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UK Should Get Serious About Defending Human Rights

Foreign Office Annual Rights Report Pulls Punches on Saudi Arabia and Yemen

The house of Judge Yahya Muhammad Rubaid in Sanaa was hit in an airstrike on January 25, 2016, killing the judge and four members of his family. © 2016 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

The UK paints itself as a global champion on human rights, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s annual rights report is a key moment to demonstrate that commitment. Unfortunately, this year’s report fails to do so.

The report contains notable gaps on the UK’s priority countries. Neither Turkey nor the Philippines are mentioned, despite widely documented human rights abuses there. It also fails to identify perpetrators of abuses in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Burma, and China, and the section on rights defenders fails to mention those currently jailed for their work.

The report’s most striking weakness is on Yemen. While acknowledging the many civilians killed in the conflict, it ignores the Saudi-led coalition’s responsibility for many of these deaths in unlawful attacks. In marked contrast, the report does name the Houthis as being responsible for certain abuses. Indiscriminate Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen have hit hospitals, funerals, weddings, markets, civilian homes, and even a school bus, killing and wounding thousands. Many of these attacks may be war crimes, but the report treats civilian deaths merely as unfortunate by-products of war.

The report claims the UK does not export weapons to countries if “there is a clear risk” they might by used for internal repression or serious violations of international humanitarian law. But Human Rights Watch has documented the use of UK-made weapons in apparently unlawful airstrikes in Yemen. And a UK Parliamentary committee has found the UK is likely breaching its own arms export rules regarding Yemen. The report does not rebut this criticism but simply pretends it does not exist.

The report also fails to criticize the Saudi government on its domestic rights record. Describing a year in which prominent Saudi women’s rights defenders were imprisoned and allegedly tortured, it asserts “there were some improvements in women’s enjoyment of human rights” in 2018. It cites that women are now allowed to drive but fails to note the jailed activists were the very ones who pushed to overturn the driving ban.

In the report foreword, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt says, “protecting human rights and safeguarding Britain’s national values are not optional extras.” For those words to mean anything, the UK needs to stand up for human rights and criticize those who attack them, even when those responsible are UK allies.

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