Ali al Nimr - a teenager who was tortured and sentenced to death by crucifixion following his involvement in Saudi Arabian protests during the Arab Spring.
In 2011, smarting from the embarrassment of seeing pro-democracy protesters in Egypt choking on British teargas, the UK Government announced a new, flagship policy which aimed to prevent the country becoming embroiled in severe human rights abuses.
That policy went by the uninspiring name of the Overseas Security and Justice Assistance (OSJA) guidance. But its key principles were lofty: it was intended, in the words of the Government, to “ensure [our] overseas security and justice assistance work meets our human rights obligations and our values.”
This didn’t extend solely to the sale of teargas to repressive police forces. It covered a wide range of serious human rights abuses – including torture and, crucially, the death penalty.
And here, sadly, is where we find that the OSJA has failed to live up to its goals.
Five years on from Tahrir Square, the courts and death rows of Britain’s allies across the middle east are now crammed with political prisoners. Worse still, Reprieve, the human rights organisation where I work, has identified several cases in which there is a serious risk that British justice assistance may have contributed to the imposition of some of these death sentences – undermining the Government’s clearly stated goal to work towards the abolition of the death penalty worldwide, and making a mockery of the principles set out five years ago.
Reprieve has unearthed documents showing that a British, government-owned company has been providing a wide range of assistance to the Egyptian and Bahraini justice and prison systems – responsible for the death sentences of large numbers of political prisoners and protesters.
Through FOI requests, we found that the College of Policing – responsible for providing training to the Saudi police force – simply never assessed whether it had contributed to human rights abuses.
We’ve also found that British police have been providing training to their Saudi counterparts – despite the clear risk that this may improve their ability to arrest and sentence to death those calling for reform in the authoritarian kingdom.
If the OSJA guidance was working, it is hard to see how projects such as these would have gone ahead; at the very least, there should have been extensive assessment of the risk that they would contribute further to grave human rights abuses. Instead, Reprieve has too often found a gaping void where the OSJA process should be.
Through FOI requests, we found that the College of Policing – responsible for providing training to the Saudi police force – simply never assessed whether it had contributed to human rights abuses. The FCO and the College had previously claimed that they would reconsider the training “if [it] is shown that any skills that have been provided have been used in human rights violations.” The failure to undertake any assessment renders this claim meaningless, and is particularly shocking when you consider recent actions taken by the Saudi secret police forces, which includes the torture of juveniles like Ali al Nimr, sentenced to death by crucifixion for attendance at a peaceful protest.
This is just one of a great many examples, all of which Reprieve has had to fight to dig out through Freedom of Information. And this comes to the heart of the problem with OSJA – a lack of transparency. Reprieve has found that there is, in effect, a near blanket policy of not disclosing OSJA assessments. Without more meaningful public oversight, it is hard to see how the system will ever live up to its original ideals.
That’s why Reprieve is engaging with the Government, and providing a range of recommendations for a systematic review of the OJSA guidance.
We’re arguing that, far from covering up these assessments, they should by default be public – potentially with redactions for the very rare instances in which they contain genuinely sensitive information. It’s worth noting here that the UK Government already publishes a high-profile list of countries of concern when it comes to human rights – which includes states with which the UK has important diplomatic relations. It is therefore hard to see how an assessment of whether to provide security support to such states, which would for the most part draw on information that is already in the public domain, should remain secret.
Reprieve also believes that the OSJA process could learn lessons from the arms export control system when it comes to transparency. The latter is, of course, far from perfect. But it does involve the quarterly publication of at least basic information on what export licenses the UK has granted. Moving to a similar system on OSJA – the regular publication of what support is being provided to which countries, by which department, and which minister has signed it off – would be a good start.
Between 2013 and 2016 the Government waged a legal battle, costing at least £36,000, to prevent disclosure of any information about the OSJA assessments it carried out before approving its ongoing support to Pakistan’s Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF)
The situation at present is very different: between 2013 and 2016 the Government waged a legal battle, costing at least £36,000, to prevent disclosure of any information about the OSJA assessments it carried out before approving its ongoing support to Pakistan’s Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF). This information is important because Pakistan imposes the death penalty for non-violent drugs offences. Therefore, by supporting the ANF – who openly boast about sentencing vulnerable drug mules to death as a key “prosecution achievement” – Britain risks supporting the death penalty in one of the world’s most prolific executing states.
Yet the Home Office – then under the direction of current Prime Minister, Theresa May – not only refused to release the information, but initially would not even confirm whether it existed. This was not only indefensible but absurd – it was already in the public domain that the UK was providing assistance to Pakistan’s notoriously corrupt ANF.
There is clearly a long way to go before the Government fully lives up to the founding principles of the OSJA, as expressed by then-Foreign Secretary William Hague: a commitment to “tackling issues related to security and human rights in an open and transparent way.” Ministers must allow some sunlight into the process if it is to flourish. That may not initially be the most comfortable experience for our political masters, but it is the only way we can be sure that we are no longer contributing to severe human rights violations such as the death penalty in states which do not share our values, and in so doing, meaningfully uphold our own.