Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘human rights’

MBS Comes to Town

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 7th March, 2018

Mohammed bin Salman billboard vansThe Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, has been in London today, getting right royal treatment befitting of a state visit, with lunch with the Queen, tea at 10 Downing Street and dinner with Prince Charles. There was some bemusement yesterday among Londoners as electronic billboard vans drove round the city welcoming MBS’s arrival, and today many newspapers had three half-page spreads reinforcing that message. For anyone familiar with the Gulf monarchies that is not in the least surprising, however; rulers and their crown princes are celebrated with giant pictures everywhere in their home territories, including whole sides of multi-storey buildings. Such apparent vaingloriousness is infra dig in Britain, but we should remember that we started eroding the power of absolute monarchs 800 years ago, whereas Saudi Arabia is a kingdom only 80-odd years old.

Mohammed bin Salman with Queen Elizabeth I was kept busy myself today, doing both television and radio interviews about the prince’s visit, as well as attending a session on youth’s place in Saudi Arabia’s 2030 Vision, at the Dorchester Hotel (where else?). Several people elsewhere asked me outright: well, are you for or against this visit? As one might expect from someone with a background in Reuters and the BBC, and with one foot in academe, I answered in more nuanced terms. As Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and actually sits on the UN Human Rights Council it must expect its domestic human rights record to come under scrutiny. The detention of dissidents has increased since MBS’s sudden ascendancy to the role of neo-dauphin and the rate of executions has actually doubled these last few months. Similarly, the immense human cost of the war in Yemen — exacerbated by the blockade of the port of Hodeidah, which has caused widespread malnutrition — is a legitimate cause for concern, even anger, made more acute by the fact that British arms sales (and some advice) has been helping the Saudi war effort there. However, on the other side of the coin, MBS (with his father’s approval, presumably) has ushered in some reforms that are noteworthy, such as the lifting of the ban on women driving later this year and at least a partial crackdown on corruption, as well as the introduction of VAT as a new source of tax revenue. So he should not be condemned out of hand, but neither should he be the object of unqualified praise. As I quipped on BBC Radio London this afternoon, under MBS’s guidance Saudi Arabia has entered the 20th century, but it hasn’t yet arrived in the 21st.

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The Case of Nabeel Rajab

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 7th October, 2016

nabeel-rajabYesterday I joined fellow member of English PEN along with other human rights activists at a vigil outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London for the imprisoned Bahraini human rights campaigner Nabeel Rajab. He was due to be sentenced that day by a court in Bahrain, but in the event the decision was postponed until 31 October. He is charged with a list of freedom of expression “offences”, including insulting a Bahrain state institution and Saudi Arabia in online postings. He is also accused of “spreading false news and rumours and inciting propaganda during wartime which could undermine the war operations by the Bahraini armed forces and weaken the nation”. The government has insisted that Rajab, aged 51, remain in custody throughout his trial despite recurring health problems, for which he was briefly hospitalised in June. Nabeel had previously been serving a prison sentence for his human rights work, before being pardoned on health grounds, but he was rearrested in June, prior to his hospitalisation. Since the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, there has been a crackdown on dissent, especially among the island nation’s Shia majority, who argue that they are marginalised from society by the Sunni ruling elite. I used to go to Bahrain several times a year and prior to 2011 it was one of the most liberal states in the region. However, that has changed dramatically over the past five years and the last time I tried to go to Bahrain I was refused entry because of tweets I had posted criticising the government’s crackdown and in particular, the imprisonment of doctors who had treated wounded demonstrators. Yesterday, outside the FCO, I gave a short interview to LuaLuaTV, in which I said I was ashamed of the way that Britain’s Conservative government continues to give unconditional support to Bahrain’s regime despite its egregious human rights abuses. So does our royal family, for which they should be challenged. In the meantime, human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Index on Censorship will continue to campaign for Nabeel Rajab and other detainees and journalists such as myself will make our voices heard. jf-interviewed-by-lualuatv

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Happy New Year, Saudi-style

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 2nd January, 2016

Embedded image permalinkThe Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long had one of the highest levels of capital punishment implementation in the world, but this year it has really excelled itself by welcoming in the New Year by executing 47 individuals today in various parts of the country. The official reason is that these people were convicted of terrorism; having not been present at the trials I cannot comment on the legitimacy of the verdicts, however there are several important points to make about the sentences. The first, of course, is about the death penalty itself. In the European Union, it is not allowed. Indeed, any country aspiring to join the EU must remove capital punishment from their statute books; Turkey, for example, has done this. But the European objection to the death penalty is global in its concern, not regional, which is why governments such as the UK’s should be taking a public stand. They do it against ISIS/Daesh, correctly, and they should do it against that key Western “ally”, Saudi Arabia. David Cameron please note.

