Robust reponse to Saudi Arabia rejected by FCO

UPDATE: 3 August

At the end of this blog we wrote ‘it seems therefore that nothing will change’.  How wrong can you be as it has just been announced that the FCO will no longer be specifically campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty.  The FCO to us was dated 6 July and Mr Glen’s covering letter dated 14 July.  So in the space of a few weeks abolishing the death penalty world wide has gone from ‘a human rights priority for the UK’ to being no longer a policy.  The group plans to write to Mr Glen again to seek clarification.

The Salisbury Group wrote to the local MP, Mr John Glen to ask for a more robust response by our government to the No to the death penaltybarbaric activities of the Saudi government in particular the increasing number of executions which are taking place.  In our letter we said:

[we are writing] to you in connection with the increasing level of executions currently taking place in Saudi Arabia.  (Over the course of the first five months of this year, the number of executions has equalled that of the whole of 2014).

You will no doubt be aware that on his recent visit to the country, President Francois Hollande made a public statement to the effect that all executions, not just those of his own nationals, should be banned, and called for the abolition of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.

M. Hollande was prepared to do this, despite the fact that France – as does the United Kingdom – has significant financial interests in the its dealings with Saudi Arabia. The British government, however, has never seen fit to raise the issue in public, preferring to pursue a policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’.  This policy has manifestly had no effect.  Numbers continue to rise, and the Saudi Government have now advertised for eight additional executioners – ‘no particular skills required.’

As a group, we are asking that your government should take a much more robust line over the issue with the Saudi government.

Whereas the government – including the Prime Minister – has been vocal in its criticisms of the Islamic State for its appalling behaviour and of Russia for its activities in Ukraine, they seem strangely silent when it comes to Saudi Arabia.  This contrasts with France which has openly criticised them and Sweden which has decided no longer to sell them arms.

Mr Glen replied, enclosing a letter from the FCO minister, and said:

I enclose correspondence from the FCO minister Tobius Ellwood in reply to your recent letter about the UK’s apparent reticence when it comes to condemning the use of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.

As you can see, the approach taken by the government is not in any way indicative of an equivocal view on this practice, which is as barbaric as it is ineffective.

However, the government recognises that its abolition is not a matter of mere legal reform but would require a seismic societal shift.  It has therefore taken an approach which it feels is most constructive – engaging behind the scenes rather than inflaming the situation and triggering a backlash through outspoken public critique.

The letter from the Foreign and Colonial Office is as follows:

[…] The abolition of the death penalty is a human rights priority for the UK.  The UK opposes the death penalty around the world because we believe it undermines human dignity and there is no evidence that it works as a deterrent.

Saudi Arabia remains a country of concern on human rights, because of its use of the death penalty as well as the restricted access to justice, women’s rights, and the restrictions of the freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion or belief.

Ministers, our Ambassador, and the Embassy team in Riyadh frequently raise the issue of the death penalty with the Saudi authorities, bilaterally and through the European Union.  As it is part of Sharia Law, we must recognise that total abolition of the death penalty is unlikely in Saudi Arabia in the near future.  For now, our focus is on the introduction of EU minimum standards for the death penalty as a first step, and supporting access to justice and the rule of law.

The British Government’s position on human rights is a matter of public record.  We regularly make our views well known including the UN Universal Periodic Review process and the Foreign and Colonial Office’s  annual Human Rights and Democracy Report.  We also raise our human rights concerns with Saudi Arabian authorities at the highest level.  But we have to recognise that the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia reflects widely held conservative social values and that our human rights concerns are best raised in private rather than in public.

It seems therefore that nothing will change.  It is important to recognise that behind the scenes lobbying can be constructive.  However, the policy of raising matters ‘in private rather than in public’ does not appear to be working.  Successive governments have courted the regime and Saudis are free to invest in London and elsewhere in the UK.

Eurofighter of the type sold to Saudi ArabiaIt would be naïve not to recognise the reality behind this reluctance to criticise the Saudis and the importance to the government of the sale of arms and the supply of oil.  Saudi Arabia is a key market for the UK and much effort is put into promoting sales including by members of the royal family – see the Guardian article:  Human rights are of secondary concern.

As long as these interests are paramount, it is difficult to see how the toll of executions can be checked in the near future.


Human Rights Act under threat

Leading or following?

The Human Rights Act HRA remains under threat from the Conservative Government who promised in their manifesto to abolish it.  There is speculation that it was put in the manifesto to appeal to Ukip supporters and those for whom anything with ‘Europe’ attached to it is bad news.  They were expecting to be in a coalition again – so the theory goes – and the LibDems would not have allowed it to go ahead.  In other words it was a promise unlikely to be put into effect but sounded good in the manifesto.

