Posts Tagged ‘FCO’


Nobel Peace Prize laureate hastily buried at sea

Liu Xiaobo. Picture: thefamouspeople.com

On Thursday, the Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo died of liver cancer.  He had been in prison since 2008 mainly because he argued for greater democracy in China and was convicted of ‘inciting subversion’.  He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 which infuriated the Chinese government and he was not permitted to go to Norway to receive it.  He was only the second laureate to have been in prison at the time of the award.  Once the cancer was diagnosed he was released to a hospital where he was still under heavy guard.  According to Human Rights Watch, even as his illness worsened the Chinese government continued to isolate him and denied him freely choosing his medical treatment.

On Saturday he was hastily cremated and his ashes scattered at sea almost certainly to prevent a grave on land becoming a centre for protest.  Activists were reported by the South China Morning Post to be ‘outraged at the humiliating arrangements’.  His second wife, Liu Xia, is under house arrest.

Liu was a supporter of Charter 08 which argued for a fundamental change in the one party state, a whole series of reforms that would result in a separation of powers, a new constitution and legislative democracy.  It was suppressed by the Chinese government.

A spokesman for Amnesty International said:

This is a sad day for human rights, but Liu Xiaobo leaves behind a powerful legacy to inspire others to continue the struggle for human rights in China and around the world

Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, made the following lukewarm statement:

I am deeply saddened to hear that Liu Xiaobo has passed away. He was a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and a lifelong campaigner for democracy, human rights and peace. His death is a huge loss and our hearts go out to his wife Liu Xia, his family, and his many friends and supporters.
Liu Xiaobo should have been allowed to choose his own medical treatment overseas, which the Chinese authorities repeatedly denied him. This was wrong and I now urge them to lift all restrictions on his widow, Liu Xia.  13 July 2017

This from a man not afraid to be outspoken at any given moment.  Focusing on the restricted nature of his medical treatment is the least of the crimes the Chinese government has committed.  ‘Has passed away’ gives the impression of a natural death not one hastened by harsh prison conditions, poor medical treatment and confining him right to the last.  This is but the latest example of our government failing to stand up to breaches of human rights internationally.  This is only set to get worse as the need to augment reduced European markets in the post Brexit world.

Under China’s president, Xi Jinping, there has been a major crackdown on any form of dissent.  Restrictions on press freedom are well known and access to the internet is tightly restricted.  Booksellers in Hong Kong stocking books detailing the corruption of the Politburo elite have been abducted.  Details of this corruption among what are called the ‘Princelings’ has been revealed in the Panama Papers*.  President Xi’s brother in law is implicated, along with other senior party people, in squirreling away billions in tax havens using the services of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.

Any discussion of democracy is taboo in China as it is contrary to one of the Four Cardinal Principles one of which is to ‘uphold the people’s democratic dictatorship.’  One can see straight away that ideas of freedom of the press and ideas of running the country on more democratic lines are not going to get far with the government.

The future

China has pursued a policy of economic growth which so far has been successful and has led to the country being second only to the USA.  It is expanding militarily most notably in creating false islands in the South China Sea.  It is present all around the world where natural resources are to be found.  The trick has been to maintain economic growth in return for maintaining its hold on political power.  How long this growth can be maintained is open to question.

On the other hand, China wants to be more of key player in the world and is to be seen at G7 and G20 meetings as well as having a seat on the UN Security Council.  As it grows in economic and military power, it seeks political recognition as well.  This is difficult to achieve if at home it denies basic freedoms and human rights to its citizens; executes more than all the other countries in the world put together; locks up its dissidents; denies access to the internet and treats the people of Tibet appallingly.  Using its power it is able to suppress criticism – cancelling contracts with Norway for example after Liu was awarded the Nobel prize – and tells other countries not to interfere in its internal affairs.

Fundamentally Chinese social policy is not progressing indeed, under Xi Jinping, it has regressed.  So long as they can maintain their tight grip on power and the levers of power, the CPC will continue.  But the lesson of history is that when a crack appears, as with a sheet of ice, it spreads rapidly and unpredictably.


*The Panama Papers, 2017, Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier, Oneworld, London (3rd edition).  Details tax evasion by criminals, dictators and politicians – not just the Chinese – as revealed by a release of papers from Mossack Fonseca

Sources: Human Rights Watch; New York times; The Guardian; Amnesty International; South China Morning Post

 

 

 

 

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Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo has liver cancer

Liu Xiaobo who has liver cancer and was serving 11 years for ‘inciting subversion of state power’ which means any activity which seeks to undermine communist power.  Liu was seeking reforms in China and improved democracy.  He is now out of prison but essentially under arrest.  Since his diagnosis, the Chinese did not want a Nobel Lauriat dying in prison, so released him to a hospital where he is expected to die.  It is alleged the poor state of medical attention in prisons in China meant he did not get treatment earlier enough and this may have hastened his end.

China is accused of many failings to do with human rights.  Activists and lawyers are targeted and frequently arrested.  There has been a crackdown on lawyers.  People with religious convictions are persecuted.  The internet is heavily restricted and press freedom is also extremely limited.  The country is a heavy user of the death penalty and executes more of its citizens than all the rest of the world put together.  The precise number not known since it is a state secret.