Nimr al-NimrSecond, there is the question of the impact of today’s executions, both inside Saudi Arabia and in the wider Middle East. Notably, one of those executed was a prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. This will not only inflame passions among Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority, concentrated in the Eastern Province, but has already brought howls of outrage from the most significant Shia-majority country in the region, Iran. Saudi Arabia and Iran are already fierce rivals in the Middle East (and are supporting opposite sides in the conflict in Yemen) and this latest development will only make things worse. Moreover, it is likely to exacerbate tensions between Sunni and Shia communities across the Gulf and the Middle East. If the government in Riyadh wished to cool passions in the restless Eastern Province they have alas succeeded in doing the opposite.

Cameron Saudi 4Finally, there is the question: should this be our business, or something just for Saudis themselves to comment on? I believe the answer should be an unequivocal “yes, it is our business”. Apart from the objection in principle to the death penalty, discussed above, there is the fact that there are particularly strong ties between the Desert Kingdom and Great Britain, both between the governments and between the two royal families. This relationship is something that should be reviewed. Behind-the-scenes diplomatic pressure has had no effect. The number of executions (many of them public beheadings) went up last year and after today’s executions (some by beheading, others byfiring squads) 2016 looks like being a record year. It is time for Britain and other Western countries to make it clear that we believe that human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, including the extraordinary number of executions, are not acceptable in the 21st century. The Saudi monarchy seems intent on bringing about its own downfall, and if/when that happens, we should not be seen to have failed to take the side of humanity and justice.

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International Human Rights Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 10th December, 2015

Human Rights DayThe Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly 67 years ago today, but the fight for rights is as necessary as ever, not just in totalitarian states and conflict zones round the world but even in so-called mature democracies. Each International Human Rights Day (IHRD), 10 December, is a useful moment to take stock of the situation worldwide and the picture in 2015 is particularly depressing. Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are on the rise as part of the collateral damage to the war against ISIS/Daesh and other Middle Eastern and North African conflicts; countries including China, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Iran continue to implement the death penalty, in many cases for “crimes” that would not even be considered as such in much of the world.

capital punishmentThe theme of this year’s IHRD is “Our Rights. Our Freedoms. Always”, which at many levels is so broad as to be almost meaningless in campaigning terms, but the idea was to commemorate the 50th anniversary next year (sic) of the adoption of International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Despite being equally broad-brush, these covenants are considered important frameworks for putting pressure on governments that are denying their people a decent livelihood or suppressing their freedoms.

amnesty pngOf course, despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not every country or society agrees on their definition. Uganda, where I am at present, continues to harass LGBTi activists, for example, with the tacit support of much of the local population. Apostasy is still a capital crime in Saudi Arabia, while freedom or religion (and the freedom to choose) is a core value of democratic societies. Double standards are moreover evident in so many fields and it is not always the Western democracies that are innocent. They were right to express outrage at Russia occupation/annexation of Crimea, for example, yet most (with a few honorable exceptions such as Sweden) have remained relatively mute about Israel’s 48-year occupation of Palestine; Russia is the subject of sanctions, Israel hardly at all.

However, that does not mean we should give up in despair. NGOs in particular have an important role to play in furthering economic, social and cultural rights, as well as civil and political ones — not least in holding governments to account. But governments, such as Britain’s, also should not shirk their duty to stand up for what they say support, and the same goes for the European Union. So even if IHRD may seem vacuous at times it is important to remind us of all that needs to be done to promote human rights, both individually and collectively.

