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Has the UK Government Lost the Moral High Ground?

UK legal system

The UK legal system is revered around the world as the embodiment of universally protected fundamental rights and freedoms. The judiciary embodies the notion of independence and impartiality.

Our senior judges train legal professionals around the world and leading members of the Bar are called upon to advise upon issues of national and international law and policy. Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, the 1st Earl of Kilmuir GCVO PC QC, was a lawyer, a judge and a Conservative MP, and served as one of the leading members of the Council of Europe Committee on the European Convention on Human Rights and guided the drafting of the Convention.

As the pioneers of human rights, civil liberties and fundamental freedoms, it is incumbent upon members of the legal system and those in Government to ensure that the very rights that we take for granted are provided to all citizens of all countries without exception. Human rights and fundamental freedoms cannot be selectively applied. They are inalienable rights that belong to the person and it is our duty to ensure they are upheld and to criticise vocally where they are not. To seek to criticise the right hand and applaud the left hand for carrying out the same act is the exemplification of hypocrisy. As Francois de la Rochefoucauld once wrote, hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.

These universal rights are those fundamental freedoms that many of us take for granted; not through hubris, or arrogance, but simply because in a democratic society we acknowledge that those rights exist for everyone, and further, it is the exercise of those rights that allow a society to develop and evolve, through argument, through debate, and through discourse.

It is therefore entirely appropriate that where an individual, or a Government is of the opinion that such rights are being impinged upon, it makes comment, however contentious, not only appropriate, but essential.

What is not appropriate, nor acceptable, is the ignorance with which on occasion such comments are made, or rather the failure to make comment, by those with whom we entrust the governance of our country.

I have written many times on what I have described as the hypocrisy of foreign policy, how it is deemed appropriate to criticise one country, but ignore another country equally, and often times significantly, more culpable.

The British Government, like many other powerful nations, has, over the last few years acted with wilful blindness over the acts of certain States in which it has a vested interest, namely trade. States such as Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh, that have an absolutely appalling human rights record have been shielded from criticism in order to protect trade and diplomatic relations. With the impending exit from the European Union, the British Government has sought to adopt an Ostrich approach to foreign policy, hiding its head deep in the sand to a catalogue of human rights abuses whilst negotiating important trade deals.

The British Government frequently cites its respect for national sovereignty and the maintenance of diplomatic relations as the root cause of its inability to directly intervene in the domestic acts of foreign states. If this were a consistent policy one could reluctantly accept the position, but regrettably it is anything but consistent. We do intervene. We do directly criticise. We even use the threat of sanctions, in the case of the Maldives, to intervene in matters of national sovereignty. Why then do we not adopt a position of consistency.

It is a deeply precarious position to take when States selectively apply such a policy. Cherry picking matters of concern is a foolhardy approach when the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms are at stake.

It must be accepted, albeit begrudgingly, that State policy and practice will not always measure up to society’s moral standpoint. Questions of economic and diplomatic relations and matters of national security will always factor into how Foreign States interact, but as Martin Luther King Jnr so eloquently put it “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity”.

To this, I turn to the British Government’s wilful ignorance of the human rights crisis in Bangladesh at the expense of trade and diplomacy. Let us not forget that the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International as well as a long line of international legal experts, diplomats and parliamentarians from the United Kingdom, United States, European Parliament have warned of the deepening crisis emerging in Bangladesh. One would expect, at the very least, that in his first State visit to Bangladesh, the UK Parliamentary Under Secretary of State and Minister of Asia and the Pacific, the Rt. Hon. Alok Sharma MP, would have used the opportunity to raise the deep concerns of his Government with his counterparts in Dhaka. Instead, Mr. Sharma wrote an op-ed in the Bangladesh Daily Star entitled “Britain and Bangladesh – bonded by a strong connection”. In his 750 word article the Minister for Asia and the Pacific spoke that “Much of the discussion during my visit focused on strengthening economic growth and prosperity for both our countries. Our trade relationship is at the heart of this…We will continue to work with the government and those who are working to attract foreign trade and investment to Bangladesh.”

At no stage did the Minister refer to the human rights situation in Bangladesh, the harshest words being that “…the UK will continue to state our belief that social and economic growth and development are best ensured in a pluralistic, tolerant and open democracy, where the rule of law is respectedThe UK and Bangladesh stand together to combat global extremism and terrorism and to keep our citizens and visitors in our countries safe…It is when we are under threat that principles and freedoms that we hold dear may be hardest to preserve; but it is at just these times that we need them most, to ensure that all our citizens believe that they have a stake in our society and that their rights are respected.”

The Minister, used the social media platform ‘Twitter’, as a further means to communicate his message. Ironically, the Minister singled out the Maldives calling on it to “…strengthen Human rights & Democracy in Maldives & refrain from use of Death Penalty”. That in itself is not surprising, it is a long-standing policy of the Conservative Government, but contrast it with the message on Bangladesh in which he stated that “Bangladesh is a market of 160m people. I underlined UK commitment to trade and investment to British and Bangladeshi companies today”. The hypocrisy of the two statements is truly astounding. Even if one were to accept at face value the arguments made in relation to the Maldives, the situation in the Maldives does not come close to approaching the scale of human rights abuses being committed daily in Bangladesh.

Let us ignore for a moment, that seven individuals have been unlawfully executed following trials that constitute a flagrant denial of justice and having been detained arbitrarily and in breach of international law, according to the United Nations. Let us forget for a moment that upwards of 12,000 Bangladeshi citizens have been arrested merely for exercising their democratic rights to freedom of speech, expression, assembly, and conscience. Let us forget for a moment the countless civilians who have become victim to extra-judicial killing by the Bangladesh State Security Forces, an organ of the State that has been labelled a killing machine by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

However, what one cannot afford to ignore, and neither should the Minister, is that there are three individuals, all sons of previously prominent opposition politicians, two of whom were executed unlawfully by a politically biased tribunal, who for the past seven months have been unlawfully detained, and detained incommunicado, with the Government denying all knowledge of their existence. One of whom was released during the Minister’s visit by simply dumping him on the street near his home.

One cannot ignore the fact that the British Government appears to be concerned about human rights conditions in one country, and yet quite happy to remain ignorant of the plight of countless Bangladeshi citizens who now live in constant fear of the autocratic state within which they live.

Nor should one be prepared to ignore that the British Government, which the Minister was representing during his visit, is seemingly content to pursue trade relations and foreign policy with the utmost hypocrisy.

The British Government, and the Minister in particular, must be asked the question, why is it that the lives and freedoms of one country are more important than those of another?

One can of course anticipate the answer as the Minister was recently called upon to answer that very question in parliament in which he responded that the Government continues to stress the importance of respect for human rights both in public and in private. I do not doubt that such concerns are raised in private through quiet diplomacy; however, there appears a distinct absence of any public condemnation.

In ‘tweeting’ about meetings concerning trade and UK commitment to it in the full knowledge of what is happening in Bangladesh, and against a background of abduction, torture, enforced disappearance, and extra-judicial killing, it is of the utmost concern that the Minister has, by inference, suggested that the rights and freedoms of Bangladeshi citizens do not matter.

By displaying such wilful ignorance, the British Government has provided tacit approval to state oppression, and that, is unforgiveable. We have a right to expect much more from our Government in general, and the visiting Minister in particular.

Ignorance is, as Plato suggested, “the root and branch of all evil’, and I am afraid, that whilst States remain content to act from such a position; evil, autocracy, and oppression will only prosper further.

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