The country is extremely sensitive to outside criticism and were furious when Liu was awarded the Peace Prize.  Trade with Norway was curtailed which probably did not concern them too much since they are a wealthy country.  The Beijing government summoned the Norwegian ambassador in protest.  It called Mr Liu a “criminal”, saying the award violated Nobel principles and could damage relations with Norway.  The Norwegian Nobel committee said Mr Liu was “the foremost symbol” of the struggle for human rights in China.  It took six years before relations were normalised between the two countries according to the New York Times.

In some respects China is a powder keg.  As long as prosperity increases then many people are happy to go about their lives and not bother too much about issues of freedom and human rights.  They will not have access to sites or information which discuss or promote such issues (such as Amnesty International) and so the ruling communists need not worry too much about a restive population.  Step by step they are securing hegemony over Hong Kong.  Some ‘below the line’ comments in the press stories suggest that the Confucian tradition also plays a part and that, unlike Western nations, this tradition of loyalty to the state is more a feature of political life.

Another factor is that it is said by some observers that the Chinese rather resent being subjected to Western moral codes, in which they had no part in formulating, being applied to them.  This does have some force except that they were a member of the Security Council when the Universal Declaration was signed in 1948.  It does overlook the fact that the Declaration caused the Western nations some discomfort as well: the British and French with their treatment of the colonial peoples and the USA with its treatment of black people.

If China wishes to become a leading world nation then it is going to have to accept the norms the rest of the world tries to live by.  The treatment of Liu Xiaobo (and many, many others) has been disgraceful.

And what of our Foreign and Colonial Office?  It says:

Minister for Asia and the Pacific Mark Field said:

I am pleased that the 24th Round of the UK-China Human Rights Dialogue has taken place. Senior officials discussed the full range of our human rights concerns, including freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief, access to justice and ethnic minorities’ rights. They also discussed areas where the UK and China could collaborate more closely, including modern slavery and women’s rights.

The UK strongly believes that respect for human rights is vital for growth and stability, and that these regular talks are an important part of our relationship with China. The dialogue has, once again, been held in a constructive and open manner. I am grateful for the valuable contribution made by civil society organisations before and during this exchange. [accessed 29 June]

Post Brexit the emphasis is going to be on trade and the UK government is unlikely to raise difficult issues with the Chines government or risk being treated like Norway.

Sources: Amnesty International, New York Times, BBC, Guardian.


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House of Commons debates the war in Yemen

On 12 January 2017 the House of Commons debated the war in Yemen for the second time in less than a month having already had a debate on it on 19 December.  This has been called the ‘forgotten war’ for some time since all the media and political attention has been focused on Syria.  So it is to be welcomed that this war is now getting its share of attention.  This was an opposition debate led by Stephen Twigg MP.

Results of bombing. Picture: Mintpress News

This is a complex war difficult to summarise but essentially the two main actors are the Saudis and the Houthi rebels.  Both have committed atrocities: the Houthis with massacres, the use of child soldiers and shelling across the border into Saudi territory.  The Saudis by bombing civilian targets and using cluster weapons.  The December debate focused on the use of these weapons, supplied by the UK before their use was banned.  One thing we learned from that debate was that the UK government has offered to exchange cluster weapons for more modern Paveway bombs but it appears the Saudis have not taken up this offer.

To an extent it is a proxy war: part of the long-running Sunni/Shia feud being fought between Iran and Saudi.  There are also tribal politics mixed in.  Although the role of the Houthi rebels was criticised, the point was made that it was we who were arming the Saudis and RAF personnel involved at the command and control centre.

It was lengthy running to just under 3 hours.  A number of points were made.  A major concern was the allegations of abuses against International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and the slow pace of investigations  (‘glacial’ was the word used by Stephen Twigg) by the Saudis into them.  Various figures were bandied about but over a hundred seems to be the consensus but only 9 investigations have been carried out in 14 months.

There were many tributes to DFID and its contribution to Yemen but as Stephen Twigg noted:

There is a paradox at the heart of the UK’s approach to Yemen: generous on aid but we contribute to the conflict with our arms sales.

It is interesting that during the writing of this blog, the headline of the Mail on Sunday was the result of a survey which apparently revealed that 78% of people want to end overseas aid and put the funds into the health service which is experiencing a crisis at present.  The Coalition government and now the Conservatives must be praised for maintaining the levels of overseas aid despite considerable pressure from some of their backbenchers and some of the media.

Chris White MP – who is chair of the Arms Export Control Committee – said that the UK should be an example to the rest of the world in terms of our licensing regime.  He reminded the House of rule 2(c) which ‘forbids the authorisation of arms sales if there is a clear risk of a violation of international humanitarian law’.

Comments

It is of course welcome that the House of Commons should have given such time to this debate on Yemen – indeed as we’ve noted the second in less than a month.  The government has had something of a free ride, able to do little to end the conflict and carry on allowing our arms to be sold to Saudi – some £3.3bn worth so far.  It seemed to be SNP (Scottish National Party) members who were the most forthright in condemning the arms sales.  Tasmina Ahmend-Sheikh saying:

If Saudi Arabia and Iran are the puppeteers, we are the quartermasters

There were several calls for a peace process but one seems unlikely at present.  It was alleged that the Saudis are resisting the process, a claim denied by Tobias Ellwood the minister in FCO.

