If Britain wants to lead on human rights, it should start with its own citizens

We all remember the Brits the UK has disowned and left to wallow amid the chaos of civil conflict or as pawns in a political game

Sophia Akram
Wednesday 08 July 2020 12:57
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UK to impose sanctions on individuals for alleged human rights abuses

The UK has been carving out an image for itself of late, as some sort of vanguard of international justice. This week’s announcement on post-Brexit sanctions, for instance, targeting grave human rights abusers, follows its offer of UK citizenship for British Nationals Overseas in Hong Kong.

And let’s face it, the regimes and events at the centre of the penalty scheme have been at the heart of activists’ demands – Saudi Arabia’s war on dissent, the genocide of the Rohingya and the imprisonment and death of Sergei Magnitsky have been open to condemnation and action for a while, yet so far the UK’s censure has come up short.

As the government now decides to acknowledge the transgressions taking place in other states, however, it must be said that the UK would do well to get its own affairs in order first.

There’s much that could be said about Hong Kong‘s security law and its impact on free speech, but the UK’s path for sanctuary when it’s hung its own citizens out to dry abroad smacks of hypocrisy.

If Britain wants to be seen as a leading defender of human rights, perhaps it should start with the very same Brits it disowned and left to wallow amid the chaos of civil conflict or as pawns in a political game.

Tauqir Sharif, a British aid worker who was stripped of his citizenship last year, is a case in point. Last year, the British government claimed he was aligned with groups aligned with al-Qaeda and deemed him too much a national security risk to return to Britain, which he denied. Yet the decision continued against him while leaving him in the dark about all of the evidence in question, because citizenship revocation appeals allow for the government to draw on intelligence heard in secret.

Leaving Sharif stateless is illegal unless you deem him a dual national, which the government did because of his Pakistani heritage.

This two-tier system now hangs like a guillotine over the heads of immigrant children and naturalised citizens as it denies them the same recourse as other citizens in the UK. Do people like Sharif deserve it? Many will remember former Isis bride Shamima Begum’s ordeal as she emerged from a Syrian camp in 2018 and was consequently stripped of her citizenship, denying her return to her country of origin. Some may not sympathise with Begum but the fact that foreign nationals like her are languishing in torrid and untenable camps like Al-Hol, a hotbed of Isis ideology, spells disaster for the potential blowback it could incur, while bringing them back to Britain to be held accountable for their crimes would have demonstrated the country’s respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Sharif’s situation has resurfaced these last few weeks, after his detention by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the dominant rebel group in Idlib that has links to al-Qaeda. As local Syrians protest for his release, one has to think about Britain’s missing voice in this appeal, although the same applies to the dual nationals it doesn’t disavow.

When British Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was first detained in a Tehran prison, for instance, the UK government stonewalled requests to condemn Iran. British Ethiopian Andrew Tsege also saw no intervention from the government when he was detained as a political prisoner, for fear of damaging relations with Ethiopia.

Don’t get me wrong: Britain should not shy away from calling out the grave wrongs of any country, but its efforts so far are disingenuous, inconsistent and with prejudice.

The current sanctions regime (by, say, targeting mid-level officials) lets the UK avoid tough bilateral action that might damage relations with key leaders such as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – despite “credible evidence“ for his liability in the murder of former Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and his position at the helm of a repressive regime – while upsetting states like China or Russia that fall in line with current foreign policy.

In this way, Britain’s approach only considers the short term, it’s easy, and it fails to think about the long-game that not only serves human rights but also its own national security. It’s a course that can be rectified, however, which should start with its own citizens.

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