With reports of Russian made cluster bombs being used by the Assad regime, the Kremlin has found its reputation here in the west increasingly in tatters.
But is it really any great surprise that a government with a human rights record as dubious as Russia’s might have unsavoury friends? Much more surprising, however, is the long list of dictatorships and repressive regimes which Britain, an otherwise exemplary liberal democracy, allies itself to.
Only recently, the Home Office declared Saudi Arabia to be a close friend and ally of the British government, despite the Kingdom ranking as the seventh least democratic country in the 2011 Democracy Index. Our support is far more than just verbal- Saudi Arabia is the British arms trade’s number one customer, with British ‘controlled goods’ exports to the regime valued at £4,069,920,068 by the ‘Campaign Against the Arms Trade.’
This fact alone is enough to put into serious doubt the widely accepted claim that the British government is a supporter of democracy and human rights in the Middle East. But such doubts are never found in the mainstream media. Despite knowledge of our support for undemocratic regimes even during the Arab Spring, the media faithfully follows the government line- Britain is devoted to promoting democracy in the Arab world.
If properly scrutinised, however, our record of ‘promoting’ democracy and human rights speaks for itself. A list of Britain’s allies in the region reads like a who’s who of dictators and human rights abusers. From President Khalifa of the UAE to the Sultan of Oman and the King of Bahrain, Britain’s allies in the Middle East have all presided over a sharp increase in human rights violations during the Arab Spring. Crackdowns on demonstrations, torture and even massacres have been reported, but still British arms pour in.
In Bahrain, Amnesty international believe as many as 60 people have been killed. And yet, when 28 countries joined to condemn the violations in the UN Human Rights Council, the British government refused. Fortunately for them, the media remained silent.
Understandably, they have been much more vocal about the atrocities of the Assad regime- the crimes of the Sultan of Oman or President Khalifa of the UAE hardly even bear comparison to Assad’s bloody rule of terror. With thousands dead, and no end in sight, the situation in Syria is desperate. But talk of intervention seems hypocritical. How can Britain justify intervening against one despot in the name of democracy, and yet continue to support dictators elsewhere?
The British role in the Arab Spring has been riddled with double standards- overthrowing Qaddafi on one hand, supporting Ben Ali and Mubarak on the other. And yet the government still presents itself as a staunch supporter of democracy, championing freedom for all Arab people. The onus for questioning this claim is on the mainstream media, who have a responsibility to do more to hold the government to account for their unsavory alliances.
So before we even consider intervention against a brutal despot in Syria, Britain must look in the mirror and address our own record of support for dictators in the Arab world. Only when the government can proudly say Britain supports democracy for all people, and mean it, can the notion of intervention even be considered.
Daniel Wickham is a gap year student, youth worker and freelance journalist going on to read history and politics at university