May 7 2011

What really bothers London?

How come the UK is more concerned with issues of human rights in Israel, than in Syria, Libya or Egypt?

Cairo, February 2011

The British Foreign Office published at the end of March its annual Human Rights and Democracy report for 2010. One could have imagined that due to the tremendous ongoing turmoil in the Arab world, Britain would prioritize promoting human rights issues exactly there. The whole world’s eyes are fixated since last December not only on the cruel brutality of Arab autocratic regimes facing huge demonstrations, but also on the decades-long systemic violations of basic human rights that sent so many millions of people to the streets in the first place.

But it seems that the British Foreign Office has a different agenda.

Most of the official document is dedicated to 26 “countries of concern”, but Egypt, for example, is not one of them. It is the most populated Arab country, with paramount regional importance. It is also a place where tens of thousands of people were arrested and tortured by virtue of the draconic emergency law enacted in 1981, and it is where the ruling party managed to get more than 80 percent of the votes in the elections in December 2010. But Egypt is apparently not concerning enough, and does not merit a chapter of its own.

The few references to Egypt appear in a handful of paragraphs, and all in all there are no more than 778 words dedicated to the country. Would the 846 Egyptians that lost their lives in the uprising write the same report?

And who are the 26 countries that do bother Britain? One of the most prominent of those is Israel, with a long and detailed chapter (2,918 words). A bit less worrying apparently is the situation in Syria, the same one which Bashar Assad is currently flooding with rivers of blood (2,647 words). Even less worrying is the situation in Libya, where according to Western officials more than 10,000 people lost their lives, some of whom were shelled with cluster bomb by the Kaddafi regime (1,772 words).

Israel and Colombia are the only democratic states among the 26 “countries of concern”. The report is very careful not to criticize any other Western or democratic state, despite many human rights violations by them in 2010, such as killings of civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan by the American army, the inhuman conditions in which immigrants and asylum seekers are held in Greece, the deportation of thousands of Roma from France, and so on. None of these, it seems, bothers Britain.

The document has a very brief and gentle reference to the Guantanamo detention camp. Regarding a British resident held there, Shaker Aamer, the document politely states: “Ultimately, any decision regarding Mr Aamer’s release remains in the hands of the US government”.

The report states in its introduction that “it is not an exhaustive list, nor should it be seen as a league table”. Nonetheless, someone in the Foreign Office had to decide which countries to include in it. Someone also had to decide how elaborate and detailed should every chapter be. And after all this decision making process, the British Foreign Office concluded that Israel is worth a much longer discussion than Syria, Libya and Egypt.

In order to understand better the rationale behind this thinking, I approached the British Embassy in Tel Aviv with a few questions:

1. Why is Israel considered a “country of concern”?
2. Since Israel and Colombia are the only democratic countries in the report – is Britain not concerned by human rights violations in any other democratic country?
3. How come there’s more on Israel in the report than on countries with far worse human rights record?

The Embassy ignored the second and the third questions, and sent the following response to the first question: “The featured countries of concern are those countries where we had the most serious and wide-ranging human rights concerns during 2010, but it is not an exhaustive list. When deciding on which countries to include, we also considered whether highlighting that country could have broader positive impacts in the wider region should their human rights record improve”.

It is hard to know if Britain fully understands how severe a blow to its reputation is a report that treats Kaddafi and Assad in a lighter way than it treats Israel. What is crystal clear, however, and is even worse, is the harm done to the justified cause of fighting for human rights. If remorseless leaders such as Kaddafi and Assad are of less concern to London than Israel, then who will hold them accountable?

If someone really wanted to promote the cause of human rights, he would write a totally different document.

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