UK Plc shutting up shop: a cheerless time for human rights activists around the world
It didn’t get one hundredth of the airtime of speeches by Messrs Cameron, Osborne, Gove, Johnson and Hunt (not to mention Theresa May's anti-immigration diatribe), but the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond's Conservative Party conference speech was equally notable in its own way.
Its keynote was security, and its key line: “As Conservatives, we understand that our national security and our economic security are two sides of the same coin.”
Hammond spoke about the “recasting” of the Foreign Office. “Now, we’re making that network deliver for UK Plc,” he said, “with British diplomats backing British business”. This apparently means plenty of opportunities. He mentioned India (the Indian Prime Minister visits the UK in November), he mentioned China (the Chinese President is visiting Britain even sooner, in a couple of weeks), and he mentioned Iran.
India, China, Iran: all prime prospects for “UK Plc”. On Iran, with the nuclear deal now in place, the UK had proudly reopened its Tehran embassy, he said, and the Iranian capital was now “another city where Britain is back in business”.
So cause for celebration indeed. Hip hip hooray! Hip hip hooray! Hip hip ... hold on a minute. This wouldn’t entail any unfortunate compromises at all would it? We do seem to be talking about business deals with a member of George W Bush's erstwhile “axis of evil” ...
Let’s take a step back. “Recast” or not, we have to presume the FCO still knows (more or less) what’s going on in Iran - not least because Amnesty and other NGOs keep telling it. So we can assume the Foreign Secretary knows, for example, that the Iranian authorities have executed around 750 people so far this year. That’s an average of two or three people every day. This colossal killing spree - including of large numbers of alleged drugs offenders, with many given shoddy trials and many tortured into bogus confessions - is likely to be exceeded by only one other country in the world. Who’s that? Er, China, one of our other notable “open for business” trading partners.
Now, no-one expects the UK to refuse to do trade with countries with poor human rights records (a point Amnesty's Allan Hogarth makes regarding China and Saudi Arabia). But how far have things shifted here? If Iran is now first and foremost a “business” opportunity, what hope can scores of Iran’s prisoners of conscience ever have in any intercessions from British diplomats and politicians? Can even a British person - like the Stockport woman Roya Nobakht - who finds themselves unfairly locked up in an Iranian jail expect much in the way of help from the Foreign Office?
Similarly, now that another former pariah state - Burma - is experiencing significant economic growth (8.5% during 2014-15 “making Burma the fastest growing country in south east Asia” as the Department of Trade and Investment notes), can jailed British bar manager Philip Blackwood expect proper, unstinting support from British officials? Blackwood is doing a two-and-half-years “hard labour” term in Insein prison in Rangoon for a ridiculous “insulting Buddha” offence. He’s just one of 91 prisoners of conscience in supposedly “reformed” Burma.
Frankly, during much of 2015 it’s been positively painful watching ministers like Philip Hammond forced into making tight-lipped remarks about high-profile human rights cases. In the separate - but equally shocking - cases of the two Saudis Raif Badawi and Ali al-Nimr, Hammond, Cameron, Tobias Ellwood and others have kept their condemnations as brief as possible and have often sought to praise Saudi Arabia at the same time.
For his part, asked about Al-Nimr Mr Cameron has sought to stress the value of terrorism-thwarting Saudi “intelligence” (though without specifying sources, or saying whether torture or other frequently-encountered Saudi abuses might have been involved). And, asked recently about the possibility that Saudi Arabia is using UK-supplied arms to carry out massive and horribly indiscriminate attacks in Yemen, Mr Ellwood barely batted an eyelid - if someone were to bring to him “reports with bona fide evidence” to “suggest that that is happening” ... then, well, he’d be willing to look into it. But it seems there’s no prospect at all of a proactive UK investigation into the matter, despite the 2,300-plus civilian death toll.
Saudi Arabia it seems, is all but immune from serious UK criticism. The PM talks about “intelligence”, but the influence of Saudi Arabia’s purchasing power - particularly of British weaponry - is surely a much bigger factor. Typhoons and Tornados, it might be said, set the weather conditions for much of the UK-Saudi relationship.
But a final word on Mr Hammond’s sorely-neglected speech. Delivered in Manchester, home of Britain’s industrial revolution and now at the centre of the north-west’s defence industry, its security-and-business theme was certainly fitting. Yet Manchester was of course also the scene of the infamous Peterloo Massacre, when the local cavalry cut down peaceful protesters calling for the right to vote. It was, by any measure, an awful incident - 15 people killed and hundreds more injured, many from being trampled by horses or lashed at with cavalry swords.
In a different age, with new leaders, enlightened values and “prosperity” forever on the lips of ministers and Foreign Office officials, are we again complicit in human rights abuse with our relentless pursuit of trade and the interests of UK Plc? In the 19th century it was British democracy protesters being cut down, now it’s Saudi bloggers and protesters being lashed and facing public decapitation.
With the Foreign Secretary wanting to raise a cheer for British business in places like Iran and China, I think jailed activists around the world are in for a cheerless time.
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.