Over seven years after he left office, former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, now Lord Cameron, has returned to frontline British politics after being appointed Foreign Secretary by current Prime Minster Rishi Sunak. As prime minister, Cameron often overlooked human rights issues. He hosted Egyptian President General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi less than two years after Sisi’s forces, as defence minister, killed 800 unarmed protesters at Rabaa al-Adawiya square in Cairo. He was also accused of secret vote-trading deals with Saudi Arabia so both states would be elected to the UN Human Rights Council. At home, Cameron angered civil rights groups by vowing to scrap the Human Rights Act. And he rolled out the red carpet when Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to the UK, even enjoying a pint and fish and chips with Xi. That was in 2015, just days after Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong bookseller, disappeared in Thailand only to later appear in a Chinese prison.
But let’s not look back. Let’s look forward. Below are some of the key areas, from a free speech perspective, that Index hope Cameron will urgently address:
Call China out on all violations
From a self-described “golden era” of ties with China during his premiership to accepting a role as vice-president of a £1 billion China-UK investment fund after his resignation, Cameron’s relationship with the country has long been close. As recently as September, Cameron spoke at two glitzy events in support of Colombo Port City, a Chinese-funded, multibillion-dollar project to build a metropolis in the Indo-Pacific which critics fear could become a Chinese military outpost. With these links in mind, questions may be raised about Cameron’s suitability in dealing with the Chinese government as Britain’s top diplomat – all of which is very worrying as China’s human rights record goes from bad to worse. Within the country, millions of Uyghurs have disappeared into a network of prisons and camps. Scores of feminist activists, journalists and human rights defenders also reside in jail. Then there is Hong Kong, where the erosion of human rights has been staggering in scope and pace. And as illustrated by our Banned by Beijing reports, China’s long arm is reaching into Europe and the UK where a number of Hong Kong, pro-democracy activists reside. These activists currently have arrest warrants issued against them by the Hong Kong Police Force which have been described as a “Chinese Fatwa”.
A cross-party group of MPs urged the government to block a planned visit to the UK by a senior Chinese official accused of overseeing the violations in Xinjiang in February and we think Cameron should push further by directly pressuring the Chinese authorities. Let’s not trade in human rights for, well, trade.
Specifically mention Jimmy Lai
Jimmy Lai is a Chinese-born, pro-democracy newspaper publisher and activist who is also a British citizen. Currently imprisoned in Hong Kong and in solitary confinement, Lai was charged with violating Hong Kong’s National Security Law for colluding with foreign forces. He was also charged with fraud, sedition and organising and participating in an unlawful assembly and is still awaiting trial for serious national security charges. His case exemplary of the crackdown on free speech and assembly in Hong Kong and his imprisonment has been condemned by human rights group around the world. This summer James Cleverly, the former Foreign Secretary, had brought up Lai’s case when he met with China’s Vice President. We urge Cameron to continue pushing for Lai’s release.
Also mention Alaa Abdel Fattah
Another activist who is currently imprisoned abroad, like Lai Egyptian Alaa Abdel Fattah is a British citizen. Abdel Fattah went on hunger strike in prison in Egypt in 2022 in protest at the conditions he is being held in. A blogger and pro-democracy activist, he is one of the best known of Egypt’s 60,000 political prisoners and is currently serving a five-year-prison sentence for allegedly “spreading false news”, a charge which human rights groups worldwide have condemned as false. The Egyptian authorities continually refuse to recognise Abdel Fattah’s British citizenship and allow embassy officials to see him, something which Index believes Cameron should raise immediately.
No more camping trips with Saudi Arabia
As recently as 2018, just months after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul by Saudi-sanctioned assassins, Cameron was pictured with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on a camping trip in the Saudi Arabian desert. With Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) handing extremely harsh prison and death sentences to human rights defenders, and indigenous tribes being displaced from their settlements, imprisoned and even killed, Cameron needs to put aside this personal relationship to challenge Saudi Arabia on its human rights record and treatment of human rights defenders.
Like China, Saudi Arabia has also been accused of transnational repression on UK soil. Take Ghanem al Masarir as an example. A prominent satirist and regime critic, al Masarir is suing Saudi Arabia in the UK. At the centre of his case are allegations that he was physically assaulted by agents of the kingdom in London in 2018 and that Saudi Arabia ordered the hacking of his phone. The outcome of the case will have profound implications for individuals targeted by spyware in the UK and likely the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Press for press freedom in Israel-Hamas conflict
With the devastating conflict between Israel-Hamas still relatively new, Cameron will understandably have a lot to deal with. Index urges him to keep a close eye on the free speech situation there, such as the potential closure of the local bureau of Al Jazeera in Israel, which the country has indicated it will hold off from, and the broader media freedom landscape in both Israel and Gaza. We’ve outlined other free speech challenges here and again we hope Cameron doesn’t shy away from those that fall within his remit.
Avoid Trump cards
Assuming Cameron remains in place for more than a year, which is a big assumption given the current turnover within the Conservative Party (not to mention a potential UK general election), he’ll be in place for the next US election. The battle is already heating up and former US President Donald Trump is doing what he does best – firing verbal missiles at his opposition and critics. On Saturday at a rally in New Hampshire, Trump said he’d “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections,” once again repeating his false claim of election fraud depriving him of a win in 2020. It’s hard to forget that incredibly awkward handshake between Trump and the late Queen Elizabeth II and the Trump era certainly tested the UK and USA’s “special relationship”. So what will our special relationship look like if Trump is voted back in?
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