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Was a UN Human Rights Expert's Criticisms of the UK Just 'Meddling'?

22/04/2016 16:47 | Updated 25 April 2016

A Sun story today on a UN expert's criticism of the UK is sadly predictable in its framing and content. Here's how the Sun leads its article:

A MEDDLING United Nations Human Rights chief has sparked fury by demanding Britain waters down vital counter-terrorism and anti-strike laws. In the latest lecturing by unelected UN officials, Kenyan Maina Kiai also claimed Britain was encouraging despots around the world to crack down on democracy and human rights. The grandly-titled "Special Rapporteur On The Rights To Freedom Of Peaceful Assembly And Of Association" launched a series of attacks on Government policies after a three-day visit to the UK.

Meddling? Isn't this the typically shrill, hyper-defensive language you'd expect from state-run publications in Iran or China?

Unelected? Well, he's an independent expert who's been appointed by the UN, of which the UK and the vast majority of the world is a part. The UN's Special Rapporteur on Counter Terrorism and Human Rights is Ben Emmerson, who is British. I'm sure he also gets the odd brickbat about being grandly-titled, unelected and even meddling when he tries to deliver his findings in places like Egypt, Israel or Turkey.

But back to the Sun article. Elsewhere it quotes Philip Davies MP saying:

"This lecture on human rights by somebody from Africa is staggering. He should clear off back to his own continent to look at some of the grotesque abuses of human rights that take place on a daily basis led by people like Robert Mugabe."

Again the "lecture" was actually the man doing his work (an unpaid position at the UN by the way). The rest? Well, this is just an insulting attempt at a bit of "But-what-about-ery?" There's a cheap politics to the business of pretending it's OK to dismiss criticisms because of supposed faults on the criticiser's side. Here it's not even that logical, as Davies lazily conflates Maina Kiai, a Kenyan national, with the whole of Africa and with Zimbabwe. What on earth ....? Mr Kiai doesn't speak for the government of Kenya, still less that of Zimbabwe or the whole of Africa. Davies' remarks are bizarre.

And not only bizarre, but wildly out of step with the far more sober reasoning of people at the Foreign Office and elsewhere within Government who (to some extent) value and understand the significance of human rights. On the same day that Mr Kiai was outlining his concerns (about aspects of the "Prevent" programme, the forthcoming Counter-terrorism bill, the Lobbying Act, and the Trade Union Bill) the Foreign and Commonwealth Office published its annual Human Rights & Democracy report. This is the Government's own assessment of how human rights, including freedom of assembly, are under attack in countries such as Cambodia, Burma, Russia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bahrain, Turkey and many more.

It's an important principle in a modern, inter-connected world that countries around the globe each build in human rights monitoring and engagement into all their foreign relations. The bottom line is that what each country does gets noticed by almost everyone else, even more so when you're a relatively major player on the world stage like the UK.

Bad behaviour can often get seized on as justification for another country's similarly poor behaviour. For example, see this Al Jazeera interview with the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn who cites UK anti-terrorism laws when seeking to justify his government's curtailment of human rights. There's nothing wrong with Ethiopian law, he reasons, as it's modelled on British laws. Ethiopia's jailing of bloggers is therefore fully justified, he claims.

Or see how the Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has used the UK Government's (highly politicised and unjustified) attacks on the Human Rights Act to justify why he shouldn't face justice at the International Criminal Court.

There are many more examples that demonstrate that we live in a world where the actions of our Government can be used to justify the erosion of rights and the crushing of criticism and dissent. The UK mustn't indulge in further episodes of bad-example setting. Here it should take on board Mr Kiai's findings and aim to find solutions that navigate between the security of the state and its citizens, whilst enshrining and protect their freedoms of association and assembly.

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