The link between our sale of arms and the devastating effects of those weapons on the people of Yemen although made, was not strongly emphasised.  Part of the problem of course is that although the Conservatives are in power now, many arms sales were made as well during the Labour administrations.  So both parties are tainted.

Tobias Ellwood MP

The government is in something of a bind.  The value of our exports to the region and to Saudi is considerable.  One is reminded of the old adage – variously attributed to John Maynard-Keynes or John Paul Getty –  that if you owe the bank a million pounds you have a problem, if you owe the bank a hundred million pounds, the bank has a problem.  Because billions of pounds of weapons are sold, we are not in a position to exert much control: we are too dependent on the business.   One can imagine polite words being spoken but it was clear from the debate that the Saudis think they can win this so are in no haste to agree peace terms and little more than token efforts are made to limit sales of arms.  Such is the murky world of arms sales anyway, that brokers can quite easily circumvent controls certainly for the more every day weapons.

In the December debate, the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon insisted the Saudis were:

on the cusp of a major reform programme of its economy and society

The debate shone a light on the problems of the country and also on the pusillanimous nature of our foreign policy.  Speaker after speaker referred to the terrible state the country was in and the enormous distress of its residents as a result of the war.  It was interesting to note that at least two of the MPs said they were born there presumably from when it was known as Aden.  Worries were expressed about ISIS moving in.

But the fundamental moral issue of our sale of arms to a country which uses them to wreak such havoc on another nation was not rigorously pursued.  The FCO and the MoD would not be seriously disturbed by this debate.

It also provides a clue to life once we leave the EU.  There will be a major push to achieve business with whichever countries we can and the morality of our dealings will not get a look in.  It’s good for business they will say but not good for human rights.

The debate ended with calls for an urgent independent (ie not by the Saudis who are dragging their feet) investigation into reports of breaches of IHL on both sides of the conflict.

 


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College of Policing in fresh controversy

Updated : 23 November

The College of Policing is involved in fresh controversy today concerning their training of police in countries that regularly use torture.  In the summer it was revealed that they had training large numbers of Saudi and Bahraini police and that this training has aided them to arrest protestors who were then tortured.

On the BBC’s World at One radio programme there was an interview with a woman who’s husband had been arrested and disappeared for a month.  She alleges he was “subjected to the worst kind of physical and psychological abuse”, they beat him brutally and concentrated these beatings on his genitals.

Reprieve has published a report detailing the allegations against Mohammed Ramadan.  It now appears that the release of the information and documents about the College of Police’s activities was not meant to have happened and was as a result of ‘human error.’  From now on, details of the College’s activities will not be disclosed.

The Foreign Office maintains that the best way to improve human rights in these countries is by engagement and that we should not criticize from the sidelines.  Crispin Blunt MP, chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee said:

Human rights assessments are quite bleak [in these countries] and it is going to reinforce the arguments of those who are against engagement

Quit so.  So the worse it is, the better the justification for our engagement.  This might be fine of course if by ‘engagement’, there was some kind of visible or tangible improvement.  But it seems our involvement makes matters worse not better.  As Maya Foa, director of the death penalty team at Reprieve comments on their website:

It is scandalous that British police are training Saudi Arabian and Bahraini officers in techniques which they privately admit could lead to people being arrested, tortured and sentenced to death

Earlier in the year, the Home Affairs select committee strongly criticised the College of Policing and the secretive way they had gone about this work.  The Chief executive had apparently been told by the Foreign and Colonial Office not to answer questions for reasons of commercial confidentiality and security.

The argument that closer integration with unpleasant regimes yields positive benefits could have some merit.  If by trading, cultural contacts, training schemes, and other contacts – social or economic – good behaviour (however defined)  rubs off onto the regime then that can be claimed as a benefit.

But the suspicion with the College of Policing and other commercial activities in the region, is that it is profit and money driven with little more than lip-service given to ethics and human rights.  It is all of a piece with our arms sales to the Saudis which are causing such devastation in Yemen.

One would have expected that the College of Policing of all organisations, to have ethics and human rights at the top of their agenda.  The police have some ground to make up following a number of scandals like Hillsborough.  Helping repressive regimes to be more efficiently repressive hardly fits the bill.  Making it secret is a tacit admission that they have something to hide.

Sources: Sputnik; The Guardian; Reprieve; World at One (BBC)


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Damning criticism of government’s blind eye to arms sales to the Saudi Arabians
Recommends suspension of arms sales to the Saudis

Picture: mintpressnews.com

Followers of this blog will be aware of the attention we have been drawing to the war in Yemen and our government’s role in it.  It started by accident with a letter to our MP Mr John Glen who forwarded a bland reply from a Foreign Office Minister, Tobias Ellwood.  The answers began to unravel quite quickly when it was revealed that, for example, far from reigning in the Saudi’s, we were promoting their membership of the UN’s Human Rights Council.

Now the International Development and the Business, Innovation and Skills Committees have produced a lengthy report which is extremely critical on several different levels.  The chair’s summary remarks were:

The UK led the way in establishing international humanitarian law to govern the sale of arms. The conflict in Yemen has raised serious concerns that we are not showing equal determination in ensuring that these are respected.

