On the 29th of September, the world woke up to the news that Britain conducted “secret vote-trading deals with Saudi Arabia to ensure both states were elected to the UN Human Rights Council,” according to leaked documents. Since then, Saudi Arabia has sentenced Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh to death for “blasphemy” and executed prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr along with 47 other people accused of terrorism offences. Since 2012, prominent Saudi blogger Raif Badawi has been imprisoned and sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes for “insulting Islam.”
The criticism against the British government for its continuing support for countries with appalling human rights records has largely gone unanswered. But the paper trail speaks for itself: since the Conservatives came into power in 2010, the UK has licensed £4bn of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, according to research by Campaign Against Arms Trade. The UK is Saudi Arabia’s largest arms supplier, and its weapons are allegedly now being used in SA’s involvement in the civil war in Yemen, where war crimes are reportedly being committed.
According to the Observer, documents show the British government identifying Saudi Arabia as a “priority market” and is encouraging UK businesses to bid for contracts there. However, Britain’s economic relationship with states which routinely abuse human rights is not only limited to Saudi Arabia.
Turkey is a key British ally against Islamic extremism and a large trading partner outside of the EU. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been tightening his grip on power and moving more and more towards an autocratic style of rule. Journalists have been particularly targeted, including the detention of three journalists for VICE News, attacks on the offices of newspaper Hurriyet, and the raid and seizure of Koza Ipek Media.
For Britain and China, 2015 has ushered in a “golden time” in relations after Chinese president Xi Jinping’s state visit to the UK. Since Xi assumed office in 2012, hundreds of lawyers, liberal scholars, journalists and activists have been jailed or detained. Human rights groups have accused Britain of turning a blind eye to the abuses in favour of securing diplomatic and economic relations with China.
Of course, there are many reasons for why the British government feels the need to maintain good relations with these three countries: Saudi Arabia, Turkey and China. David Cameron himself has offered one: “we receive from [Saudi Arabia] important intelligence and security information that keeps us safe.” However, while national security is certainly the favourite excuse, and is often difficult to argue against, economic relations certainly play a big role and are more tangible to address as long as they are visible to us.
This term, in conjunction with English PEN, York PEN will be looking at these three countries and their diplomatic and economic relationship to the UK. Why does the UK deal with these nations? Does the UK have an obligation to address human rights issues in its trade dealings? While this issue on one hand could be confined to David Cameron and the conservative government, we want to transcend a black and white discussion of the political right/left spectrum. How can we merge the discourse of human rights with the discourse of economics and trade partnerships?
Too often, we hear the accusation that human rights gets in the way of trade, of industrial development and economic progress. Perhaps the entire discourse of human rights needs to be reformed, as one Guardian columnist argues. Understanding how we might transform human rights into an asset, into something of value in every sense of the term, is York PEN’s overarching aim for the Spring term.
In Weeks 3, 4 and 5 we will be successively looking at Saudi Arabia, China and Turkey, followed by a general debate in Week 6. In Week 7 or 8 we will be hosting a panel discussion event with speakers yet to be confirmed. As well as all this, we will be jointly hosting a panel Q&A alongside PalSoc, featuring award-winning Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who has reported extensively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Stay tuned and check back regularly on the York PEN blog for more information about events, as well as for articles that we’ll be publishing at the end of every week this term. If you would like to be involved in event and campaign planning (we always need helping hands!) or would simply like to join the discussions we’ll be having, don’t hesitate to come to our weekly meetings on Tuesdays in Derwent at 6:45pm (location to be confirmed in newsletter)!
Best wishes to everybody, and we hope to see you at our events!