What do Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia have in common?

The UK downplays their human rights abuses -- as always, when the countries in question are strategi

David Cameron is right to say that too many governments look the other way or find reasons for inaction when people are being slaughtered and human rights violated. But does the UK's own record match up to Cameron's soaring rhetoric?

While the UK is more assertive about human rights than many other countries and more willing to exert diplomatic and other forms of pressure in defence of them, UK action is far from consistent, and there are many areas where UK practice falls short of its declared policy and of international human rights standards.

Take Bahrain. The authorities there have been responsible for large-scale repression of popular demonstrations for democracy and the rule of law. More than thirty people have died since the start of the year, four as a result of torture and medical neglect, and many of the several thousand detained have claimed that they were tortured. Yet the UK's response to these abuses has been timid and ineffectual. Ministers talk up the possibilities of the Bahraini national dialogue and the need for reconciliation. But meaningful dialogue has little chance in a climate of repression and intimidation, when those guilty of human rights abuses have not been brought to account, where opposition figures are fearful of speaking out and the media is unable to report freely.

A similar silence characterises UK policy towards Saudi Arabia -- a country with whom the UK has extensive economic, military and security links. While the UK calls for democratic reform, human rights and the rule of law in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, and has taken some significant and high-risk action in defence of them, it seems unwilling to speak out about major and systematic human rights violations in Saudi. Saudi Arabia continues to treat women as second-class citizens, with male guardians determining whether a woman may work, study, marry, travel or undergo certain medical procedures. Shia Saudis, a religious minority of around 10 percent of the population, are also treated as second-class citizens and migrant workers remain beholden to their employers in law and practices, and are sometimes kept in conditions resembling servitude.

In Africa too, the UK appears willing to downplay human rights abuses when the countries in question are strategically important like Ethiopia, or judged "development success stories" like Rwanda. In Ethiopia, the opposition is severely repressed, war crimes committed by the Ethiopian military in the Ogaden and Somalia have gone unpunished and donor aid money has been misused by the ruling party. In Rwanda, opposition parties are attacked and intimidated, independent journalists are arrested and their newspapers closed down, and no one in the Rwandan armed forces has been brought to account for war crimes committed in neighbouring Congo. Yet both countries are large recipients of UK development aid, and aid levels are set to grow over the next five years.

And on the issue of torture, the government is pressing ahead with a detainee inquiry that lacks teeth and real independence, when recent revelations of intimate relations between British intelligence services and the Gaddafi regime confirm the need for a more thoroughgoing and robust investigation into this country's involvement in torture and rendition.

It is to Cameron's credit that he is raising human rights in his address to the UN General Assembly and calling on other governments to act more determinedly in defence of them. But to be credible, and to win over sceptics elsewhere in the world, his government will need to show more consistency in tackling torture and rights abuses carried out by our friends and allies, and make sure that its own practice is consistent with international human rights standards.

David Mepham is the UK director of Human Right's Watch

 

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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