Wednesday 3rd January 2018
Jo Swinson, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats and Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire
It is Spring 2012, and a wave of democratic hope sweeps the Middle East. For millions across the region, it is a time of real optimism. Among them is 18-year-old Munir Al-Adam, a steel cable worker with impaired vision and hearing, who joins thousands of his fellow citizens protesting in the streets against the Saudi authorities. He marches for democracy, for tolerance, and for basic human rights.
Fast forward five years and everything has changed for Munir. He is now one of 14 young men facing imminent execution for their actions at those protests. “Attacks on police” was the official crime, although, according to human rights group Reprieve, this verdict relied on a false confession that Munir was tortured into giving. His mother, Zahraa Abdullah, said: “He was beaten with sticks and cables. He was electrocuted and prevented from eating or going to the bathroom.” Munir has recently been transferred to solitary confinement, where Reprieve believe he is being held for 24 hours a day until his execution.
As Munir’s tragic case unfolds, set against a backdrop of egregious human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, the focus here in the UK concerns the chronic failure of the British Government to speak out strongly against such atrocities. With its close diplomatic ties to Saudi Arabia, the government could – and should – have put greater pressure on King Salman to stay the executions of Munir and the 13 other young men. But the government has taken a back seat on the issue. Time and again, when the issue of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia is raised, the government’s response is muted and formulaic.
Why? They are afraid to criticise the oppressive and intolerant Saudi regime for fear of losing them as a trading partner. Britain sells arms to Saudi Arabia – more than £3 billion worth in the last two years – and under the current administration these murky and dangerous deals look set to flourish.
It is terrifying to consider how those arms deals affect those suffering in Yemen. The arms that Britain exports to Saudi Arabia could be among the very same weapons that have been used to commit war crimes in Yemen. The bombing of a funeral in Sana’a, in October 2016, killed more than 140 civilians, prompting many across the UK to call for a suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Yet Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson advised that sales should continue since “the ‘clear risk’ threshold for refusal” had not yet been reached. Let us not imagine what future horrors the Saudi regime would have to commit before that threshold is reached.
Concerns about upsetting our questionable allies in the Middle East are no excuse for the government’s failure to take a stand against Saudi Arabia’s flagrant human rights violations. Fear of losing Saudi business has skewed the government’s moral compass.
The government’s lack of backbone presents dangers of a different nature in our own backyard, too. The Henry Jackson Society (HJS), a conservative-leaning think tank, published a research paper this July which concluded that the Saudi regime is the principal funder of Islamist extremism in the UK. The Home Office has refused to publish its own report on extremism funding for over a year now, the findings of which, it is believed, will echo those in the HJS paper. It is disgraceful that the government is suppressing that report and withholding vital information from the public eye.
The government’s actions are dangerous, but, alarmingly, seem unlikely to change. The desperation of Liam Fox to justify his ministerial position and maintain trade deals after Brexit risks a situation where we turn a blind eye to the funding of violent extremism in our own backyard. Those issues extend beyond Middle Eastern instability and become a direct threat to our safety in the UK.
Human rights matter. International humanitarian law matters. They are the foundation of a secure and peaceful world, and the UK contributes to their erosion at our own peril.