Thursday, 27 June 2019

British concern for human rights: Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong

This week two events cast clear light on the British government's concern for human rights. The first was the government's response to the court of appeal's ruling that British arms sales to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are unlawful. The second was the government's response to the policing of the protests in Hong Kong. Both cases involved the issue of human rights. Yet the government took entirely inconsistent positions.

On Monday, in response to the court ruling arms sales to Saudi Arabia unlawful on the ground that the British government had not taken into account the use of such arms to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law, the government disagreed with the court's judgement and stated that it would seek leave to appeal. Yet the notion that the arms had not been used to commit such violations was not just false, but blatantly so. The Saudi led coalition waging war on Yemen has killed approximately one hundred thousand people, the vast majority of whom being civilians. The Saudis have targeted schools, markets, residential areas, funerals and weddings. The Saudis have even more lethally imposed an economic blockade upon Yemen, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths from malnutrition and preventable diseases. Nevertheless, the government incredibly asserts that its sales of arms has not resulted in human rights violations and British corporations should be allowed to continue the multi-billion pound business.

On Wednesday, the British government announced that the way the police in Hong Kong had responded to protests violated the human rights of the protesters and that the government would therefore stop the sale of crowd control materials to Hong Kong. It is worthy of note that not a single person died as a result of the protests. Indeed, if one compares the policing of the protests to other protests around the world, the Hong Kong police appear to have behaved relatively normally. In fact, in comparison to say the police response to the Gillet Jaunes in France, the Hong Kong police were remarkably restrained. A similar comparison could be made in relation to the Spanish police's response to Catalans voting for independence. Yet the British government has never felt moved to condemn such policing. Indeed, it has supported the French and Spanish governments in these clear cases of excessive use of force.

The contrast between the two cases is remarkably revealing. In the space of two days, the government denies that a genocidal war that the United Nations judged to be the worst humanitarian catastrophe in modern history involves violations of human rights, and condemns as violations of human rights a policing operation that would pass as normal in country after country across the globe. What this double standard throws into stark reveal is the fact that for the British state human rights are nothing more than a rhetorical weapon with which to attack its enemies.

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