Recent events reveal western government’s attitudes to human rights
The events of the last few weeks in Istanbul, with the possible murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy, has put a spotlight on the western government’s attitude to human rights and the rule of law.
For several years now we have been happy to sell arms to Saudi and we have been largely quiescent during the bombing of Yemen. Yemen has been in the news recently with filmed reports of the increasingly desperate state the country and its people are in. Reports of bombing of civilian targets and medical facilities receive brief coverage but do not however, generate much outrage.
The scale of misery there is now huge and represents a major tragedy. The Saudi forces, aided by UK arms and military personnel, have wreaked terrible harm on the country. A whole list of non-military targets has been bombed including ports, food production facilities and refugee camps. As many as 13 million people are now suffering there. Yet our politicians are largely silent and the ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, is feted here by the Royal family and others.
By contrast, the possible killing of this journalist has plunged the Saudi kingdom into crisis and led to many politicians withdrawing from the forthcoming Davos in the Desert.
Much of our media seemed happy to accept the idea that MbS, as he is known, was a moderniser and were excited when he allowed women to drive for the first time. They overlooked the locking up of journalists, lawyers and human rights workers and did not notice that the woman who campaigned for the right for women to drive was in prison. It was as though a hint of reform was enough to switch off any critical assessment of his actual performance as a despot. Executions continue at an alarming rate and Human Rights Watch noted a spate of 48 in a four month period earlier in the year, mostly for non-violent offences. Torture is still routine.
All this shows that the real concern is the sale of weapons and the supply of oil. It is fair to argue that MbS knew our politicians were more concerned about trade than they were about human rights or international justice. This is likely to have led him to believe he could remove the irritant of someone like Khashoggi and after a brief fuss, life would carry on. He may well be right.
At present, we cannot know how this crisis will pan out for the Saudi government. Western governments are going through contortions trying to balance the need to keep in with the regime to protect commercial interests, with some kind of need to show a moral standing in the face of credible reports that Khashoggi may have been murdered and dismembered in the embassy. Liam Fox waited two weeks until today (18 October) to cancel his visit to the Future Investment Initiative. Amnesty is calling for an investigation.
Today’s Daily Mail newspaper revealed the large number of MPs and ministers – mostly Conservative with a few Labour – who have accepted hospitality and gifts from the regime not all of them declared. They include the Chancellor who was given an expensive watch. The total, the paper reveals, is more than £200,000 since 2015 and £106,000 this year. Allan Hogarth of Amnesty International said in the article:
Any MP tempted by a lavish trip to Saudi Arabia ought to bear in mind that jailed Saudi human rights defenders are currently languishing in jail, while the Saudi coalition’s lethal bombing of Yemen is making lives miserable for thousands of poor and malnourished Yemenis.
Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record is well-documented, and no parliamentarian should go to the country without being prepared to publicly raise human rights.
George Graham, of Save the Children, said:
For three years Saudi Arabia has been killing children in Yemen, quite possibly with British-made weapons. The fighting has driven millions of families to the brink of famine and created the worst cholera epidemic in living memory. Our leaders must do what’s right and stop fuelling this conflict with military and political support for one side in this brutal war. Daily Mail online [accessed 19 October 2018]
The naiveté of the MPs is astonishing and some of their comments are quite disgraceful in view of the appalling human rights record of the country. It is unlikely that they will be pushing the government to adopt a more vigorous line in future.
However, it has put our relationship with an unsavoury regime in the spotlight and with papers like the Mail giving space to the story, there are slender grounds for optimism.
In our next blog, we shall be listing forthcoming events. If you live in the Salisbury, Amesbury or Downton area and are interested in joining, please have a look and come along and make yourself known. It is free to join our group.