During this inquiry we have heard evidence from respected sources that weapons made in the UK have been used in contravention of International Humanitarian Law.  The Government can no longer wait and see and must now take urgent action, halting the sale of arms to the Saudi-led coalition until we can be sure that there is no risk of violation.

We call on the Government to continue the UK’s long-standing commitment to IHL and lead the international community in establishing a strong, independent inquiry. The circumstances surrounding incidents in Yemen, such as allegations of the use of cluster bombs, must be firmly established and send a clear message to all combatants in Yemen that human rights must be respected.

The current system for overseeing the sale of arms must be improved.  At present we do not have sufficient transparency to hold licensing decisions to account or the confidence that the benchmarks ensuring human rights law is respected are high enough. This must be addressed immediately.

Backbench committees do valuable and largely unsung work in the House of Commons and provide an opportunity for members to question government activities more closely than they are able to do in the House itself.

Background

The background situation in the Yemen is dire.  The UN categorises it as a level 3 crisis which is the most severe.  UNICEF say that 1,211 children have been killed and 1,650 injured, both are likely to be under-estimates in view of the difficulty in reporting.  The economy and health care systems are on the verge of collapse.  Over a million people are internally displaced.

Britain however continues to profit from the war by supplying huge amounts of weaponry to the Saudis.  Between April and December 2015 we supplied £1.7bn worth of aircraft and a further £1bn of air-Image result for cluster weaponsdelivered bombs.  More shockingly is that, although we are no longer supplying cluster munitions, previously supplied ones have turned up on the ground.  These weapons kick out tens or hundreds of sub-munitions which saturate an area the size of several football fields.  Duds can be dangerous to children especially who can lose limbs or be blinded if they pick them up.

Both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have provided evidence to the FCO about the use of these weapons.

The report

The report makes interesting reading most particularly concerning the UK government attitudes to the conflict.  It contrasts the FCO’s attitude to the documented evidence it is presented with on the Yemen by NGOs including Amnesty and HRW, which it ignores, with that from Syria where evidence is accepted.  David Mepham, the UK director of HRW said in evidence:

I was at a meeting with [the Foreign Secretary] several months ago when I gave him copies of our report and said, “These are the GPS coordinates; these are the strikes; these are the markets and schools that were hit.” Therefore, he has that evidence. The Foreign Office has had that evidence for months. It is extraordinary that the line comes back that they do not have evidence, when that evidence has been shared with them for a considerable period of time.

Picture: the Independent

The line from the government is that the UK has ‘the most robust arms control export regimes in the world’.  The committee heard evidence of how long this robust arms control regime took to make its decisions: a matter of days.  The hundreds of licences take around 20 or 25 days to approve.  In comparison with other government decision making, this is merely the blink of an eye.  It seems fairly obvious that little control is exercised.  No licence has been refused.

In the face of the hundreds of incidents of schools, marriage ceremonies, factories and hospitals being hit by bombing, the UK government accepts the answers given it by the Saudi government.  The committee was sceptical at FCO reliance on Saudi assurances and said:

We are not convinced that Saudi Arabia is best placed to investigate reports of IHL breaches and their lack of progress with reporting findings only confirms our concerns that they are obstructing progress.  Of 185 incidents reported by UN, HRW and AI, only 9 investigations have taken place

UK personnel

Our involvement is not just limited to supplying weapons but military and civilian personnel are also involved in the control centre and elsewhere.  The claim is that they are not directing the actual bombing.  The committee were not convinced by this argument.

It is impossible, on the basis of the evidence that is before us to claim plausibly that the United Kingdom is not involved.  We provide the aircraft and the bombs.  This level of involvement without being party to a conflict is unprecedented.  This is an area where there is much confusion and greater clarity is needed.  (para 75)

Human Rights

The committee considered our political role in this conflict and our supposed commitment to an international rules based order.  We were now in a tricky position.  UK’s support for the Saudi led coalition primarily through the sale of arms and in the face of violations of International Humanitarian Law is inconsistent with our global leadership role in the world.  The very rules the UK championed – represented by the Arms Trade Treaty – are at risk of unravelling.

The committee heard evidence that the arms companies were a huge source of employment and that if we did not supply the weapons, others would.  An argument which could easily be applied to slavery.

Summary

For the sake of weapons sales, the government has become ensnared with a war which is fast becoming a humanitarian disaster.  Our involvement is much to close for comfort and attempts to dissemble and hide the truth are at risk of unravelling.  We also risk losing the moral argument as well.  It is difficult for us to criticise the Russians and Syrians for their barbaric activities in Aleppo and elsewhere, when we are only slightly removed from doing the same things in Yemen.  So far the government has been lucky: all eyes are on Syria and there are few reports emerging from Yemen.  But this report is a welcome spotlight on the unsavoury and ultimately foolish activities by our government in that country.  They recommend ending arms sales to the Saudis.

On 26 October the House of Commons debated the question of withdrawing support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.  The intention was to send a message to the government that MP’s do not want to support a war without a UN investigation into breaches of international humanitarian law.  Labour MPs did not attend and the vote was lost.  Mr Glen voted against the motion.  So the carnage continues.

