THE BLOG

Brexit Or No Brexit, The UK And EU Must Stand Up For Human Rights

03/08/2017 16:00 | Updated 03 August 2017
European Parliament

Europeans have experienced turbulent elections of late, with populist, authoritarian nationalism pitted against openness, tolerance, and democracy. But in one election after another, voters have chosen more pragmatic and optimistic visions of society. Nowhere was this as clear as in the UK, where the Conservatives' small-islander vision of a buccaneering Brexit Britain was resoundingly rejected in a snap June election.

The rise of nationalism in the West has coincided with -- and perhaps encouraged -- a rolling back of human rights and pluralistic values across Eastern Europe to the Middle East and beyond. The Arabian Gulf countries are a fault line for such human rights concerns, and have been sites of increased government repression in recent years. Members of the European Parliament have been following the situation closely with growing concerns. We have repeatedly called for human rights to be upheld and protected, with some success, and have pushed for stronger action from the EU and its governments.

Recent weeks and months have seen a series of grim milestones for human rights in the Gulf. Nabeel Rajab, director of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, was sentenced for two years in prison on July 10th for TV interviews he gave, after already spending a year in prison simply for tweeting criticism of the Kingdom's leaders. In Saudi Arabia, the 2015 Sakharov Prize winner, blogger Raif Badawi, is marking five years in prison for blogging about secularism. Meanwhile, juvenile protesters Ali al-Nimr, Dawoud al-Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher face imminent execution in spite of their age, and new fears have been raised that the Saudi King is days away from signing the death warrants of 14 alleged protesters, among them two juveniles and a disabled man.

In May, Bahraini security forces cracked down on peaceful protesters in the village of Duraz, leading to 286 arrests, hundreds injured and five killed. Meanwhile Bahraini dissidents continue to be stripped of their citizenship. However, Bahrain's regional allies - including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - were quick to declare their support for the Bahraini government's actions. The EU's official response was a disappointingly meek statement on the need for "proportionality", whilst highlighting Bahrain's "sovereign right" to act.

In January, the island Kingdom executed three protestors - reviving the death penalty after upholding a moratorium for six years. Two other protestors, Mohamed Ramadhan and Husain Moosa, also face imminent execution after being tortured into making false confessions. In the last few months, Bahrain's death row has doubled in size, while widespread reports of torture and abuse continue.

Yet Britain is propping up the Bahraini and Saudi security apparatuses. The UK Foreign Office has spent nearly £6m of taxpayers' money on technical assistance to Bahrain since 2012 - training Bahraini police and prison guards who continue to torture prisoners, and, according to leading human rights NGOs such as Reprieve and FIDH, supporting a sham police Ombudsman that has whitewashed and covered up this torture, rather than investigating it.

In Saudi Arabia, the UK has provided cyber-intelligence training for Saudi police without proper safeguards, as juveniles tortured by security forces await imminent beheading for the 'crime' of attending pro-democracy protests. British police themselves have voiced concerns that the training they have provided to Saudi police could lead to the torture of detainees, and a cross party group of UK MPs have just called for a full investigation into UK assistance to Saudi police.

However, it seems that Theresa May's chaotic, right-wing Tory government, propped up by the hardline DUP, has chosen to ignore all of these developments. The Tories see their 'global' Brexit Britain as prioritising trade at all costs, above human rights considerations or anything else. This was the essence of May's message at her speech to GCC ministers in December 2016, Trade Secretary Liam Fox's visit to the region a month later, and May's visit to Saudi Arabia in April this year.

With mounting violations and increasing tensions in the region, neither Britain nor the EU can continue to turn a blind eye, or hide behind the language of "sovereignty and responsibility". Britain must make clear that any further assistance to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia's police apparatuses must be conditional on these governments taking basic but binding anti-torture steps, such as ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) and allowing the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to visit and make an independent assessment. Similar commitments must be undertaken by EU representatives who must be vocal and uncompromising about standing up for human rights first and foremost. This is not the time for timidity or rapprochement.

The European Union, including the UK, has made itself a bulwark of democracy and human rights in the world, and as its voters opt to revive and strengthen these values, so too must the EU step up onto the world stage and put human rights at the heart of foreign policy.

By depriving Theresa May of her mandate, the British electorate has indicated that it does not want Brexit Britain to take leave of its senses, or abandon its values. Brexit or no Brexit, the UK and the EU must stand up for the values they claim to represent.

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