Human rights. The rights we possess simply by the virtue of being a human being. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 was a fitting response to the end of a war that witnessed the very worst of human brutality. Sadly, while their application has progressed steadily since then, it is increasingly obvious that this most virtuous of concepts has become a tool for politicians to deploy only when it expedites their interests.
Take, for instance, David Cameron and his two overseas trips in the past week. On the first, in Sri Lanka, the Prime Minister issued a deadline for the government to conduct an independent inquiry into the horrific human rights abuses that took place during the civil war. On the second, in Dubai, he simply ignored the on-going crackdown against political activists and shamefully gave public support to Dubai in its bid to host the World Expo 2020.
Cameron was in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to attend the Dubai Air Show, where he walked hand in hand with arms dealers to close a multi-billion pound deal involving the sale of warplanes to a country that has one of the highest per capita rates of political prisoners in the world. As the Red Arrows flew across the blue skies of Dubai, an online activist was given a two-year prison sentence for using Twitter to ask why authorities had failed to investigate allegations of torture in a trial of political prisoners.
Waleed al-Shehhi, an online activist from Ajman, was deemed to have 'endangered state security' by asking why authorities had not responded to the desperate pleas of defendants who said that they had suffered harrowing acts of torture in pre-trial detention. Al-Shehhi is the second person this year to be imprisoned for a tweet, after Abdulla al-Hadidi served a 10-month sentence for 'spreading false information' about the same trial of political dissidents. This is a trial in which Human Rights Watch said defendants had been subjected to 'systematic torture' and described by the International Commission of Jurists as 'manifestly unfair'.
Allegations of torture don't end there and are not limited to nationals of the UAE. Last summer, 3 Britons were arrested in Dubai on charges of possessing a synthetic form of cannabis, and subsequently alleged that they were tortured. Grant Cameron, Karl Williams and Suneet Jeerh say they were beaten, given electric shocks and had guns held to their heads. They have since been pardoned and returned home but have received no redress for their suffering in the UAE.
There is much debate around the best manner in which to further the protection of human rights. Many say that countries have no right to interfere in each other's business, something that leaves the door open for the spread of abuse. In this instance, the case is simple: why is David Cameron publicly supporting Dubai's bid for the world fair when there are clear grounds to believe both UAE citizens and foreign nationals have been, and continue to be, tortured in the country?
It is not a case of being pro-active in protecting human rights here; rather it is about not providing tacit approval of a repressive state's actions by publicly backing their rule. The BAE Systems deal to sell 60 Typhoon jets to the UAE is about more than warplanes; it is a transaction that includes continued diplomatic support from the UK. As Dr. Christopher Davidson, author of After the Sheikhs, says: "the price the UAE government must pay for UK diplomatic support keeps getting higher. Now at $10 billion."
In Sri Lanka the Prime Minister set a deadline of March 2014 for an inquiry into human rights abuse. Instead of backing the Dubai bid to host the World Fair, Cameron should have publicly, or privately, withheld the UK's support until such time that authorities have proven their commitment to dealing with the widespread allegations of torture, arbitrary detention and unfair trials that have plagued the UAE in recent years. Sadly, David Cameron was completely silent on the matter, and we are left to conclude that he believes some people's human rights matter less when there is a multi-billion pound arms deal on the table.