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Standing up to Saudi Arabia

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 22nd November, 2015

imageDavid Cameron and other British government Ministers have been busy demonstrating the warmth of their relationship with Saudi Arabia in recent months which begs the question: why? Of course, the Desert Kingdom uses a significant part of its oil wealth to purchase arms and other products and services from Britain, but in which ways do the two countries’ values coincide? Certainly both are sworn enemies of self-styled Islamic State (ISIS), yet individual Saudis have been funding that nefarious group. Moreover it is not difficult to see how the twisted ideology of ISIS has roots in the Wahhabi version of fundamentalist Islam, which Saudi Arabia has been aggressively exporting throughout the Islamic world, as well as among Muslim communities elsewhere. This creed is the very antithesis of the sort of tolerant multiculturalism that is needed in an increasingly globalised world, condemning as false believers not only non-Muslims but also Shia and other Muslims who do not adhere to Wahhabism’s narrow sectarianism. Yemen is an overwhelmingly Muslim country but it is being battered by Saudi Arabia with huge cost to both people and the country’s rich cultural heritage in an ongoing war that has received little criticism in the West.

Raif BadawiHowever, the thing that really alarms me is the way that the UK’s Conservative government seems blind to the appalling human rights abuses that continue in the Kingdom. Executions this year are running at an obscenely high level, one of the latest to be condemned to death being the Palestinian poet and artist Asraf Fayadh, on the medieval charge of apostasy. Crucifixion is still practised in extreme cases as well as barbaric punishments that should have no place in the 21st century. The blogger Raif Badawi is still liable to be lashed every Friday just for writing about liberalism. The great victory at the end of World War II was the acknowledgment in 1948 that human rights are universal. All UN member states have signed up to that, including Saudi Arabia. It is time for Britain and other countries around the world to put pressure on the Saudis to live up to that commitment.

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Simon Hughes Conquers Everest

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 21st July, 2015

Simon Hughes 4One of the key policy areas many Liberal Democrats will be focussing on now we are in opposition to the Conservatives is human rights, which have been prominent in the campaigning values of both the national party and our wider Liberal International family. So it was timely that Lewisham Liberal Democrats this evening hosted a dinner in Blackheath at which the speaker was the recently knighted Simon Hughes, who was Minister for Justice for a short period before the May election. A lawyer by training, Simon had an interesting slant on the subject to help us finesse our campaigning tactics in that he is not necessarily opposed to the idea of a British Bill of Rights so long as that retains the core principles enshrined within the European Convention on Human Rights (which was of course largely framed by British legal minds). As he told the gathering at the Everest Inn Nepalese restaurant, the Conservatives (with some noble exceptions) have been damning the Human Rights Act as a flawed Labour invention, which while technically true rather misses the point.

Nepal eathquakeSimon also pointed out that with the exception of unqualified rights such as that against being subject to torture and degrading treatment most of the articles in the ECHR do have qualifications, which are often ignored or misrepresented by the more unscrupulous sections of the British Press. Most of the ‘scandals’ highlighted in the Daily Mail and the Daily Express have been related to Article 8 of the Convention, in particular regarding the right to a family life, but it is perfectly possible for British courts to make sound judgments without offending the principles of the Convention. There seemed to be a feeling among members present — many of whom had campaigned for Simon in his sadly unsuccessful attempt to retain his parliamentary seat in Old Southwark and Bermondsey — that the Conservatives are in danger of wanting to throw the baby out with the bathwater on this issue, though they may find changing our relationship to the ECHR difficult to get through the House of Lords. It would be crazy as well as self-defeating for the UK to withdraw from the ECHR, but that message needs to be got over to the general public in an understandable way. At the end of the evening, instead of the conventional raffle, a collection was made for relief efforts in Nepal, in which the owner of Everest Inn has been involved, as the after-effects of the eathquake are still severe.

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Human Rights in Iraq

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 19th April, 2015

Iraq human rightsThis week I have been in Istanbul attending the inaugural conference of the International Human Rights Coalition for Iraq (IHRCI), which aims to not only publicise human rights abuses on all sides in Iraq but even more importantly to document them assiduously so that prosecutions can be brought against the perpetrators. The late Saddam Hussein was a gross human rights violator, but the situation since he was overthrown by the illegal US-led invasion of 2003 has been far from perfect. Violations by both the US and British occupying forces have been widely reported, as have the savage practices of the self-styled Islamic State (ISIS) that has emerged in both Iraq and Syria. But far less well-known are the killings, kidnappings, torture and other outrages carried out not only by Iraqi government security forces (especially while Nouri Al-Maliki was Prime Minister) but also by Shia militia groups and others. There was some distressing testimony, including chilling videos, from Iraqis at the Istanbul conference, including details of the vicious treatment of some of the inhabitants of Tikrit since it’s liberation from ISIS. IHRCI intends to use legal channels to bring well-documented cases against human rights violators, initially inside Iraq where possible but also internationally where not.