The full report


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140 killed in air raid on a funeral

Funeral bombing, Yemen. Picture: hang the bankers.com

At long last, the war in Yemen is beginning to attract the attention it deserves.  Most news bulletins still lead on the atrocities in Syria but the horrific events in Yemen where the Saudis bombed a funeral killing 140 and wounding around 500 has at last brought the conflict onto the TV screens.  The bombing, combined with the blockade, is causing untold misery to ordinary Yemenis.  The wounded will struggle to get proper medical treatment because the hospitals are also being bombed and the blockade means medical supplies cannot get through.

We first started drawing attention to the war there over a year ago and raised the matter with our local MP.  A bland letter was received from the Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood.  Subsequent revelations have shown that the actions the FCO were claiming to have done were somewhat wide of the truth.

The core issue is the use of our arms (and those of the US, the principal weapons suppliers to the Saudis) are being used in the conflict.  It was also revealed (inadvertently, and no doubt embarrassingly by the Saudis) that British service people were advising the Saudis.  Quite what their role is there is disputed.

This particular attack has been condemned by the UN, the EU and the US.  The Foreign Office still claims there is no need to revoke licences as there is no serious breach of humanitarian law.  The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said:

The air strikes on a funeral ceremony was a “heartless attack on civilians and an outrageous violation of international humanitarian law.”  He said an independent body to probe rights violations in Yemen must be set up.  There must be accountability for the appalling conduct of this entire war.  Mail on line [accessed 11 October 2016] 

The Saudis are not alone in committing these atrocities and the Houthi rebels are likewise accused.

The Saudis can carry on with their attacks because we supply them with the weapons and we also give the regime a degree of diplomatic cover.  The huge sale of weapons – over £3bn a year – is clearly a factor influencing government policy.  This latest episode is making it harder for the government to ignore what is going on there and our role in helping them.  The mantra about the control of arms sales is still alive and well however:

On the point of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, a Government spokesperson told The Independent the UK “takes its arms export responsibilities very seriously”

The key test … for our continued licensing of arms exports to Saudi Arabia is whether there is a clear risk that those exports might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law,” she said. “The situation is kept under careful and continual review.”  Independent [accessed 11 October 2016]

But recent TV filmed reports showing the carnage going on there, hospitals full of emaciated children and widespread starvation caused by the conflict and the blockade will begin to make it harder for the government to keep up the pretence of ‘taking its arms export responsibilities seriously’.


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UK government’s role in the abuse of people in Bahrain revealed

The Observer newspaper on 14 August 2016 contained revelations about the UK government’s role in training the police force in Bahrain which has a reputation for ruthlessly suppressing public protest and dissent.  The newspaper has been able to obtain a confidential agreement signed on 14 June this year, by the UK’s College of Policing and Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior.

It is alleged that this is a commercial arrangement between the two organisations which somehow omits any mention of human rights.  The College of Policing’s site is full of stuff about ethics and integrity and says:

We are committed to ensuring that the Code of Ethics is not simply another piece of paper, poster or laminate, but is at the heart of every policy, procedure, decision and action in policing.

The code itself is 23 pages long.  The College has earned £8.5m from its international word since its formation in 2012.  The Home Affairs Select Committee has criticised the College for its ‘opaque’ affairs and it has taken a leak to enable us to see some of the details of what was agreed.

At one level there is an argument that encouraging police officers to work in the country to raise standards is perfectly acceptable.  If by a combination of training and encouragement they are able over time to reduce the incidence of poor treatment, people denied lawyers and all the other things the Bahrain government is accused of, so much the better.  This is indeed the Foreign Office’s line.  However, there is much to improve – in the words of Human Rights Watch:

Bahrain’s human rights climate remains highly problematic. The country’s courts convict and imprison peaceful dissenters and have failed to hold officials accountable for torture and other serious rights violations. There is evidence that the security forces continue to use disproportionate force to quell unrest.  Human rights activists and members of the political opposition face arrest and prosecution and dozens have been stripped of their citizenship. Bahrain restricts freedom of speech, and has jailed and fined Bahraini photographers. Migrant workers in Bahrain endure serious abuses such as unpaid wages, passport confiscation, unsafe housing, excessive work hours, physical abuse and forced labor.

If on the other hand, the College is helping the security services in their various activities (with surveiilance and intercept techniques for example) then this is not an appropriate thing for them to do.  Their legitimacy has also been queried as they are set up as a company limited by guarantee.  DPG Law has queried whether the Home Office can outsource this kind of activity anyway.  Certainly, the trend recently by the UK government is to encourage business activities and to play down human rights concerns as it may offend countries which regularly violate them.  The absence of a human rights clause or statement in the contract is in line with this commercial approach.

The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy has today [15 August] written to Boris Johnson the Foreign Secretary:

NGO’s today sent an open letter to Boris Johnson, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, raising urgent concerns over the poor human rights record of Bahrain’s ambassador to the UK, and asking him to raise their concerns.

[They point out that] The ambassador, Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohammad Al Khalifa, is a member of the Bahraini royal family and formerly the president of the Information Affairs Authority (IAA), the state’s media regulator and home of state media channels and websites, including Bahrain TV and the Bahrain News Agency.

The full letter can be read here.

Al Khalifa, picture Wikipedia

This is a country where violence against peaceful protest, torture and other forms of mistreatment is the norm.  It appears a British agency is assisting the Bahrainis in their activities rather than seeking to help them reform since the human rights situation there is getting worse rather than better.  Even though the activity was commenced when our current Prime Minister Theresa May was the Home Secretary, let us hope that with the new broom in place, this dubious contract is ended.

