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International Politics The West’s use and abuse of human rights in foreign affairs

IAN SINCLAIR shines a light on the US and British governments’ selective concern for human rights

LAST month news website Politico published an extraordinary leaked US government document concerning US foreign policy. 

Written for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by his senior policy adviser Brian Hook, the confidential May 2017 memo advises that “the US should use human rights as a club against its adversaries, like Iran, China and North Korea, while giving a pass to repressive allies like the Philippines, Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” Politico summarised.

“Allies should be treated differently — and better — than adversaries. Otherwise, we end up with more adversaries, and fewer allies,” argues Hook. 

He continues: “We should consider human rights as an important issue in regard to US relations with China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. And this is not only because of moral concern for practices inside those countries. It is also because pressing those regimes on human rights is one way to impose costs, apply counter-pressure and regain the initiative from them strategically.”

In addition to being a useful weapon to deploy against enemy states, the concept of human rights is also used to manipulate domestic public opinion. 

Speaking to US academic Dr James Davidson about the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan, a senior British intelligence official noted: “It is always helpful for governments who want to get the Guardian readers of the world on board to have a humanitarian logic.”

The US and British governments’ selective concern for human rights is broadly mirrored by the mainstream media. 

Analysing the US media in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky look at “paired examples.” 

For instance, they consider the different quantity and quality of coverage given to priests killed in Soviet Union-era Poland compared with religious figures murdered by US-backed dictatorships in Latin America, and the mass killing in Cambodia compared with the mass killing carried out by US client Indonesia in East Timor. 

“A propaganda system will consistently portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims, whereas those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy,” they conclude.

Dr David Wearing, a teaching fellow in international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, recently highlighted a similar relationship between British commentators and the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen. 

Speaking on the Media Democracy podcast, he notes that although the conflicts are not identical, there is a high level of similarity: both are brutal, complex civil wars with large amounts of indiscriminate killing, lots of internal and external actors, which has led to the creation of huge humanitarian crises. 

In Syria, the evidence suggests the Assad government and its allies are responsible for the majority of non-combatant deaths. 

However, in Yemen — where “the cholera outbreak is probably the worst the world has ever seen,” according to the UN’s undersecretary-general and emergency relief co-ordinator — the main danger to civilians is from British ally Saudi Arabia, dropping British-made bombs from British-made warplanes.

Wearing goes on to observe: “We know all about Syria because Syria is on the front page of every newspaper, Syria is at the top of news bulletins, Syria is the subject of one op-ed after another saying: ‘Why don’t we do something about this, we should intervene’.” 

Turning to the conflict in the Gulf, he asks: “Where is the coverage of Yemen? It’s not on the front pages, it’s not at the top of the news bulletins. You’ll struggle to find an opinion article about it in any of the major newspapers.” Indeed, he notes: “The very opinion writers who will be urging us to intervene in Syria … the liberal interventionist-types … [there is] not a word from people like that about Yemen.”

Searching David Aaronovitch’s Twitter timeline, I found that since Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen commenced in March 2015, The Times columnist has mentioned the word “Syria” in 75 tweets (this figure, and all the subsequent figures I quote, excludes retweets). 

In contrast, I counted Aaronovitch had mentioned “Yemen” in a total of three tweets over the same period.

To put this government-friendly focus in context, since March 2015 Aaronovitch has tweeted about The Archers BBC Radio 4 soap opera at least 26 times. 

In fact he seems to have tweeted about just one character, Ruth Archer, as much as he has tweeted about Yemen.

Looking at the tweets of other commentators produces similar findings. When, in December 2017, I searched the Twitter feed of @bobfrombrockley, a relatively influential blogger and tweeter among liberal interventionist types, I found 22 tweets mentioning “Yemen” since March 2015, over two-and-a-half years before.

However, @bobfrombrockley had mentioned “Syria” 22 times on Twitter since 11 December 2017 — only 11 days before I conducted my search.

On the left of the political spectrum, the editor of the Interventions Watch website conducted a search of Guardian columnist George Monbiot’s Twitter timeline in December 2017. 

The results? He found Monbiot had mentioned “Syria” in 91 tweets and “Yemen” in just three tweets.

In one sense this uniformity of emphasis is an awe-inspiring phenomenon to behold. More seriously, the British commentariat’s relative silence has grave consequences for the population of Yemen — the British government’s support for the Saudi war machine can only continue with the British public’s acquiescence.

Therefore it is the job of activists and concerned citizens is to draw the public’s attention to Britain’s deadly role in Yemen. 

Quaker peace activist Sam Walton raised the profile of the conflict when he made headlines with his attempted citizen’s arrest of Saudi Arabian general Ahmed al-Asiri in London in April 2017. 

Similarly the Campaign Against Arms Trade applied pressure on the government with its — unfortunately unsuccessful — legal bid to force an end to British arms exports to Saudi Arabia. 

And the Labour Party has also tried to call the government account, with leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry — along with the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas and the Scottish National Party — raising Britain’s involvement in Yemen in Parliament.

These protests seem to have rattled the British Establishment. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to personally apologise for Walton’s action, Middle East Eye reported. 

In October, then defence secretary Michael Fallon told the House of Commons defence committee that “criticism of Saudi Arabia in … Parliament is not helpful” in securing future arms deals with the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia itself seems particularly sensitive to criticism, with the New York Times reporting in June 2016 that the then UN secretary-general “had essentially been coerced into removing [the] Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen from an ignoble list of armies that kill and maim children.” 

According to the article, Ban Ki Moon “told reporters that he had been threatened with the loss of financing for humanitarian operations in the Palestinian territories, South Sudan and Syria if he did not temporarily delete the Saudi-led coalition from the list.” 

To combat criticism about Yemen and the kingdom more generally, the Financial Times reported in September that Saudi Arabia plans “to set up public relations hubs in Europe and Asia as part of a new offensive to counter negative media coverage of the kingdom.”

The hubs in London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing, Mumbai and Tokyo will “produce press releases, publish content on social media and invite ‘social influencers’ to visit Saudi Arabia.”

So the protests and pressure are having an effect — on both the British and Saudi Arabian governments. 

These activities now need to be seriously ramped up to force the government to stop backing Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. 

As Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a 30-year veteran of the CIA, noted in 2016: “If the United States and the United Kingdom, tonight, told King Salman [of Saudi Arabia]: ‘This war has to end,’ it would end tomorrow. The Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and British support.”

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