rules are agreed and followed on the basis of fairness and where appeals to morality may not always be successful, but will be heard.

A world dominated by the likes of a Putin-led Russia will be a world where rules do not matter, where laws exist to be abused, where only power and greed count and where small countries exist only to be exploited and dominated. Bermuda cannot survive in that world.

There are those who point to the failings of liberal democracies and attempt to draw a moral equivalency between them and Russia’s behaviour. The free world is far from perfect, but democracies can self-correct but dictators will never acknowledge their wrongs. Democracies aspire to do better but dictators only exist to accrue more wealth and power.

There is no disputing where right lies in the invasion of Ukraine. But there is shame in a government that can barely bring itself to support sanctions against an invader. To date, the Bermuda Government has been oddly reluctant to say anything in public beyond a collective statement from all of the Overseas Territories.

The fact the United Kingdom speaks for Bermuda on foreign affairs does not mean Bermuda’s leaders cannot express their views. Former premier Sir John Swan was prominent in his condemnation of the apartheid regime in South Africa when the British government was resisting imposing sanctions.

Bermuda needs to condemn Russia and to stand with democracies against authoritarianism.

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Published April 23, 2022 at 7:44 am (Updated April 23, 2022 at 7:44 am)

Bermuda’s obligation to stand with its fellow democracies

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