Sources: Observer; Reuters


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War in Yemen

For most of this year we have been commenting on the war in Yemen and the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia.  We wrote to the Salisbury MP John Glen, who replied enclosing a bland statement from the Foreign Office Minister, Tobias Ellwood.  We have noted the government’s activities in getting the Saudi’s onto the UN’s Human Rights Council and the continued supply of arms to the Saudis despite their use in Yemen on civilian targets, schools and medical facilities.  We have also noted the steady softening of policies to make it easier – it is believed – for arms companies to ply their trade.  The Telegraph reported in an article in February, the difference between Syria and Yemen.  In the former country, bombing of a MSF hospital led to outrage by press and politicians in the UK:  by contrast, bombing of MSF hospitals in Yemen is greeted by a deafening silence :

Alas, this is not merely about Western indifference but about complicity and collusion. Last October, Britain and the US successfully blocked plans for a UN independent investigation into potential war crimes committed by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. This was a unique opportunity to hold all sides of the conflict accountable for their actions. Instead, Saudi Arabia has been allowed to investigate itself through its own internal commission.  (24 Feb 2016)

Then, on Thursday 21st July when parliament rose, there was a curious statement issued by the FCO.  It has been forced to retract numerous written and oral statements to parliament which said ministers had assessed that Saudi Arabia was not in breach of international humanitarian law in Yemen.

The admission led to calls by the Liberal Democrats for an investigation into Saudi behaviour in Yemen and a suspension of UK arms sales.  The Liberal Democrats have repeatedly claimed that the Saudi military campaign has targeted civilians.  We also drew attention in a previous blog to the presence of British service personnel in Saudi control rooms.  The Foreign Office said the incorrect statements – made by three different ministers, some as far back as six months ago – were errors and did not represent an attempt to mislead MPs over its assessment of the Saudi campaign.

It stressed that other written answers had made clear that the UK government had made no assessment of whether the Saudis were in breach of humanitarian law.

The last day of parliament is a favourite time to slip out inconvenient statements since there is no time for questions or debate to take place.  The FCO simply said it had been reviewing the correspondence.

The government is facing a court case arguing that it should ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia.  The Guardian newspaper said:

In its written answer published on Thursday, the Foreign Office said written answers in February 2016 had stated: “We have assessed that there has not been a breach of IHL (international humanitarian law) by the coalition.” The correction said these should have stated: “We have not assessed that there has been a breach of IHL by the coalition.”

The Foreign Office also corrected a written answer by the then foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, who stated on 4 January 2016: “I regularly review the situation with my own advisers and have discussed it on numerous occasions with my Saudi counterpart. Our judgment is that there is no evidence that IHL has been breached, but we shall continue to review the situation regularly.”

This is something of a volt face and to issue such a statement on the last day of parliament is shameful.  It achieved its object however with next to no media coverage.  Why does it matter?  We are currently suffering a severe threat from ISIS with a recent outrage in Nice said to be inspired by the group.  Saudi Arabia’s activities in Yemen, supported by US and UK weapons, personnel and political cover, provide an ideal recruiting ground for this terrorist group.  At present all eyes are on Syria but how long will it be before our activities in Yemen come under the spotlight?


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Britain’s involvement in Yemen war described in detail

In this blog – our longest yet – we reproduce an article published in Dissident Voice which discussed in detail the role the British government is playing in supporting the Saudi government, by supplying arms and providing personnel, in its war in the Yemen.   Most of the material here will be familiar to readers but it is useful to have a separate voice.  Our local MP Mr John Glen has, so far, been silent on these matters. 

It is more than possible to speculate why Prime Minister David Cameron has declared it his mission to scrap the Human Rights Act – which is incorporated into the European Convention on Human Rights – it appears he simply does not believe in human rights.

For example, the fact that Saudi Arabia executed – including beheadings – forty seven people in one day last month, displaying their bodies from gibbets, failed to deter him from having British military experts to work with their Saudi counterparts, advising on which targets – and which people, it seems – to bomb in Yemen. Parliament has not been consulted, thus, without a chance to debate and vote, democracy too has been suspended.

The fact that in May 2013 Saudi also beheaded five Yemenis, then used cranes to display their headless bodies against the skyline (Al-Akhbar, May 21st, 2013) also did not trouble him.  Neither did that by November 10th, 2015, the year’s total executions had already reached one hundred and fifty one, the highest for twenty years, in what Amnesty International called “a bloody executions spree.”

But why care about human rights or outright savagery when there are arms to be sold?  As written previously, in one three month period last year UK arms sales to Saudi soared by 11,000%.  From a mere nine million pounds the preceding three months: “The exact figure for British arms export licences from July to September 2015 was £1,066,216,510 in so-called ‘ML4’ export licenses, which relate to bombs, missiles, rockets, and components of those items.”

Priority Countries

Cameron’s government treats such barbarism with astonishing sanguinity.  For instance, it has come to light that in 2011 the UK drew up a list of thirty: “‘priority countries’ where British diplomats would be ‘encouraged’ to ‘proactively drive forward’ and make progress towards abolishing the death penalty over five years.’ “

Saudi Arabia was not on the list, an omission which Amnesty International’s Head of Policy, Alan Hogarth called “astonishing.” (Independent, January 5th, 2016.)  However, a Foreign Office spokeswoman told the Independent that: “A full list of countries of concern was published in March 2015 in the (UK) Annual Human Rights Report and that includes Saudi Arabia and its use of the death penalty.”

