The leaders debates: a human rights-free zone

What happened to human rights last night? Or indeed, last week? The leaders’ debates have been a virtual human rights-free zone. Last night Nick Clegg’s preamble referred to allegations of UK torture complicity but neither he nor anyone else picked this up in the debates.

If you were an alien tuning into the Sky show last night (apparently Sky subscription rates are very competitive for extra-terrestrials) you’d have thought the world was a very limited place. This “leaders’ debate” world is obviously dominated by a huge place called Afghanistan. The other important locations are something scary but important to “work with” known as “Europe”. There are notable regions called Iraq and the United States. And … er, that’s about it.

OK, there were mentions for Iran, North Korea, Somalia (I think Brown meant Yemen with his reference to the would-be Detroit bomber), China and Poland. But for a foreign policy debate this was strange stuff. Immigration (again) barged in and the Pope’s visit took up a major chunk. So, here are some of the things you wouldn’t have guessed from last night’s 90 minutes of primetime: 

  • There’s recently been the biggest crackdown on human rights in Iran for decades
  • China’s economic superpower status is shielding it from criticism of its appalling human rights record
  • War in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa’s third-largest country, has claimed over five million lives in the last 15 years and the sexual abuse of women there is endemic
  • Sudan has just had full elections for the first time in a quarter of a century but its president is a suspected war criminal defying the world and international justice
  • There will be elections in Burma this year despite Aung San Suu Kyi  being under house arrest and barred from taking part and 2,200 political prisoners jailed
  • 180 prisoners still languish at Guantánamo Bay, including UK resident Shaker Aamer who has now been there for 3,000 days without charge or trial

I could go on (see, for example, a list of key human rights issues I blogged on at the end of last year).

Even the topics they did rattle through last night saw them skimming straight over human rights topics as if they didn’t exist. On Afghanistan, as Diana Saqeb notes in the Guardian today (not online!), the crucial issue of whether deals with the Taleban might sacrifice (already fragile) women’s rights didn’t get a look-in.

Similarly, they argy-bargied over immigration and deportations for what seemed like hours but didn’t acknowledge that official hostility to unsuccessful asylum applicants has led to widespread destitution in Britain amongst people who can’t be returned for safety and other reasons. To adapt Clegg’s one-liner, we might know where they live (eg Baghdad, or Mogadishu) but we can’t send them home and shouldn’t act as if we can.

So, I’ve followed the live-tweet/live TV broadcast debates as avidly as the next politics wonk, but I reckon that human rights and the bigger foreign policy agenda has been all but smothered so far. Come on! (Tell them to buck up here). It’s not all #nickcleggsfault (even if he probably did poke the Icelandic volcano with a stick!) but overall it’s still a #leadersdebatefail. 

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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