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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John Major's double warning for Theresa May

The former Tory Prime Minister broke his silence with a very loud rebuke. 

A month after the Prime Minister stood in Chatham House to set out plans for free trading, independent Britain, her predecessor John Major took the floor to puncture what he called "cheap rhetoric".

Standing to attention like a weather forecaster, the former Tory Prime Minister warned of political gales ahead that could break up the union, rattle Brexit negotiations and rot the bonds of trust between politicians and the public even further.

Major said that as he had been on the losing side of the referendum, he had kept silent since June:

“This evening I don't wish to argue that the European Union is perfect, plainly it isn't. Nor do I deny the economy has been more tranquil than expected since the decision to leave was taken. 

“But I do observe that we haven't yet left the European Union. And I watch with growing concern  that the British people have been led to expect a future that seems to be unreal and over-optimistic.”

A seasoned EU negotiator himself, he warned that achieving a trade deal within two years after triggering Article 50 was highly unlikely. Meanwhile, in foreign policy, a UK that abandoned the EU would have to become more dependent on an unpalatable Trumpian United States.

Like Tony Blair, another previous Prime Minister turned Brexit commentator, Major reminded the current occupant of No.10 that 48 per cent of the country voted Remain, and that opinion might “evolve” as the reality of Brexit became clear.

Unlike Blair, he did not call for a second referendum, stressing instead the role of Parliament. But neither did he rule it out.

That was the first warning. 

But it may be Major's second warning that turns out to be the most prescient. Major praised Theresa May's social policy, which he likened to his dream of a “classless society”. He focused his ire instead on those Brexiteers whose promises “are inflated beyond any reasonable expectation of delivery”. 

The Prime Minister understood this, he claimed, but at some point in the Brexit negotiations she will have to confront those who wish for total disengagement from Europe.

“Although today they be allies of the Prime Minister, the risk is tomorrow they may not,” he warned.

For these Brexiteers, the outcome of the Article 50 negotiations did not matter, he suggested, because they were already ideologically committed to an uncompromising version of free trade:

“Some of the most committed Brexit supporters wish to have a clean break and trade only under World Trade Organisation rules. This would include tariffs on goods with nothing to help services. This would not be a panacea for the UK  - it would be the worst possible outcome. 

“But to those who wish to see us go back to a deregulated low cost enterprise economy, it is an attractive option, and wholly consistent with their philosophy.”

There was, he argued, a choice to be made about the foundations of the economic model: “We cannot move to a radical enterprise economy without moving away from a welfare state. 

“Such a direction of policy, once understood by the public, would never command support.”

Major's view of Brexit seems to be a slow-motion car crash, but one where zealous free marketeers like Daniel Hannan are screaming “faster, faster”, on speaker phone. At the end of the day, it is the mainstream Tory party that will bear the brunt of the collision. 

Asked at the end of his speech whether he, like Margaret Thatcher during his premiership, was being a backseat driver, he cracked a smile. 

“I would have been very happy for Margaret to make one speech every eight months,” he said. As for today? No doubt Theresa May will be pleased to hear he is planning another speech on Scotland soon. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.