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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Could Labour implement universal basic income?

The battle over this radical policy is moving gradually into the mainstream.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has called universal basic income (UBI) “an idea whose time may well have come”. It means a fixed regular payment to each citizen, irrespective of income or behaviour. It is seen by both socialists and Silicon Valley as a panacea for the post-industrial world, addressing unrestrained inequality, economic insecurity, and automation-generated unemployment in the modern economy.

Guy Standing, a professor at Soas and founding member of Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), says a “perfect storm of factors have suddenly pushed us into being a mainstream policy question” in recent years. “A lot of people who were sitting on their hands, as it were, have started to come out in favour ... I'm inundated with requests to speak and involvement in conferences, and it's indicative of the sudden realisation that if the growing inequality and growing economic insecurities persist, then the drift to fascist populism will continue. 

“Of course, in the background, a lot of these techies including prominent names in Silicon Valley have come out in favour because they see robots displacing us all. I don't buy that argument, but it's added to a growing chorus of people saying that we should take it more seriously.”

Standing's recent book charts the long history of thinking about UBI (through ancient Greece, Thomas More, and Martin Luther King). But the idea's rise to prominence is the result of a interlinked developments in the economy and the nature of work. As Labour MP Jonathan Reynolds argues, changes such as the rise of self-employment and the gig economy challenge the appropriateness of the traditional welfare state. It's “based around the principle of compulsion, and broadly believing there's two binary states – people in work, and people out of work. We know it's becoming a much more complicated picture than that... The state can't keep up with the complexity of people's lives.”

For Standing, the prospects of UBI being implemented successfully depend largely on how it is framed. He is wary of libertarians who see it as an opportunity to dismantle the welfare state, and believes it needs to be placed within the context of chronic economic insecurity for a growing number within the post-industrial economy.

“The argument that I think is going to prove really important for the left is linked to the growth of the 'precariat',” he says, meaning those living without predictability or security. “People in the precariat are experiencing chronic insecurity that will not be overcome by any existing policy.” 

Even so, support from business could be key. Peter Swenson's work on the history of the welfare state finds that reforms and expansions of social policy have only succeeded when key sections of the capitalist class are in support. He, and other academics, resist the idea that the welfare state is simply the focal point for the battle between left and right over Robin-Hood style redistribution. If UBI is to make its way into policy, support from business may be more important than the strengthening of the left.

Reynolds claims UBI may solve not just policy problems, but political ones.  "You have to say that Labour's situation, in terms of how we've struggled on all of these issues (the party's polling is significantly behind on running the welfare state) over the last few years, means that we should definitely be open to new thinking in this area.” Both he and Standing  are part of the working group that was brought together by McDonnell in February to produce a publication on the issue before the next general election, which would then be discussed across the country. Understandably, the group didn't quite meet its deadline. But Standing says “the general thrust of the plans hasn't changed”.

Standing is hopeful that important sections of the Labour Party are either in support, or can be won over. Clearly, the leadership is generally supportive of the idea – both McDonnell and Corbyn have expressed as much in public statements. Standing says many MPs are “rethinking their position ... many of them have not taken up a position because they thought that this was not an issue to be considered. I think we're seeing a real opening for a much more constructive discussion.”

Reynolds says that “there's people on the right and the left of the party who are in favour, there's people on the right and the left who are against”.
 
Nevertheless, discussion is winning over important Labour constituencies. It's not just radical activist groups, but also trade unions, who are coming round to the idea. According to Standing: “Unite now supports it, as well as a lot of unions in Europe. It used to be the case that the unions were among the most fierce critics of a basic income, on the spurious grounds (in my view) that if people had a basic income they wouldn't push for higher wages and employers wouldn't give higher wages.

“We found in our pilots and in our psychological research that people who have basic security have a stronger bargaining position and are therefore more likely to stand up for their rights, and can lead to improvement in wages and working conditions. So I think that all of those objections are gradually being exposed by theoretical arguments against them, or empirical evidence, from pilots.”

Reynolds agrees that “there's a lot of support coming from the wider labour movement”, but warns that people must not be too optimistic about anything happening quickly. “Clearly it's going to need a radical change to how the tax and benefits system would work, and you'd obviously be completely recasting how personal allowances work, and all of that,” he says. “I think this is sort of the cutting edge of thinking about the future and what our economy will look like in 50-100 years' time, that is the frame that we're looking at.” 

Rudy Schulkind is a Danson scholar who recently graduated in philosophy and politics from St Anne's College Oxford.