With the news that Chinese nuclear engineers have been awarded construction contracts by the British government, combined with recent reports of a secret deal with Saudi Arabia, the construction of a naval base in Bahrain, and the state visit of Egyptian dictator, Sisi, Britain’s attitude towards states with poor human rights records deserve to be scrutinised more thoroughly.
Since the decline of the British Empire, the UK has maintained its position as an important player on the world stage through a subtle application of soft power, only employing tactics of hard power in extreme circumstances. At least, this is what we are led to believe by our politicians and establishment media. Our cultural contribution, our language, our business, our university education and even our football combined to put Britain at the top of an index of national ability to persuade through soft power. As British hard power declined with the loss of territory and military-might, the soft power it wields may be under threat through the domestic and international policies of successive governments. Immigration policies threaten our universities’ international appeal, the squeeze on the BBC threatens cultural output and the uncertainty caused by the EU referendum debate raises questions over governance and business.
In an exercise of soft power, human rights violations across the globe are publicly condemned by the British establishment. Would the sincerity of this condemnation be brought in to question if such violations were made possible through British policy-making, trade and political dealings? And, if so, would this not undermine the scope of soft power? There are many who argue such dealings are simply realpolitik. The notion which suggests that in such a dangerous world we cannot pick and choose our friends based on ethics or ideology, we must make pragmatic decisions even if they seem to defy our own principles. Although this argument makes a certain amount of sense, recalling the clichéd war-cry of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, in the short-term, it is in direct contradiction with the claim of standing for universal human rights and only serves to highlight hypocrisy over the issue in the long-term.
For decades, the British governments’ (Labour, Conservative and Coalition) public stand on the issue of human rights has acted as one of the foremost indicators of the utter hypocrisy which exists at both the international and domestic levels, when compared with actions taken in relation to the issue. One of the clearest indicators of this hypocrisy can be seen in British foreign policy towards the Middle East, as mentioned earlier in regards to Saudi Arabia. With close relations to Saudi Arabia, (as well as 5 of the remaining 6 Gulf States – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, UAE, Qatar) Britain can rely on long-term stable allies in the region, providing support for British business interests in the region and allowing bases to stage attacks from in the so-called ‘war against terror’, the fight against ISIS and the attempted overthrow of Assad in Syria. It is the final mutual aim which is of most significance here.
Since the conflict in Syria began, the British media, along with a wide-range of voices from both the government and the opposition, have almost unanimously called for the overthrow of the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad and support for the “moderate” rebels opposing him. Whilst opposing a totalitarian state which employs torture, stifles protest and oppresses opposition voices is all well and good in principle, the integrity of such a claim is unquestionably diminished if the claimant does so hand-in-hand with regimes of an equally appalling nature. According to Amnesty International, for example, Saudi Arabia executes one citizen every two days.
In addition, much has been made of the treatment of Saudi dissenters in the liberal media, and public condemnation of the treatment received by Saudi blogger Raif Badawi has been offered by David Cameron at PMQs. This condemnation does not lead to action in any case, however. When urged to personally intervene in the case of Ali al-Nimr, an activist sentenced to beheading and crucifixion for ‘crimes’ he committed as 17 year-old, David Cameron simply said his message would be, “Don’t do it”. Although, in the same interview, Cameron announced that he “completely disagreed with them about their punishment routines, about the death penalty, about all those issues”, this stance had not stopped him cutting a backroom deal with the Saudi’s which guaranteed the Gulf dictatorships position at the head of a UN human rights panel. Whilst any words uttered by the Prime Minister in a public domain carry some weight, it is only logical to conclude that by far the clearest message was sent through the UK’s preparedness to make shady deals with the totalitarian state.
British support for the Bahraini regime also raises questions. Like Syria, the Arab Spring reached Bahrain. And, like in Syria, the authorities were quick to stamp down on pro-democracy protests – even calling British-trained Saudi army units across the border to crush demonstrations and oppress dissent. The denial of Bahraini demonstrators rights however, much like those of Saudi activists, are worthy of sound bites yet will not encourage action. Whilst economic sanctions have been employed as “peacetime weapons” in order to punish nations considered being in violation of human rights, no such tools have been employed against either of the Gulf States’. Whilst Saudi oil-money is allowed to flow into the UK (£62bn investment in 2013) and £15bn worth of investment is sent back the other way, in Bahrain construction has just began on the Britain’s latest overseas military base. It begs the question; would we be so concerned for Syrian human rights if Assad had been a greater friend to business?
Suspicions over Cameron’s commitment to universal rights are raised still further when we look at the latest foreign leaders he has invited to Britain. On one hand there is President Xi Jinping, leader of the world’s most active executioner state (7003 in 2008 alone) and authoritarian regime which systematically denies citizens rights; does not recognise universal principles and crushes political opposition. On the other, the ex-military General, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who secured power in a military overthrow of Mohammed Morsi after the latter had gained power through the surge of protest known as the ‘Arab Spring’. Sisi then led the crackdown on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters which resulted in the death of almost 1000 and has seen over 40,000 interned for political reasons.
Although Cameron realistically has very little chance of persuading the Chinese President to change his stance on allowing dissenting voices, internet freedoms or to relax death sentencing, his influence in the Gulf and Middle East, in particular in Egypt, is far greater. After appearing in Tahrir Square in support of the pro-democracy uprising in 2011, Cameron sent a message of international support to ordinary Egyptians. This support has since been thrown back in the faces of pro-democracy movements however, as Sisi, like Mubarak before him, has sold himself and his regime to the West as the best protection against extremism and defenders of foreign investment. In addition, as is the case with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the British arms industry is a huge beneficiary of such relations. Once again, multinational corporate profits and military deals supersede any concern for human rights.
In regard to Saudi Arabia, Cameron is quick to defend the benefits of relations with such regimes on the grounds of national security, “It’s because we receive from them important intelligence and security information that keeps us safe. The reason we have the relationship is our own national security” – the go to response when dealing with ethically questionable relations. Even so, surely dealing with a regime willing to use crucifixion as capital punishment must call into question the methods used in obtaining intelligence information and, as a result, the validity of such information. Dealings with Egypt, Bahrain and China, too highlight Britain’s tendency to ignore human rights abuses abroad; often in the name of ‘security’, yet much more prevalently in the name of profit. Not only does this undermine the weight of British soft power on the world stage, it serves to highlight the hypocrisy and inconsistency of political rhetoric on the issue of universal human rights.
Evidently, business interests and national security are paramount to issues of human rights abroad, yet, in an ever increasingly globalised world, the consequences of actions abroad are more likely to be felt at home. Where issues of national security are concerned, we are asked to have trust in our leaders: to trust leaders who demonstrate blatant hypocrisy, to trust leaders who promise all to gain power and backtrack once there, to trust leaders who elevate the rights of their own at the expense of others. Human rights are exactly that, they are ‘human’. They are not reserved for Europeans and Americans. They are not reserved for the elites. To be universal they must be for one, as they are for all. Until this is recognised, applied and enforced, there is no such thing as a universal human rights.
Ben Hogg is a graduate in International Relations and Politics and is currently in application for a Masters Research programme. Aspiring researcher and author who’s academic and research interests include: global finance, EU-US relations, Middle Eastern relations, corporatism and democracy, global resistance movements, open-source information/education.
Cover Image: duncan c under a CC BY-NC 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license