The Rt Hon William Hague MP
Secretary of State for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
King Charles Street
London SW1A 2AH
28 April 2014
Dear Mr Hague,
The Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) is a non-government organisation based in London, which seeks to address issues of human rights abuses around the world. Part of this work involves applying pressure on various government agencies, particularly within the UK, to seek redress on these matters.
We were invited to the launch of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s 2013 annual report on Human Rights and Democracy on 10 April 2014. We welcome the attention paid to human rights issues by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO). However, we often note with concern the UK government’s own involvement in human rights abuses, in addition to its silence on others. We believe the 2013 Report continues this tradition with the asymmetry in which it addresses its concerns.
Absence of criticism
A lack of criticism can be seen in the Report with the absence of certain states from the list of those labelled as ‘countries of concern’, particularly those with whom the UK has strong trade ties. For example the UK continues selling arms to the Bahraini ruling family. Some of the arms sold have been used to violently quell demonstrations against the authoritarian regime (i). The UK government appears to have an economic interest in remaining silent on the atrocities committed by the Bahraini authorities. This silence gives cover to the Bahraini government’s ability to arrest, charge and imprison individuals without due process, resulting in some being sentenced to death. This is a case that should merit significant attention from the FCO, considering one of its ‘six global thematic priorities’ is the abolition of the death penalty. The recent arrest of a teenager and his two and a half year sentence for criticising the King on Twitter also conflicts with the UK’s commitment to freedom of expression on the internet (ii). Additionally, it is contentious for the FCO to express concern about ‘limits on freedom of expression and assembly’ when UK weapons are being used to enforce these limits.
The Report simply allows for a single page case study on Bahrain, where it states that the government ‘continues to implement the recommendation set out in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI)’ (iii). However, this is at odds with what BICI’s own lead Commissioner, Sir Nigel Rodley, had to say. He expressed his disappointment that ‘serious human rights violations continue, aided and abetted by general, if not total, impunity for their perpetrators.’ He also concluded that should the UN Special Rapporteur for Torture be granted permission to visit Bahrain he would no doubt find extensive manifestations of the grave, criminal human rights violations that are within his mandate.’ (iv) A briefing produced by IHRC concurs there has been little change following BICI’s recommendations. Torture in prisons continues with the use of electro-shock devices, suspension from ceilings and beatings (v). This again should be a cause for concern for the UK as one of the ‘six global thematic priorities’ is the prevention of torture.
It is not simply the strong arms trade relationship Britain has with Bahrain that appears to be affecting the FCO’s judgement on the Al Khalifa family’s serious human rights violations. Last month reports emerged highlighting the UK’s significant expansion of its military presence in Bahrain. The base in Bahrain is the headquarters for Britain’s counter-piracy and maritime anti-terrorism actions in the Middle East, and has the capability to host up to one-third of the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s fleet (vi). The IHRC is concerned that the UK is providing material support for the prevention of serious public dissent in Bahrain in order to ensure a relatively stable environment within which to expand and retain its large military presence in the region. This is of particular importance to the UK when other states in the Middle East are experiencing a great deal of socio-political instability. This is despite the fact that the civil movement in Bahrain is a democratic one that aims to put nonviolent pressure on the government in order to achieve greater freedoms for the population.
Additionally, it is apparent that the FCO remains on the fence about particular issues in order to ensure stable diplomatic relations. IHRC would contend that due to these strong diplomatic ties, the UK is in a strong position to effect change. Myanmar is an example that is discussed in the Report, and concern is expressed over the treatment of the Rohingya Muslims. However, the FCO has fallen well short of the necessary condemnation of the persecution of the Rohingya and what the IHRC contends are in many instances genocidal acts. This includes the deprivation of citizenship, the prevention of inter-marriages across racial-religious divisions, a restriction on childbirth, the brutal violence committed against the Rohingya, the failure to bring the instigators of this violence (notably the 969 movement leaders) to justice, and the general silence of the Myanmar government and Aung Sun Suu Kyi on the issue. It is not enough to simply request the offending government investigates reports of violence when it is that same government that is both directly and indirectly responsible for the persecution of the Rohingya. It is essential the UK does more and demands an immediate end to the marginalisation and maltreatment of a minority that the UN itself has called one of the world’s most persecuted groups.
