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Sun 19 January 2020
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Jonathan Fenton-Harvey on the ominous signs of the new Conservative Government’s stance on repressive regimes.


While Boris Johnson consistently campaigned on the apparent need to “Get Brexit Done”, his manifesto largely ignored the pressing issue of global human rights abuses. It was apparent that addressing worldwide repression and violations against civilians was not on the Prime Minister’s agenda. 

Now his comfortable electoral victory is a huge boost for Britain’s repressive allies, particularly in the Middle East, given Johnson’s evident indifference to these states’ gross violations against civilians. His Brexit agenda could also further stifle a critical voice against the UK’s wealthy yet repressive trade partners.

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was one of the key voices rushing to congratulate Johnson’s victory. It’s a mutually supportive relationship; Johnson in September praised Sisi at a meeting in New York, while Sisi’s regime harshly cracked down on renewed protests, arresting scores of protestors and journalists. Human rights organisations have consistently slammed the Sisi regime for mass arrests, crushing free speech and press freedom, and repressing wider civil society.

Not only has Britain often turned a blind eye to Sisi’s mass violations, it has actively enabled them, through weapons sales and investments. Securing Sisi’s control over Egypt has enabled companies like British Petroleum (BP) to secure huge oil and gas projects in the country. Johnson will be keen to consolidate support for Egypt’s government to preserve such ties. 


Johnson also looks set to pursue his manifesto aim of rooting out the pro-Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which would marginalize the group’s ability to operate in Britain. UK Special Envoy for post-Holocaust issues, Eric Pickles, had officially announced a move to pass a law against public bodies working with the group on December 16. Deeming the group as antisemitic shows there could be further stifling of criticism of the Israeli government.  

Yet with further oppression under Binyamin Netanyahu’s government, including Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, a tightening of the blockade on the Gaza Strip, and the controversial and discriminatory Jewish nation-state law, Johnson’s government will tolerate further such abuses and repression of the Palestinians. After all, Britain has often failed to appropriately address such actions. 


Regarding Britain’s traditional ally Saudi Arabia, leaked emails show Johnson had pushed for more weapons sales to Riyadh in 2016 as UK Foreign Secretary, days after it had bombed a food factory in Yemen, killing over a dozen civilians, and weeks after it had targeted civilian warehouses, a farm, and two power stations. 

The UK Court of Appeal in June ruled British arms exports to Saudi Arabia as “unlawful”, yet Johnson became Prime Minister weeks later. In September, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss apologized for “accidentally” selling weapons to Saudi Arabia despite the ruling, showing blatant prioritization of business over Britain’s own laws and civilian lives

Importantly, while Johnson won a huge mandate to carry out Brexit, his vision which lacks real substance likely entails a further drifting towards Saudi Arabia in particular. 

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What the papers don’t say

Following the 2016 EU referendum, Britain faced the prospect of a no-deal Brexit and was desperately seeking trade deals. Its wealthy Gulf allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, had ramped up their investment in the UK since the referendum. Riyadh had penned an extra £65 billion worth of deals in 2018 alone, while the Emiratis had secured more trade with Britain on numerous occasions, including as late as November.

Yet should Britain lose out on EU trade, particularly with unclear promises of how a post-EU Britain would pan out, this increasing trade could lead to political dependency, leaving Britain more unwilling to addressing Saudi and Emirati abuses. 

Britain is already the second-largest weapons exporter globally, with the value rising to a record £14 billion in 2018; the vast majority of these go to Middle Eastern states with poor human rights records. With this increasing trend coupled with a loss of EU trade, Britain may depend more on its arms industry as an economic asset. 

Saudi Arabia is launching an increasing crackdown on activists and free speech, despite pledging a ‘reformist’ agenda, and continuing airstrikes in Yemen which has contributed to the ‘world’s worst humanitarian crisis’ according to the UN. Yet Britain’s unconditional support will consolidate these actions. Just as it will in the UAE, where repression against civil society has soared amid Western silence. Other states with poor human rights records like Bahrain, India and China would receive no critical attention from Boris’ government should their trade ties become more relevant in a post-EU Britain. 

Though Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party had pledged to end weapons sales to any client which may use these civilian violations, with a focus on Israel and Saudi Arabia, the party’s battering in the polls and worst loss since 1935 could repress such ideas for years to come, particularly as the opposition party’s future leadership and stance is uncertain after Corbyn announcing his resignation. 


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