Britain’s new tough talk is a sham. Why would dictators ‘fear’ ministers who befriend them? | Dan Dolan

Dan Dolan
Dan Dolan is director of policy and advocacy at Reprieve

The foreign secretary, James Cleverly, has said that the British government “wants dictators to fear us”, but to those watching closely it would seem that he has a highly selective approach to human rights abusers.

Just days ago, the Foreign Office was scrambling to withdraw comments by a minister, David Rutley, acknowledging that Saudi Arabian authorities had tortured a Jordanian father facing imminent execution, after a complaint by Saudi authorities.

Cleverly confidently squares up to Myanmar, Mali and Nicaragua, but conveniently ignores abuses by the likes of Egypt, Bahrain and India. If I were Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, this kind of behaviour would not make me take the Foreign Office particularly seriously. In fact, Saudi Arabia already seems very comfortable leading the Foreign Office up the garden path. It promised the UK it would stop executing drug offenders and child defendants, and then carried on doing so.

Cleverly has recently suggested that as foreign secretary, “I should not be telling you about my feelings”, but this is an obvious straw-man argument – no one is crying out for Cleverly to show us more emotion. What human rights groups such as Reprieve are actually seeking are robust diplomatic representations that lead to real world outcomes. We are asking him to pick up the phone to his Saudi counterpart and call for these executions to be halted. “Backing words with action,” as he puts it.

This is not an unreasonable request, and such action would not be unprecedented. When David Cameron was prime minister, he helped prevent the execution of a Saudi national called Ali Mohammed al-Nimr after pledging to raise the case with the then King Abdullah. The then foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, subsequently secured a commitment that Ali would not be executed, describing this as a victory for British diplomacy.

For all his tough talk, Cleverly has thus far failed to take such action. For example, the government of India continues to detain a British blogger, Jagtar Singh Johal, who, his lawyers say, was tortured into signing a blank piece of paper that became a confession to trumped-up political charges. Johal now faces a possible death sentence as a result of this confession.

Despite UN experts concluding Johal is arbitrarily detained, and the then PM Boris Johnson accepting this decision, the Foreign Office has failed to follow UN calls for Johal’s immediate release. Instead, it has claimed to be raising vague concerns about Johal’s “welfare and treatment” – as if this is any kind of substitute.

Brittney Griner
‘The comparison with President Biden’s efforts to secure the release of Brittney Griner is not a flattering one for the Foreign Office.’ Photograph: Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters

If the Foreign Office dealt more directly with its counterparts in the Indian government, and explicitly sought Johal’s release, he might now be free. The comparison with President Biden’s efforts to secure the release of Brittney Griner is not a flattering one for the Foreign Office.

Cleverly cites the UK’s use of sanctions against individuals and institutions in Russia, Iran and Myanmar, and few would object to a British foreign secretary taking a tough line on these regimes’ abuses. But here too the UK’s policy is applied highly selectively.

There would be a compelling case, for example, to explore sanctions against Bahrain’s ombudsman for the ministry of the interior, who has repeatedly helped whitewash credible torture allegations by Bahraini prisoners.

Interestingly, though, no such sanctions have been pursued, and you wonder if it might have something to do with Britain’s close diplomatic ties to Bahrain and the UK government’s funding of Bahraini security bodies, including the ombudsman.

You wonder why the UK has not explored the possibility of using human rights sanctions against President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s regime in Egypt, where torture by security officials is endemic, hundreds of people have been sentenced to death in mass trials for political offences and a British citizen, Alaa Abd el-Fattah, has been imprisoned for years for sharing a Facebook post.

Dictators and abusers will only “fear” the UK, as the foreign secretary hopes, if we stand by our principles and seek to actively prevent abuses – even when they are committed by our allies. Our diplomatic relationships will survive a little straight talk and resolve. Is that really too much to ask?

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