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Egypt: Please Release the AJ3 NOW!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 29th December, 2014

imageIt’s now one year since three Al Jazeera journalists have been in prison in Egypt, for the simple “crime” of doing their job. One of them is a former colleague of mine at the BBC, Peter Greste, from Australia, from where his family and friends have organised a formidable lobbying campaign for his release. The other two — equally worthy of sympathy and support — are Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy. President Sisi’s government disapproved strlngly of the way that the Doha-based Al Jazeera covered the coup against ousted President Mohammed Morsi, as well as the grotesque human rights abuses that have taken place against Muslim Brotherhood supporters and pro-democracy activists. The farcical trial and subsequent imprisonment of the Al Jazeera 3 is one of the most egregious attempts to stifle press freedom anywhere in the Middle East — a region that is not short of bad examples. Sadly, Western governments, including in Washington and London, have been fairly muted in their criticism of Sisi and his henchmen. While this may be partly an attempt to woo Cairo into releasing the AJ3, I fear it is more a case of Realpolitik, in which the major Western powers see Egypt as an important ally, as well as a friend to Israel. In my view, this is extremely short-sighted, and further undermines the West’s claim to moral authority. It is important that people around the world, as well as governments and media organisations, stand up and protest about human rights abuses and the suppression of the media. And for my part, on this sad first anniversary of the AJ3’s incarceration, I ask General Sisi and his colleagues politely, both for the sake of the three individuals concerned and for the sake of Egypt’s dignity and reputation abroad, please release Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baker Mohamed immediately!

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Human Rights and the Arab World

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 11th December, 2014

imageOver the last three decades, much of the world, from Brazil to Indonesia, has moved from dictatorship to democracy, but despite the so-called Arab Spring that began with Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia in December 2010, most of the Arab world has remained immune. Several states, such as Syria and Bahrain, are even worse than they were when it comes to the situation of civil society and human rights. Especially tragic is the most populous Arab state of all, Egypt, which was so full of hope during the 2011 Revolution, but where things have returned to their previous brutal state following the coupl against Mohammed Morsi in July last year. As the United States and several other western countries view Egypt as a crucial ally they have been restrained in their criticism of some of the gross outrages that have taken place in Egypt over the past 18 months, so it has been left to NGOs and some of the international media — notably Al Jazeera — to make their concerns known. Prominent among the former has been the International Coalition for Freedoms and Rights (ICFR), which has sent everal missions comprised largely of lawyers to Cairo during 2014. Egypt has similarly been the Central focus of ICFR’s first conference this week in Istanbul, which I have been attending and which will lead to the creation of a lawyers’ task force to monitor situations and to disseminate information, as well as a media group. While so much of the West is concentrating on the War on Terror it probably needs reminding about the values it is meant to stand for, including democracy and the respect for human rights, which are alas so lacking in so many Arab States.

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Lobbying and the European Elections

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 19th April, 2014

lobbyingMEPs in Brussels are used to being lobbied — by business groups, farmers, trade associations and NGOs of every description. This year, in the run up to next month’s European elections, MEP candidates are getting the same treatment as well. I have already replied to over 1,000 lobbying emails (over half of them from the Trade Justice/World Development Movement) and we are still over a month away from polling day. Because of the Liberal Democrat debacle over the NUS pledge about tuition fees before the 2010 general election in the UK, LibDem MEPs have decided not to sign pledges as a general rule, but I am prepared to view each one on its merits, on a case-by-case basis. Thus I have been happy to sign up to human rights pledges (including on LGBT+ issues) and various animal rights pledges, from the RSPCA to Horse Welfare. Some of the other pledges are so detailed, and yet sometimes also prone to ambiguity, that I have preferred to make my own statement of beliefs and intents, for example with example to the digital rights campaign. I know some candidates get browned off by the hundreds of emails flooding into their inbox each day, but I celebrate that as part of a healthy democratic process. If you can’t stand the heat, keep out of the kitchen. I aim to answer every single email I get in this election campaign — though I know that means some late nights sitting over my computer!

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