Four reasons the UK needs a New Year’s resolution on Saudi Arabia
New Year is often a time for reflection where we look at the year past and think about what challenges we will face for the new one and the changes we will make to meet them.
Join the gym, look for a new job, or stop having to write blogs and provide quotes about Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record, and the UK government’s failure to condemn them!
This last one was one that I seriously thought I may be doing less of in 2016. Wishful thinking, yes, but I am an optimist and held out the forlorn hope that 2016 could see an improvement in human rights in the Kingdom.
Alas, this wasn’t to be as on 2 January the Saudis executed 47 people simultaneously, including the Shia cleric Nimr al Nimr. So here we are at the start of 2016 again discussing Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and the failure of the UK government to seriously challenge it.
Let’s remind ourselves that in 2015 we witnessed a number of issues that raised serious questions, not only about human rights in Saudi, but also the UK government’s muted response to them:
1. Supporting Saudi prisons
Remember the Ministry of Justice’s £5.9m commercial bid to provide a ‘training-needs analysis’ to the Saudi prison authorities? A debacle that only ended when Michael Gove managed to successfully argue against Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond that the deal should be scrapped –due to human rights concerns.
2. Raif Badawi and other prisoners
There is Raif Badawi, the blogger sentenced to ten years in prison and to be flogged 1000 times. It was only following an international outcry that the flogging stopped, no thanks to the UK government who remained silent for as long as was comfortably possible.
Raif continues to languish in a Saudi Arabian prison with the floggings looming over him.
Raif's lawyer Waleed is also behind bars in the Kingdom after speaking out about human rights, and late last year Saudi Arabia sentenced poet Ashraf to death for 'apostasy', claiming his work questions religion and spreads atheism.
3. Back-room deals
The revelation that the UK secretly supported the candidacy of Saudi Arabia for a place on the United Nations’ Human Rights Council was something of a shocking and disconcerting peek behind the diplomatic curtain. It appears to have been a simple back-room deal, with Saudi officials assured of the UK’s support in exchange for Riyadh’s return vote for the UK. I wonder if the Saudis will be voting for the UK in 2017?
4. Arms sales
Oh, and there was also the matter of the UK selling arms to the Saudis which were likely to be used in the conflict in Yemen, a conflict that has claimed over two thousand civilian lives. We commissioned legal opinion that concluded the UK Government is breaking national, EU and international law and policy by supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia in the context of its military intervention and bombing campaign in Yemen. So maybe they may want to stop sending weapons?
Of course, the UK are no doubt pursuing all of these issues through its strategic approach to, don’t say it too loud, ‘shh!!!’ – quiet diplomacy. Clearly this approach isn’t working with Saudi Arabia, so perhaps it is time the UK government stop harping on about how their ‘engaged’ relationships with Riyadh means they can talk ‘frankly’ on issues like human rights, as its clearly a failing strategy.
As I’ve said before the UK government are at risk of trading away their credibility on human rights and its time they put their house in order and have a serious look at themselves.
So, let’s see the UK government make a new year’s resolution and review its approach to human rights in the Kingdom and start taking a more robust stance – perhaps we would then see some positive changes?
They could start now by unequivocally condemning the mass executions of 47 people, calling for Raif Badawi’s immediate release, and demanding that Ali al Nimr doesn’t face the death penalty. Closer to home they could immediately halt the transfer of arms that could be used to target civilians in Yemen.
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