Prince Charles: is he just a pawn in the human rights industry?

Big ears. Double-breasted suits with a flower in the lapel. Same side-parting since the 60s. Hesitant, bumbling voice. Always ready with a joke for the cameras. Strong views on architecture and farming.

From the days of Mike Yarwood’s wildly popular 1970s TV impressions, through the doomed romance of the Diana marriage to the “elder statesman” Charles and Camilla years, the Prince of Wales has been a constant in British public life. Like the Queen, he's been there the whole time - for my entire lifetime (and more), exuding a distant patrician charm even as the television satirists brought him down to earth with jokes about how he talked to plants (jokes which actually normalised him rather than made him strange: anyone can talk to begonias, not everyone can be king).

Yes, His Royal Highness is still with us, seemingly very similar to how he was 30 or 40 years ago. Despite all this, most people know very little about him or his role in life beyond a stored-up set of cliches. And so be it, I guess - we can't all be Norman St-John Stevas (remember him?). Ask 100 people on the street what this country’s longest-ever heir to the throne actually does and I reckon 99/100 will say: “Oh, you know, charity stuff, conservation, that kind of thing.” He's an incredibly familiar figure, but also somewhat ... unknown, even inscrutable.

Which brings me to the interesting (though unconfirmed) claim, via his biographer Catherine Meyer (herself citing “a source close to the prince”), that Charles “doesn't like being used to market weaponry and now sidesteps such activities where possible”. It’s an unsubstantiated remark, Meyer’s book is not an authorised work, and indeed publishers of highly saleable books like this have been known to whip up interest in their wares through attention-grabbing (but unsupported) snippets such as this. But still. An intriguing claim.

With the prince’s imminent trip being to one of the UK’s biggest arms equipment markets - the Middle East - it will be interesting to see if arms deals do get signed in the wake of Charles’ six-day, five-country whistle-stop tour of the palaces and banqueting halls of Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. To be sure, Clarence House has stressed that Charles’ trip is “not about sales of defence equipment”. It is, we’re assured, an official tour of the region during which Charles will be sharing his views and that of the UK government’s about “conflict in the region”.

Conflict in the region: that’s a big topic. Does this mean Syria? Or Yemen? Or Libya? Or Iraq? Could it include Bahrain? Hezbollah in Lebanon? What about Israel-Palestine? Even Iran? And what about the chaos in Egypt, not least in the Sinai peninsula? Charles could be doing a lot of view-sharing ...

In any case, I wish Charles good luck with the trip. His first stop is in Jordan, where his royal counterpart King Abdullah II has just vowed to wage “relentless war” against Islamic State after the horror-show of the burning to death of the pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh. Abdullah’s unrelenting war has already included the reprisal hanging of two convicts - a medieval auto-da-fé followed by a no-less-medieval strangulation by knotted rope. Perhaps Charles might mention to King Abdullah that meeting Islamic State’s premeditated and highly-symbolic viciousness by ... premeditated state violence of a similarly symbolic nature is not especially sensible or indeed morally defensible. The people they’ve hanged had no connection to Jihadi John or whoever the Raqqa sadists are. The dawn hangings in Jordan were simply undertaken to appease public anger in Jordan, a disgraceful utilisation of capital punishment for political ends. (Ditto Pakistan, where they’ve been hanging people in a show of “strength” after the Peshawar school outrage.)

Soon after his trip to Amman Charles will be back in Riyadh, just days after attending the condolence service for the late Saudi king, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Charles already knows his way around the Saudi Kingdom and may feel at his most comfortable during this leg of the tour. If so, perhaps he could even permit himself to drop a royal-to-royal hint or two about the injustice of jailing and even physically flogging people for voicing their opinions (Raif Badawi et al)? Just a thought, no pressure.

Because, if Charles doesn’t like being a “pawn” in government-to-government arms sales he may similarly not want to be pressured into raising human rights issues - that might almost make him an “Amnesty pawn”! Fair enough. He’s not a human right campaigner, he’s ... well, he’s a royal. But nevertheless, he’s also his own man, with strong views, and indeed a man with influence and connections. A well-chosen royal word or two in the right ears might well hit the mark. So I say, with all due respect - go to it big ears!

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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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