It is clear that the states listed as ‘countries of concern’ and those focused on in the case studies are in the so-called ‘global south’. It begs the question as to why those in the ‘West’ (i.e. in White majority countries) are not highlighted for their own human rights abuses.
The United States is a glaringly obvious omission in this Report as a ‘country of concern’. Its prison system provides one example of the inhumane ways it treats its citizens, with solitary confinement and indefinite detention being the norm. The UN Special Rapporteur for Torture, Juan Mendez, concluded that the use of solitary confinement ‘in the US penitentiary system goes far beyond what is acceptable under international human rights law’ and can amount to torture (vii). Additionally, the death penalty is still prevalent within the country, with 39 executions in the US in 2013 (viii). This is mentioned in the Report in passing, and in isolation from its context: Amnesty International places the US in fifth position in the rankings of most executions around the world (ix). It has executed more people per capita than Pakistan, Yemen and North Korea, all of which are mentioned in the Report in the context of the death penalty and all of whom are called upon in no uncertain terms by the UK to impose a moratorium on the practice.
These statistics highlight the hypocrisy of the FCO in foreign policy and its accusations of human rights abuses. Condemnation is reserved for those with whom the UK does not have such close ties. With the US the FCO simply ‘raises concerns’. The IHRC contends that the US avoids such criticism from the British government because of the so-called ‘special relationship’, where the two countries share the same military goals. These goals are achieved not simply by boots on the ground and drones in the sky, but by ensuring criticisms of the US’s human rights records are not raised.
Figures relating to incarceration and executions in the US demonstrate that non-white people are those who are disproportionately targeted by these policies of torture and the death penalty (x). The UK’s silence on the US’s human rights record thus presents a duality to the racism: a refusal to acknowledge abuses perpetrated by white majority countries and thus complicity in those countries’ oppression of their respective non-white minorities.
This pattern can be seen in other white majority countries, with Australia being a case in point. Australia is not referenced in the Report yet its government continually perpetrates human rights abuses against the native Aborigine communities as well as refugees and immigrants. On the issue of Manus Island, where refugees are held in an offshore detention centre before being processed for entry into Australia, Amnesty International concluded that the conditions in which some detainees were held were prohibited under the United Nations Convention against Torture and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which the UK is a signatory to (xi). There is no mention of this very serious concern over the rights of refugees in Australia, despite torture prevention being one of the FCO’s ‘six global thematic priorities’.
Highlighting some issues to hide others
While the IHRC concurs with the Report’s concerns over violence committed against women, particularly as a tool of warfare, we believe that a singular focus on this matter can obfuscate the deeper structural issues within a country and provide a cover for potential military intervention by Western governments. In Afghanistan for example, the need to ‘liberate’ women was deemed a humanitarian necessity by the UK. This, the IHRC contends, was in keeping with many Western governments’ attempts to engage in military action under cover of alleviating human rights abuses. In 2001, in reaction to 9/11, the UK invaded Afghanistan in order to target Al Qaeda elements, but this also resulted in a full-scale military campaign against the Taliban, against whom there was little evidence to suggest any connection to the attacks in New York (xii). The plight of Afghan women was also cited as a reason for the need for this military intervention (xiii).
This pattern appears to be repeated in 2013 and in the FCO’s report. With the example of Libya, the Report mentions the plight of women in the country, particularly within the context of sexual violence. Although this is not elaborated on in the Report, both yourself and Erin Gallagher spoke it about at length during the launch. The situation women experience in Libya is cause for great concern. However, the IHRC notes again the apparent attempt at diverting attention in order to achieve another agenda in Libya. The way in which the FCO highlights the issues facing women in Libya contributes to the rhetoric that Libya is not a stable country and therefore requires the continued presence of British military interests in the country. This is facilitated by the training of 2000 Libyan security forces in the UK, enabling the FCO to retain a vested military interest without committing British soldiers on the ground (xiv).
Justice for women and ensuring violence is not meted out against them is absolutely essential, but the cause should not be manipulated to further an aggressive foreign policy agenda that ensures British military interests are secured at the expense of other nations’ peace and security.
