Is It Ever Reasonable To Boycott An Entire Country?
In April 2015, two Australian men were executed by firing squad in Indonesia. It was a tragic thing, and it was big news. Despite the fact that the men in question were a couple of convicted heroin smugglers, the media rhetoric surrounding them was acutely nationalistic. The Australian press described them as “different men to the drug smugglers who were arrested and jailed 10 years ago”, and foreign minister Julie Bishop said their punishment was “a grave injustice.” A lot of Australians agreed that the Indonesian government’s death penalty ruling was not only hypocritical, but heartbreakingly callous.
Then came the #BoycottBali movement, a social media campaign that implored Australians to stop holidaying in Bali from then on. The idea was to show solidarity with “our boys” by crossing Bali off the national bucket list. Ultimately, it was a bit of a cock-eyed reaction and it backfired on multiple levels.
Firstly, it didn’t work: Australian tourists kept visiting Bali and in the four weeks after the executions – the number of tourists actually went up 42% from the previous year. Secondly, #BoycottBali produced some pretty embarrassing responses from our Indonesian neighbours. Predictably, Twitter went into overdrive, but one of the most articulate and measured responses came from Indonesia’s biggest punk band, Superman is Dead.
“Those threatening to boycott Bali probably do not realise that many of us Balinese feel sick to our stomachs, to see the way SOME Aussie tourists completely disrespect our people and our culture,” they wrote on Facebook. The band’s singer, JRX, later told the BBC: “We are not saying all Australians are bad… But it is time for Australia to educate their people about how to behave as tourists.”
Touché. This was a hard one for Aussies to deny and it raised a few eyebrows. But it also raised some important questions. Like, did we actually expect that by starving Balinese businesses of foreign tourist trade, the government would decide to reform their death penalty laws? Probably not. At its best, #BoycottBali looked like an emotional, knee-jerk reaction. At its worst, it looked like a bunch of racists had found an excuse to give Indonesia a proverbial kick in the nuts.
But, more broadly, it raised the question of whether boycotting an entire country could ever be an effective way of changing things for the better.
Israel is a country that regularly comes under fire for its occupation of Palestinian land and, in response, there’s an international movement of people boycotting Israel in various ways.
The loudest voice on the Palestinian side is BDS, a pretty hardline group who endorses an absolute boycott of Israel. This means they boycott the country entirely, extending to all Israeli products and businesses, which would logically extend to a refusing to visit the place. (Other groups, such as Whoprofits.org, only boycott the businesses that operate on the West Bank, because that’s the much-coveted piece of land that’s widely understood to be an illegal occupation.)
In an even more divisive move, the Israeli government recently imposed a travel ban on those who actively boycott the country – which was basically a ban on BDS and their supporters. It was the logic of a five-year-old who says, “If you’re not going to be my friend then I’m not going to be your friend either.” And what does it actually achieve? Well, the Israeli president insisted BDS had been “beaten” while critics said that it was a total violation of democracy and that visitors shouldn’t have to blindly support the government in order to enter the country.
It’s a tough one, because just like with #BoycottBali, it seems like the locals will suffer more than the government. When those who oppose the government refuse to engage with the country at all, it not only affects the livelihood of local business people, but it stifles the flow of new and opposing ideas. By boycotting the entire country—and having the government respond by boycotting the boycotters—the people who suffer are those who just live and work and study there.
I’m not defending the Israeli government (and, for the record, I don’t support the death penalty in Indonesia or anywhere else either), but I don’t know if it’s helpful to boycott any country entirely. Why? Well it’s a slippery slope.
The US must be the ripest country for boycott right now. Everybody’s talking about how Trump is a psychopathic, racist, climate-denying lizard who hates poor people, Mexicans, women, gays and human rights. So cross the “Land of the Free” off your bucket list. But while you’re at it, also forget about Columbia, The Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, China, Russia, Zimbabwe, Spain and so many others who have been accused of violating human rights.
Then again, boycotts should probably begin at home, so let’s take a look in our own backyard(s). In Australia, “the lucky country”, the government used to tow boats full of asylum seekers back to war zones, but now they just force refugees to wallow indefinitely in Nazi-esque hellholes that are rife with allegations of routine sexual abuse, assault and self harm. People have literally been murdered while in government “care”. Australia’s treatment of incarcerated indigenous children is similar – described by Amnesty International as “torture.”
With all that considered, it seems a bit hypocritical to #BoycottBali for Sukumaran and Chan, or to refuse to buy Israeli products, despite the fact that the business owner had nothing to do with the occupation of the West Bank.
It’s all horribly sad, and while two wrongs certainly don’t make a right, we’ve got to ask ourselves, why shouldn’t the world boycott us?
While specifically boycotting a product or an unethical corporation is a totally valid form of protest, boycotting an entire country is a bit different. You’re boycotting all the people who live there, regardless of their involvement in what you disagree with.
Travel is supposed to be about cultural exchange. But if all the conscientious and morally attentive people of the world refused to travel based on their political righteousness, only soldiers, businesspeople and oligarchs would visit other countries. I don’t even want to imagine that.
The world is a fucked up place, but that doesn’t mean we should let governments stop us from exploring it.
Cover via The Independent