Now that they are in power on their own they are faced with a problem.  Abolition will prove extremely difficult for all sorts of reasons.  Reform is difficult if you have nailed your colours to the abolition mast.  The Scots will not countenance it and the recent proposal to allow hunting with dogs to be re-introduced was effectively ended by the Scot Nats who demonstrated their influence in Parliament.  It also underpins the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland.  It may also mean us withdrawing from the European Council.  It will send a very negative message to those countries, such as Russia, who are being pressed to improve their human rights records, a point made by Dominic Grieve QC MP when he came, at our invitation, to speak in the Cathedral.

Just over a year ago our local MP John Glen (Con) wrote to the Salisbury Journal to say he was keen on abolition.  Our group wrote to Mr Glen and after an exchange of letters, a meeting was arranged in June 2014.  At that meeting, the many unreported benefits of the act were explained and that these benefits were likely to apply to a number of his constituents.  The battle that individuals have with authorities of all kinds to get a fair deal is made that bit easier by the Human Rights Act.

Unfortunately, the act gets a near universal bad press certainly from the tabloid end of the market.  An incessant series of articles claiming that all kinds of evil people escape justice because they can claim the right to a ‘family life’ or it’s their ‘human right’, inevitably infuriates people reading it.  Frequently, it isn’t the HRA at all but some other piece of legislation involved.  No matter.  Some of the stories are hugely exaggerated or just plain wrong.  But the benefits to ordinary people seldom gets a mention.

In the latest edition of Valley News (a free sheet in the Salisbury area, July 2015) Mr Glen writes:

[…] This month also marked the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.  In addition to some spectacular celebrations, this has re-opened the debate about human rights here in the UK.

Too often I hear from constituents who are fed up with some of the decisions made in our courts and in the EU, about human rights laws.

While these cases represent only a small minority, I do not believe we should simply turn a blind eye to them.  A recent opinion poll suggested three quarters of the UK felt that human rights laws were being applied too widely.

It is far from healthy in our democracy to accept this status quo: human rights should be celebrated, and I hope we seize the opportunity of the Magna Carta anniversary to restore some confidence in them at home.

We do not know how many constituents have written to Mr Glen or the topics they are concerned about.  He makes no mention of benefits to ordinary people and to some of his constituents.  But if his correspondents have read tendentious stories in our media, it is hardly surprising they write to their local MP. For example a Daily Mail journalist spoke of the HRA ‘[which] blights every aspect of our life.’

Maybe one of the reasons these papers do not like the act is because there is the right to privacy within it.  There is no mention of benefits to ordinary people.  Since many newspapers have depended on intrusion – using both legal and often illegal means – to get their stories, this represents quite a threat to their business model.

Human rights should indeed be celebrated as Mr Glen says and we hope he can do some celebrating.  But it does need politicians of courage to stand up and defend the act and the many beneficial effects it has on the lives of ordinary – or should we say ‘ordinary hard-working’ – people’s lives. At our meeting with Mr Glen he was asked if he was just repeating stories from the Daily Mail.  He said he did not but that he did have to read it to understand what his constituents were writing to him about.  We can only hope that ‘to restore some confidence in [human rights]’ means explaining the benefits, countering the myths and criticising the many misleading stories.  In short, putting the case for the act.

A new web site established with the sole purpose of countering the misinformation and disinformation about human rights is which is well worth putting in your favourites.

News about Moses Akatugba from Nigeria

stop_tortureWe have featured Moses before on this site since news of his release has been received.  Briefly, he was arrested for allegedly stealing some mobile phones.  He was then brutally tortured and the confession extracted from him was used to sentence him to death.  He has been in prison for 10 years but a world wide campaign has resulted in his release.  The Salisbury group was active on his behalf and over 400 signatures were collected and a petition sent to the Nigerian Embassy in London.

Moses has written a description of his release and how he was reunited with his family and this can be read here:

Article by Moses

An item on Moses and the involvement of the Salisbury Group appeared in the Salisbury Journal on 2 July which unfortunately does not appear to be available on line.

Moses’ piece ends thus:

If I have my way, and can stop torture, I will be the happiest man on earth. I don’t want any future generation to go through what I went through in that torture chamber.

On 28 May 2015, Moses was pardoned after nearly 10 years in jailOver 800,000 of you around the world took action demanding justice. 

Nigeria fact sheet prepared at the time of the campaign.

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