Reference to UK’s own issues
It is worth noting that while the Report highlights human rights concerns abroad, it does little to trouble itself with similar issues at home in the UK. While we acknowledge that this is not within the FCO’s remit, we believe it worthwhile to understand the dialogue between the team producing this Report and other government departments.
For this reason we believe it is commendable that the Report highlights the issue of anti-Semitism within the UK. The subject is referred to primarily in the context of the UK, with some reference to how this interrelates with projects on the continent. However, in contrast, the section on anti-Muslim hatred over the page uses markedly different rhetoric. It has a broader international scope, with marginal reference to the issue of Islamophobia in the UK.
The IHRC is concerned that the language used addresses the seriousness of anti-Semitism in the UK but is not echoed with similar rigour in the discussion of anti-Muslim hatred. The Report acknowledges that for the Jewish community ‘incidents of harassment and fear of victimization in the UK are still too high’ without expressing concern about the escalating violence being perpetrated against Muslims in this country. The FCO commends organisations such as Tell Mama whose methodology of data collection and subsequent statistics have continually downplayed the prevalence of anti-Muslim violence. ChildLine’s figures give one example of how we can achieve a more detailed picture. Their report demonstrates that more than 1,400 children contacted the charity’s helpline about racist and Islamophobic bullying in 2013 (including taunts of ‘terrorist’ or ‘bomber’), up 69 percent from 2012(xv). Other examples of the rise in Islamophobia in 2013 were seen during the aftermath of the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich, when numerous mosques were attacked and individuals targeted in the streets and online (xvi). It was also disappointing to note the government’s inaction and refusal to condemn the murder of Mohammed Saleem in Birmingham as one of anti-Muslim violence. Many Muslim organisations would concur with the IHRC’s own assessment that in 2013 Muslims’ experiences of Islamophobia increased markedly.
It is deeply problematic that as an example of best practice when reporting and responding to anti-Muslim hate the FCO is using an organisation that the government itself established and continues to fund. It is also troubling that the FCO seeks to diminish the seriousness of Islamophobia in the UK in front of an international audience at the OSCE, when data amassed from alternative sources would provide a more accurate picture. When the IHRC’s figures from 2009/10 demonstrate that almost 14 percent of 336 individuals had been subjected to violent physical assault(xvii), it is apparent that the government should be promoting more rigorous investigations into Islamophobia rather than simply relying on organisations whose statistics are dependent on reports from the public.
This is indicative of what appears to be a government policy of non-action when dealing with Islamophobia. This is supported by The Independent’s report on a senior government advisor confirming that there is a ‘“lack of political will” to take on the rise of Islamophobic attacks in Britain…[and] that attempts to ‘tackle this issue – even before Woolwich – struggled to attract buy-in,” with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, identified as a primary source of frustration.’ (xviii) The minister remains in his government position. This, along with the Prime Minster himself proclaiming recently that Britain is a Christian country does much to marginalise Muslims and then fail to recognise and act when they come under attack by those who have been affected by such poisonous rhetoric.
It is IHRC’s position that the promotion of an organisation whose figures understate the reality simply acts as a token gesture towards tackling the severe problem of anti-Muslim hate without actually dealing with its root causes and the trauma suffered by victims. With the FCO’s Report failing to acknowledge these deep-rooted problems but its ability to acknowledge them in relation to anti-Semitism, the implication is that the government participates in discriminatory politics. The FCO should seek to redress this issue, particularly in light of one of its stated ‘six global priorities’, that of the freedom of religion or belief. If the government demands this of other countries, then it should practise the same at home.
The IHRC will always welcome any attempt to identify and tackle human rights abuses both at home and abroad. However, we believe that this Report does not present an accurate picture and works towards entrenching the idea that the banner of ‘human rights’ is employed as a political tool. We therefore urge the FCO to reconsider the framing of future reports. Care should be taken to assess the UK’s own human rights record to avoid criticism of hypocrisy, and the UK should be outspoken about human rights abuses even when they are being perpetrated by countries with whom we have strong diplomatic and trade ties.
￼ (xii) The Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (9/11 Commission Report) p.251