What heady, happy, far-off days! Before the Iraq War and the scandal of British collusion with torture; before the doomed adventure in Afghanistan and the barbarous dishonesty of George W Bush’s war on terror.
Back in 1998, Tony Blair wanted to advertise to the world his moral virtue - and an interest in the fashionable subject of human rights seemed just the way to do it.
The annual Foreign Office report on human rights was born, as ministers spoke of “a more just and peaceful world, in which human rights are genuinely universal”.
Exactly 20 years later, New Labour’s idea has become a grotesque embarrassment.
Merciless war in Yemen
This document no longer signals Britain’s virtue. Instead, it has become the most eloquent statement of British double standards.
The most repulsive example in this year’s report concerns Yemen. The report recounts how more than two million Yemenis have been displaced, more than 10,000 killed and thousands injured in a merciless war with no end in sight.
With death falling incessantly from the sky in the Yemen, it seems disproportionate to excoriate the Houthis for using the death penalty, a punishment used to this day by Britain’s greatest ally, the United States
The Foreign Office gushes that the UK is the third-largest giver of aid to Yemen, but makes no mention of Britain’s role in supplying some £4.5 billion ($5.9bn) worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, which leads the coalition causing most of the suffering.
Incredibly, the Foreign Office report doesn’t even once mention the Saudi-led coalition that inflicts the air strikes. It describes a war without saying who’s fighting in it.
Instead, it points to the human rights abuses of the Houthi rebels, as if they alone are to blame for the astronomic levels of suffering. It attacks the Houthis on the grounds that: "The death penalty is used in Yemen. In August, there was a credible report of a public execution in Sana’a for an alleged violent crime."
With death falling incessantly from the sky in the Yemen, it seems disproportionate to excoriate the Houthis for using the death penalty, a punishment used to this day by Britain’s greatest ally, the United States.
Britain’s position on Myanmar, the other great humanitarian disaster of last year, is equally wretched. The report cannot avoid chronicling the murder, ethnic cleansing, rape, looting and involvement of the army.
Yet it somehow fails to mention Britain’s complicity in this horrific episode. Britain is the UN Security Council penholder on Myanmar, but has failed to sanction a single Burmese politician or general in the wake of the atrocities against the Rohingya. Amnesty International says Britain should be calling for a referral to The Hague.
The Foreign Office report describes the wave of violence that swept through Rakhine province from late August onwards. It does not mention that while the worst of the killing was raging at the start of September, Foreign Office Minister Mark Field made a speech in the Commons, in which he castigated the Rohingya for provoking the violence.
Smoke billows from Myanmar's Rakhine state as members of the Rohingya Muslim minority take shelter near the border on 4 September 2017 (AFP)
Let’s move on to the unedifying story of Britain and the UAE. According to the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE, Emirati authorities imprisoned dozens of dissidents in 2017, many for comments on social media.
Arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance and torture went unchecked, the group says. One political prisoner, Nasser bin Ghaith, is being held in a hellish prison just 120km from Abu Dhabi that is known as the Guantanamo of the UAE.
The UAE has its own crimes in Yemen to answer to, running prisons in which Amnesty reports “egregious violations” of human rights - acts too unimaginable to mention.
List of shame
We might expect Britain to be consistently condemning these crimes, calling for sanctions against those who carry them out. But the UAE does not even make it onto Britain’s list of 30 nations that cause concern for human rights.
Bahrain, another of Britain’s strategic allies, at least makes the list of shame. But for the second year running, the Foreign Office refers only to a “mixed picture” of human rights in the kingdom. Compare that to the unequivocal statement in the first line of the entry on an enemy, Iran: “The Iranian state continued to violate human rights during 2017.”
The report applauds former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson for calling out Bahrain on the death penalty. It does not care to mention that since 2012, the Foreign Office has pumped more than £5 million ($6.6m) into Bahrain’s security and justice system.
This was ostensibly to reform the system and bring down abuse, but in that time, death row has grown three times as long as it was, according to human rights group Reprieve. British companies train Bahraini prison and police officers, and Reprieve believes the UK may even have trained Bahraini torturers.
The Foreign Office report only notes that executions - three in January 2017 - have resumed for the first time since 2010. All this leads Amnesty International to accuse Britain of “lending cover” to Bahrain’s human rights abuses.
Reprieve says Britain has provided justice and security assistance to several other countries that execute prisoners: Saudi Arabia, China, Pakistan and Egypt. To its credit, the Foreign Office describes in some detail Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s crackdown on dissent. It lists the times British ministers last year expressed concern about this.
It neglects to mention, however, the astonishing article by Middle East Minister Alistair Burt in an Arabic newspaper last September, in which he set out Britain’s real policy towards Egypt: full support for Sisi’s suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood and no mention of human rights.
The dishonesty of the report goes on. It rightly notes that in Israel, “many human rights issues in 2017 stemmed from the Israeli Government’s violation of international human rights and humanitarian law in the context of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza”.
It attacks the expansion of Israeli settlements and the state’s demolition of Palestinian homes. But it does not mention the record-breaking £221m ($290m) worth of arms Britain last year sold to Israel.
If [the report] is to have any lasting worth at all, it must recognise the role of our own government in the horrors in its pages
This included sniper rifles. We will discover next year whether the 2018 Foreign Office human rights report notes the possibility that British guns were fired on unarmed Palestinian protesters at the Gaza border this spring, or the fact that Britain then abstained from voting for a UN investigation into possible war crimes.
Perhaps we should praise the fact that the Foreign Office even produces such a report. At least it draws attention to some of the dark injustices on earth.
Perhaps some more honest civil service types are aware of how embarrassing the document has become. But if it is to have any lasting worth at all, it must recognise the role of our own government in the horrors in its pages.
- Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He also was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Yemenis search under the rubble of a house destroyed in an airstrike in the Faj Attan district of the capital Sanaa on 25 August 2017 (AFP)