A recent symposium organized by the Emirati Center for Human Rights and the All Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group highlighted the dilemmas that British policy makers face when dealing with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The symposium was chaired by MP Mark Durkan and included distinguished academic Dr. Christopher Davidson, Human Rights Watch consultant Nicholas McGeehan, and the Kuwaiti activist Mohammed Al-Enzi.
The closed-door forum explored the political prospects of the Gulf states, and particularly the conflicting desire of the UK to promote political reform and human rights in its Gulf allies, while at the same time maintaining commercial links with them. However, in regards to British advocacy of human rights abroad, more attention could have been paid to Britain’s own problems in this area.
Britain is often vocal about human rights abroad, while not meeting its own standards at home. In a recent speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) British Foreign Secretary William Hague made clear what Britain’s exacting standards are:
Muslim communities are bearing the brunt of terrorism worldwide, at the hands of people who espouse a distorted and violent extremist interpretation of a great and peaceful religion. There can never be any justification for terrorism. The indiscriminate targeting of civilians is contemptible in any shape or form and our resolve to defeat it must never weaken or falter even for a day. But in standing up for freedom, human rights and the rule of law ourselves, we must never use methods that undermine these things. As a democracy we must hold ourselves to the highest standards. This includes being absolutely clear that torture and mistreatment are repugnant, unacceptable and counter-productive.
Unfortunately, the UK has not applied these standards to itself and has adopted a very cavalier attitude towards human rights. Theresa May has already made it a manifesto pledge to pull out of the UK’s commitment to the Human Rights Act and its corresponding European obligations. This is the same home secretary who sent Talha Ahsan, a British man of Bengali descent diagnosed with autism, to stand trial for terrorism charges in the US and allowed a white autistic man, Gary McKinnon, to walk free despite the fact that he allegedly caused more damage to the US than Ahsan. The UK has been willing to ignore due process for British citizens like Babar Ahmad, and extradited him to the US when human rights lawyers argued that he should have stood trial in the UK.
The above are not isolated incidents. In December 2012, the government paid GBP 2.2 million as compensation to a Libyan dissident, Sami Al-Saadi, over its complicity in his rendition and subsequent torture. David Mepham, UK Human Rights Watch director, has pointed out the UK’s historic connivance in human rights violations in Gaddafi’s Libya. A recent report in the Independent showed how the British government has withdrawn the citizenship of sixteen people since 2010. Leading human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce describes the government’s actions as smacking of “medieval exile, just as cruel and just as arbitrary.” Two men were killed by US drones as a result of this sort of action.
The case of Mahdi Hashi seems particularly craven: May removed his citizenship whilst he was abroad so he could be “rendered” to Djibouti, interrogated, tortured and then put on trial in the US. A report entitled Fabricating Terrorism III, authored by Asim Qureishi, has shown that the UK is planning the torture and rendition of its own citizens. One wonders how Theresa May’s actions square with William Hague’s speech at the RUSI.
As for upholding civil liberties in the UK, the Justice and Security bill will substantially extend the use of secret evidence in the justice system and allow closed material proceedings (CMPs) to be carried out in courts on national security grounds. It would mean that the accused would not know what evidence is being used against him in the name of national security, and find themselves in a nightmarish situation, as described by Alice Wyss of Amnesty UK, coming “straight out of a Kafka novel.”
It is no wonder that over seven hundred legal professionals have said that CMPs will “erode the core principles of our civil justice system.” If the legislation passes, it would fall foul of the UK’s commitment to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, which state that everyone has a right to a fair and public trial.
While not absolving the GCC countries of their human rights responsibilities, the UK cannot expect others to abide by human rights laws when its own approach to them is marked by flagrant shortcomings. Any sort of British strategy or approach in the Gulf, and indeed internationally, must be underpinned with a commitment to human rights, transparency and due process.