Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme
Britain will only criticize the repressive regimes of its Middle Eastern allies behind closed doors. It is not enough: there must be public condemnation too.
Ensaf Haidar holds a picture of her husband Raif Badawi after accepting the European Parliament's Sakharov human rights prize on behalf of her husband on 16 December 2015. Photo by Getty Images.Ensaf Haidar holds a picture of her husband Raif Badawi after accepting the European Parliament's Sakharov human rights prize on behalf of her husband on 16 December 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

Activists in the Middle East will be unsurprised by the findings of a Foreign Affairs Select Committee report suggesting Britain’s Foreign Office has deprioritized human rights, citing its relationships with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain as examples. Human rights groups in these countries typically see the UK as less interested than the US or the EU in condemning repression within regimes.

The government counters that it does raise human rights issues regularly with its allies but reserves the toughest criticism for private conversations. It says criticism closes doors, arguing that more progress can be made when difficult issues are raised out of the public gaze, between friends.

The idea that human rights concerns are best raised in private has become almost a mantra among British diplomats dealing with allies in the Gulf and Egypt. Certainly, naming and shaming is not always the best way for diplomats to influence another government’s policy. Sometimes human rights groups simply want governments to call other governments out for abuses as an end in itself: for the sake of recognition, or to bear witness. But they may on occasion overestimate the degree to which foreign governments can tell people what to do with their domestic dissidents.

Conversely, however, the British government badly needs a more nuanced and evidence-based approach to identifying when and how public statements can play a useful role.

International calls to abide by human rights standards are most effective when there are domestic champions. Authoritarian regimes are not monolithic, and typically face internal divisions over how to deal with political dissent. Those who support a more human rights-based framework find it useful to have international norms and standards to refer to, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the UN’s Universal Periodic Review process. Parallels can be made with the International Monetary Fund, the prescriptions of which are most likely to be implemented when they reflect what certain internal actors already want, or even with the impact of more severe international pressure, like the recent sanctions on Iran.

Reputational pressure can push countries to meet international standards. Gulf governments value their reputations, and are keen to do well in international rankings – whether for business attractiveness or perceptions of happiness. Qatar’s record on labour rights remains extremely weak, but the scrutiny brought by the World Cup has also resulted in improvements for at least some workers. The findings of Bahrain’s international commission of inquiry into the events of 2011 were never fully implemented but, without them, repression there would probably be worse. In Saudi Arabia, the flogging of a liberal blogger, Raif Badawi, was suspended – officially for health reasons – after an international outcry.

Working multilaterally helps distance human rights scrutiny from the politics of bilateral relationships and the hangover of colonialism. The fact that Saudi Arabia is now at the head of the UN Human Rights Council indicates it can no longer reject human rights as a 'Western' notion.

Crucially, governments are not the only actors that matter. Progress on human rights is often driven by social movements, by domestic political pressure and even at times by business behaviour. It is one thing to use a softer tone in public statements, but at times these statements are actively misleading. A minister may tell parliament a country is moving in the right direction when the diplomats on the ground are privately telling colleagues there are at least two steps back for every step forward. British diplomats lobbied the UN Human Rights Council to water down the language in a resolution on Bahrain, deleting the word 'torture'. Examples cited by the Foreign Affairs Committee in its report include a ministerial statement that Egypt – where the former ruling party is banned as a terrorist organization, and security forces have recently been given immunity for any acts committed 'during the performances of their duties' – is moving towards a 'stronger democracy'.

This is demoralizing for the brave people trying to speak up for human rights in extremely tough environments. And for others, too. In authoritarian countries there are always people who are shielded from the direct impact of human rights abuses, and even from and information about such abuses. Warm words for cosmetic reforms give this section of society a false sense of optimism, and suggest domestic dissidents must simply be lying. It is also misleading for businesses, who need to understand the direction of travel when it comes to repression, whether they are assessing labour rights or political risk.

Of course, the UK government is in reality not only looking at the effectiveness of public criticism on human rights, but at whether such statements will jeopardize other areas of cooperation – notably trade, defence and counterterrorism. And this means that the extent to which issues of repression are taken seriously in private discussions remains unclear. The minister for the Middle East told the Foreign Affairs Committee he could not recall whether he had raised human rights issues on a recent visit to Egypt.

Most people will understand that governments need to balance a range of different policy priorities; voters, too, sometimes place jobs and security before other people’s rights. But the UK government’s security strategy recognises that rights and values are part of security. To advance them, clearer public statements must be part of the full spectrum of policy tools.

This article was originally published by the Guardian.

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