Lies, Falsehoods and Misrepresentations from Boris Johnson to Rishi Sunak

‎”We will always hold those who violate or abuse human rights systems to account”

James Cleverly, Foreign Secretary, Twitter

Facts

A month later, when issuing its World Report for 2023,  Human Rights Watch issued a withering denunciation of the United Kingdom human rights in 2022. Yasmine Ahmed, UK director at Human Rights Watch, said that “In 2022, we saw the most significant assault on human rights protections in the UK in decades,” adding “From your right to protest to your ability to hold institutions to account, fundamental and hard-won rights are being systematically dismantled.”

In a press statement HRW highlighted: “The UK government introduced laws that stripped rights of asylum seekers and other vulnerable people, encouraged voter disenfranchisement, limited judicial oversight of government actions, and placed new restrictions on the right to peaceful protest.”

It also noted that “The government also proposed the repeal and replacement of the Human Rights Act, which gives life to the European Convention on Human Rights in the United Kingdom, with a so-called Bill of Rights. Human Rights Watch said the bill, if adopted, would fundamentally undermine human rights protections in the UK.”

HRW was also scathing about Britain’s international record.

It said that “Commendably, the government took on a leading role in multilateral forums to address abuses in Myanmar, China, Hong Kong, Russia, and Sri Lanka, as well as referring the Ukraine situation to the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor. However, in a number of situations, the UK failed to speak up or act against abuses, including those committed by Israel or that had been committed, including by the UK, during the colonial period.

“In April, the government passed the Nationality and Borders Act, which stripped away fundamental commitments to protect people fleeing persecution. The act criminalizes many of those who attempt to enter the UK irregularly to seek protection, empowers UK officials to engage in dangerous pushbacks at sea, and allows the government to expel asylum seekers from the UK to alleged “safe third countries.”

“The government then brokered a deal with Rwanda to expel asylum seekers arriving by boat or other irregular routes to Rwanda, despite the country’s appalling human rights record and opposition to the deal by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other UN experts. The deal has been challenged in court, with the UNHCR intervening in the case, and the government has not yet been able to expel anyone to Rwanda.

“In June, when the UK’s then Prime Minister visited Rwanda for a Commonwealth summit, he failed to raise any human rights concerns. The UK government also continued to fund countries engaged in egregious human rights violations, including Bahrain; obstructed a proposal at the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property rules for Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics; undermined a Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel; and voted against a UN Human Rights Council resolution on racism, racial discrimination, and xenophobia.”

James Cleverly issued this Tweet to coincide with human rights day. It is fair to say that Britain will on occasion hold those who abuse human rights to account. But British support for human rights is selective. 

When Britain’s enemies (for instance Iran or Russia) are accused of breaching human rights Britain is indeed quick to react. By contrast Britain protects allies (for instance Israel or Saudi Arabia). 

The government in general has a poor record of protecting human rights. For example British civil courts and public enquiries have produced serious evidence of torture and other war crimes by UK forces in Iraq but there have been hardly any prosecutions. Despite this, the Johnson government proposed legislation that would have created a “presumption against prosecution” for members of the British armed forces accused to crimes, including torture, committed abroad more than five years earlier.

The Overseas Operations bill set out to reduce the likelihood of British servicemen being held to account, although the government backed down on some of the worst elements following a major vote against it in the House of Lords. Britain has opposed the International Criminal Court investigation into unlawful Israeli settlements in the West Bank and alleged war crimes by Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza. Human Rights Watch and others have long sought such a probe, which opens a long-awaited path to justice for both Israeli and Palestinian victims of serious international crimes. 

Then International trade secretary, Liz Truss renewed arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite massive documentation of violations of the laws of war by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Two days after making this remark Cleverly called China, which is pursuing a policy of cultural genocide in East Turkestan, a “partner for good” on climate change. 

On Sky News, Mr Cleverly was asked about Saudi Arabia. He said: “Saudi, of course, is a not just economically but culturally, religiously, an incredibly important, influential country in the Middle East and further.

“It’s incredibly important that we maintain an ongoing bilateral relationship with Saudi.”

Two weeks later Cleverly’s foreign office worked in parallel paths at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) with Russia to protect the former Soviet state of Azerbaijan from criticism over brutal conduct towards the Armenian population of Nagorno Karabach.

France pushed for a UNSC statement condemning the Azeri blockade of the Lachin corridor. Azerbaijan gained support from UNSC permanent members Britain and Russia to derail the statement. On December 31th an exultant Azerbaijan ambassador to Brussels, Vaqif Sadiqov, boasted

“Today France lost another battle to Azerbaijan in UN Security Council in a failed attempt to push biased pro-Armenian UNSC statement on Lachin which triggered harsh reaction from other UNSC members.” 

His tweet concluded: “Words of gratitude go to Albania, Russia, UAE & UK! A great job of AZ diplomats!” 

President Aliyev of Azerbaijan is a dynastic leader whose regime has a record of corruption, repression, torture and murder as it cracks down on any semblance of political opposition. I contacted the British Foreign Office and asked for their response to the message of thanks from the Azeri ambassador in Brussels. Despite two chasing messages there was no response.  

 However several days later, in an interview with Armenpress, the British ambassador to Armenia denied that the UK blocked the UN Security Council press statement that would advocate for the reopening of the Lachin Corridor. He said “While I cannot comment on private conversations between members of the UN Security Council, the UK was part of discussions aimed at producing a statement that would advocate for the reopening of the Lachin Corridor. I want to emphasise that the UK did not coordinate with Russia, Albania and the UAE on this, and can confirm that the UK did not block the UNSC press statement.

“We are extremely concerned about the humanitarian impact the closure of the road is causing and we have repeatedly called for it be reopened. We worked in good faith through several rounds of negotiations to agree a text but unfortunately it was not possible to construct a statement that was acceptable to all members of the Security Council.”

Verdict

James Cleverly’s Twitter announcement that “We will always hold those who violate or abuse human rights systems to account” was a straightforward lie. The Foreign Secretary was misleading his Twitter followers.

Mr Cleverly made his false and cynical claim alongside a video in which idealistic young people from around the world spoke out about what human rights meant to them. Watching that video alongside the foreign secretary’s statement any decent person can only feel a mixture of shame and disgust that the idealism of these people was being exploited.

Any reasonable person who follows foreign affairs can understand why a British foreign secretary might feel that for pragmatic reasons he or she needs to make himself agreeable to brutal regimes like Saudi Arabia and China. 

What sticks in the gullet is Mr Cleverly’s near simultaneous claim that he unambiguously holds human rights abusers to account. 

We emailed Mr Cleverly’s parliamentary office and the FCDO offering him the chance to respond. The email was received, but no reply. 

Additional Note re client journalismI could find no record of the British mainstream press and media giving any coverage to the Azerbaijan claim that Britain and Russia played a role in  protecting President Aliyev of Azerbaijan. 

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