Wrong.  In the Report under “Abolition of the Death Penalty”, there is much concentration on countries in the (UK) “Commonwealth Caribbean” and a casual, subservient nod at the US, but no mention of Saudi. Under “The Death Penalty”, Jordan and Pakistan, were mentioned, as was the “particular focus on two … regions, Asia and the Commonwealth Caribbean.”  Singapore, Malaysia, China and Taiwan, Japan (the latter, three executions in 2014) Suriname and Vietnam are cited. Saudi Arabia is nowhere to be found.

Under the heading Torture Prevention, there is a quote by David Cameron: “Torture is always wrong” (December 9th, 2014). Paragraph one includes: “The impact on victims, their families and their communities is devastating. It can never be justified in any circumstance.”  A number of countries are listed.  No prizes for guessing, in spite of medieval torture practices, which is not.

However, under “Criminal Justice and the Rule of Law” there is:

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) issued revised guidance on the human rights aspects of OSJA (Overseas Security and Justice Guidance) in February 2014.  The guidance ensures that officials do their utmost to identify risks of UK actions causing unintended human rights consequences.

What an irony as David Cameron is currently moving heaven and earth to halt legal action against British soldiers accused of acts of extreme human rights abuses in Iraq.  As Lesley Docksey has written:

The said ‘brave servicemen’ are in danger of being taken to Court over their abusive treatment, and in some cases murder, of Iraqi detainees during the invasion of Iraq.  Hundreds of complaints have been lodged with the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT), which was investigating between 1,300 -1,500 cases.  Many are simple complaints of ill treatment during detention, but some are far more serious:

  • Death(s) while detained by the British Army
  • Deaths outside British Army base or after contact with British Army
  • Many deaths following ‘shooting incidents’.

Worse, the British government is considering taking action against one of the law firms dealing with some of the cases, Leigh Day, with another, Public Interest Lawyers, in their sights. When it comes to hypocrisy, David Cameron is hard to beat.

Arms sales

Worth noting is that in the UK government’s own list of “countries of humanitarian concern”, according to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), the UK has sold weapons to twenty four out of twenty seven of them, with Saudi Arabia in a deal to purchase seventy two Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft in a deal worth an eventual £4.5 Billion.

Aside from the purchase of the Typhoon jets, major deals between Saudi Arabia and British companies include a £1.6bn agreement for Hawk fighter jets and bulk sales of machine guns, bombs and tear gas.  [We can add here that Salisbury firm Chemring’s accounts show a high level of sales to Saudi sufficient to be separately identified under company law]

In fact, Saudi Arabia have access to twice as many British-made warplanes as the RAF does, while bombs originally stockpiled by Britain’s Armed Forces are being sent to Saudi Arabia” – to currently decimate Yemen.

The overriding message is that human rights are playing second fiddle to company profits,

said CAAT spokesperson Andrew Smith, adding:

The Government and local authorities up and down the country are profiting directly from the bombing of Yemen. Challenging them to divest from Saudi Arabia … is something people can do directly.

In the light of a fifty one page UN Report on the bombing of Yemen obtained by various parties on January 27th, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn called for an immediate suspension of arms sales to Saudi, pending the outcome of an independent Inquiry.  David Cameron stated, farcically, that: “Britain had the strictest rules governing arms sales of almost any country, anywhere in the world.”

However, in one of the key findings, the UN Report says:

The panel documented that the coalition had conducted airstrikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law, including camps for internally displaced persons and refugees; civilian gatherings, including weddings; civilian vehicles, including buses; civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques; markets, factories and food storage warehouses; and other essential civilian infrastructure, such as the airport in Sana’a, the port in Hudaydah and domestic transit routes.

It adds:

The panel documented 119 coalition sorties relating to violations of international humanitarian law.  It also reported cases of civilians fleeing and being chased and shot at by helicopters.  Moreover it stated that the humanitarian crisis was compounded by the Saudi blockade of ships carrying fuel, food and other essentials that are trying to reach Yemen.

The panel said that: “civilians are disproportionately affected” and deplored tactics that: “constitute the prohibited use of starvation as a method of warfare.” (Emphasis added.)

David Mepham, UK Director of Human Rights Watch commented:

For almost a year, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has made the false and misleading claim that there is no evidence of laws of war violations by the UK’s Saudi ally and other members of the coalition.

The UK Ministry of Defence, declining to say how many UK military advisers were in Saudi Command and Control Centres, said that the UK was: “… offering Saudi Arabia advice and training on best practice targeting techniques to help ensure continued compliance with International Humanitarian Law.” (Guardian, January 27th, 2016.)  Yet another quote from the “You could not make this up” files.

It has to be wondered whether the Ministry’s “best practice targeting techniques” includes the near one hundred attacks on medical facilities between March and October 2015, a practice which compelled the International Committee of the Red Cross, in November, to declare the organization: “appalled by the continuing attacks on health care facilities in Yemen …”

They issued their statement after:

Al-Thawra hospital, one of the main health care facilities in Taiz which is providing treatment for about fifty injured people every day was reportedly shelled several times …)

It is not the first time health facilities have been attacked … Close to a hundred similar incidents have been reported since March 2015. (Emphases added.)

Deliberate attacks on health facilities represent a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law (IHL).”

An earlier attempt to have the UN Human rights Council establish an Inquiry failed due to objections from Saudi Arabia, who, with help from Britain, currently Chairs an influential panel on the same Human Rights Council.  Farce is alive and well in the corridors of the UN.

Attacks on medical facilities

The repeated attacks on a targeted medical facility and other IHL protected buildings and places of sanctuary is a testimony to the total disregard for International Humanitarian Law, by the British, US and their allies and those they “advise”, from the Balkans to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and now Yemen.

However, in spite of the horrors under which Yemenis are suffering and dying, and Saudi’s appalling Tobias Ellwwod MPhuman rights deficit, UK Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood, an American-born former soldier, in a visit to Saudi Arabia last month was quoted in the country’s Al Watan newspaper as revealing:

the ignorance of the British to the notable progress in Saudi Arabia in the field of human rights, confirming throughout the visit of a British FCO delegation… that he had expressed his opinion regarding the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia before the British Parliament, and that the notable progress in this area has been obscured.

The Foreign Office strongly denied that Ellwood had expressed such a view.

The Saudi led, British advised and US ”intelligence” provided coalition is reported to have formed “an independent team of experts” to assess “incidents” (which should be described as outrages and war crimes) in order to reach “conclusions, lessons learned …” etc. Thus, as ever, the arsonist is to investigate the cause of the fire.

Amnesty, Human rights Watch, Médecins Sans Frontières (who have had three medical facilities bombed) and The Campaign to Stop Bombing in Yemen have all called for an independent Inquiry with the power to hold those responsible for atrocities to account.  None of which, however, would bring back the dead, restore the disabled, disfigured, limbless, or beautiful, ruined, ancient Yemen – another historical Paradise lost.


Felicity Arbuthnot is a journalist with special knowledge of Iraq. Author, with Nikki van der Gaag, of Baghdad in the Great City series for World Almanac books, she has also been Senior Researcher for two Award winning documentaries on Iraq, John Pilger’s Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq and Denis Halliday Returns for RTE (Ireland.) Read other articles by Felicity.

This article was posted on Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016 at 11:30am and is filed under Death Penalty, Human Rights, Militarism, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, United Nations, War Crimes, Weaponry, Yemen.

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Further extraordinary developments
Tobias Ellwwod MP

Tobias Ellwood MP

Last year we wrote to our local MP Mr John Glen to ask his government to be more assertive with the Saudi government in view of their appalling human rights record.  This was prompted by the death penalty group which was concerned by the mounting tide of executions in that country.  We received a bland reply from both Mr Glen and from Mr Tobias Ellwood of the Foreign Office (FCO) saying that behind the scenes, representations were being made.

No sooner had we posted details of the letters from the two politicians, when news was received of plans to drop the requirement of ministers to obey foreign treaties.  Also, explicit reference to the abolition of the death penalty was removed from government policy.  We have in previous blogs pointed to the continuing sale of arms to Saudi Arabia despite their role in the war in Yemen.  Then came the astonishing news that British and American service personnel were present in the control centre for Saudi military actions.

All the while, the human rights record in Saudi remains dire and the year started with the mass execution of 47 people.  When Mr Ellwood was asked in Parliament to condemn the mass execution he declined to do so.  Today, we learn from the Independent newspaper that Mr Ellwood is reported in various Saudi and middle eastern newspapers as having urged Saudi Arabia to ‘do a better job at trumpeting its human rights successes’.  He was addressing the Saudi Arabian National Society for Human Rights [an English version is available] in Riyadh and added that ‘British people were unaware of the notable progress being made.’  Many human rights groups have said that Mr Ellwood’s remarks are astonishing.  FCO has denied that such remarks were made by him and the matter could easily be cleared up by publishing his speech.

Today, the Guardian newspaper published extracts from a leaked UN report into the airstrikes carried out by the Saudis on Yemen.  The report said that:

…many of the attacks involved multiple civilian objects [and that] of the 119 sorties the panel identified 146 targeted objects. There were three alleged cases of civilians fleeing residential bombings and being chased and shot at by helicopters.

So far, 5,800 people have been killed in the conflict.  On Wednesday, the leader of the opposition Mr Jeremy Corbyn asked the Prime Minister for an independent inquiry into the policy on arms exports to Saudi Arabia in view of the UN report.  As the weeks have gone by, the drip, drip of revelations, the continued sale of arms to the Saudis, the presence of our military personnel in the control centre of the Saudi operations, our help in getting a Saudi to get onto the UN’s Human Rights Council, and speeches by a FCO minister, has painted a picture of complicity in a brutal conflict in Yemen and connivance in the politics of repression in Saudi itself.

From Mr Glen there has been silence.  His column in the Salisbury Journal this week refers to the Maldives [YouTube] and his involvement and concern about human rights abuses there is of course to be welcomed and applauded.  But when, we may ask, is he going to express concern about the much greater level of human rights violations and killings taking place in Saudi Arabia and Yemen?


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Sources: The Independent; Belfast Telegraph; Amnesty International; Guardian