Dishonest diplomacy: Foreign Office duplicity on Israel and human rights must end

Peter Oborne

Declassified UK  /  April 27, 2023

When it comes to foreign policy, British ministers hold our allies and adversaries to wildly different standards.

Earlier this month Israeli security forces brutally assaulted Palestinian worshippers inside Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied East Jerusalem.

In shocking scenes heavily armed officers used stun grenades and fired tear gas into the Qibli prayer hall where hundreds of men, women, elderly people and children were staying overnight to pray during the holy month of Ramadan.

A statement was required from the British government, and James Cleverly obliged. “At the convergence of Passover, Ramadan and Easter” stated the foreign secretary, “the UK calls for all parties to respect the historic Status Quo arrangements at Jerusalem’s Holy Sites and cease all provocative action.”

Yet only one party had invaded Al-Aqsa. Only one party had used brutal force. Only one party had broken international law. The Israeli government.

The statement is just the most recent example of structural dishonesty not just from a foreign secretary who has a long record of playing fast and loose with the truth, but also from the UK Foreign Office.

British diplomats will have been keenly aware of events inside Al-Aqsa, given that corroborated video footage of Israeli forces beating up worshippers was circulating widely by the time Cleverly made his statement. 

They know perfectly well that the Status Quo agreement, which can be traced back to the Treaty of Berlin of 1878 and before, placed responsibility for internal security with Jordan’s King Abdullah, giving no role to Israeli forces inside the Al-Aqsa compound. 

And they are wide awake to the fact that Israel, starting with the storming of the courtyard by Ariel Sharon (then leader of Israel’s opposition) in 2000, has pursued a systematic policy of undermining the Status Quo.

Yet the British foreign secretary issued a statement that ignored the above facts and suggested that “all parties” were responsible for Israeli violence at Al-Aqsa.

Not so clever

This cynical readiness to twist the truth has become the defining feature of the contemporary Foreign Office. Admittedly the problem has got worse in recent years with a roll-call of notably dishonest foreign secretaries – Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Liz Truss and James Cleverly. 

However the core problem is institutional rather than personal, and has its roots in the abyss that divides official British rhetoric from actual British practice. Britain’s claim to international legitimacy is based on the proposition that we celebrate democracy, protect the rule of law, support free speech and champion human rights.

To be fair to the British state, it is undeniably the case that it is prompt to raise human rights issues whenever they are threatened by those deemed to be our enemies: Russia, Iran, Syria etc.

However we rarely condemn friends and allies when they commit similar crimes: the United States; Saudi Arabia; Egypt; Israel; the Gulf dictatorships and so on. Indeed when our allies commit war crimes or breach international law we are often quick to use our diplomatic muscle to protect them.

To illustrate this point, let’s examine another misleading statement by James Cleverly. On human rights day last December Mr Cleverly told the world that “we will always hold those who violate or abuse human rights systems to account.”

Mr Cleverly made his false and cynical claim alongside a video in which idealistic young people from around the world spoke out about what human rights meant to them. Watching that video alongside the foreign secretary’s statement any decent person can only feel a mixture of shame and disgust that the idealism of these people was being exploited.

Two days after issuing the above tweet, Mr Cleverly called China, which is pursuing a policy of cultural genocide in East Turkestan, a “partner for good” on climate change. He also praised Saudi Arabia lavishly and then said it was essential that Britain should maintain an “ongoing bilateral relationship” with the Saudis.

Any reasonable person who follows foreign affairs can understand why a British foreign secretary might feel that for pragmatic reasons he or she needs to make himself agreeable to brutal regimes like Saudi Arabia and China. 

What sticks in the gullet is Mr Cleverly’s near simultaneous claim that he unambiguously holds human rights abusers to account. The most repulsive example of this double standard concerns the Yemen War. For the last eight years Britain has been a core part of the Saudi killing machine as our most valued Middle Eastern ally has waged war on that country. 

We provide arms, military advice and moral support. We have also exploited our permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council (and role as so-called ‘penholder’ for Yemen at the UNSC) to protect the Saudis diplomatically, above all by blocking the establishment of an independent body to examine potential war crimes. 

Deceit is embedded in British policy towards Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The Foreign Office twitter account, BritishEmbassySanaa, is in itself Orwellian. So is the Twitter handle, UKinYemen. 

The British Embassy there closed down when Saudi Arabia, supported by Britain, attacked Yemen eight years ago. Ambassador Richard Oppenheim divides his time between Amman and Riyadh, the capitals of Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Yet even Orwell might have blanched at the tweet issued by Oppenheim from his fictitious Sanaa embassy when Putin’s Russia invaded Ukraine. “The United Kingdom,” announced Oppenheim, “stands with the people of Ukraine in the face of Russia’s unprovoked attack on freedom and democracy.” 

Of course Britain was right to condemn Putin’s war of aggression. But Britain was simultaneously engaged in facilitating the Yemeni war, described by the United Nations as one of the greatest humanitarian calamities of the 21st century.

Double standards

Myanmar is another repulsive example of double standards. The Foreign Office came uncomfortably close to defending the Myanmar government seven years ago while its army was rampaging through the minority Muslim areas of the country, raping and killing as it went. 

It was so indifferent to events that it did not even call in the Myanmar ambassador to protest (though the Foreign Office press department told me it had done so when I rang to check: when I later complained they blamed an “inadvertent” mistake.)

Israel is a particular beneficiary of this informal set of arrangements. Ministers deploy the argument that determining serious violations of international law can only be done by a judicial body. 

In answer to a question from Tommy Sheppard MP in December 2022 about Israeli crimes, David Rutley stated: “Any judgment on serious crimes under international law is a matter for judicial decision, rather than for Governments or non-judicial bodies.”

But this excuse is dishonest on two counts. Britain frequently accuses other states of committing serious breaches of international law. It’s made this accusation against Russia and Syria – accusations that are almost certainly correct. So there’s no logical  reason Britain can’t make similar charges against Israel (and other allies). 

Even more to the point, the UK is against Palestinians taking Israel to judicial bodies to determine if serious crimes have been committed. Boris Johnson opposed the International Criminal Court having jurisdiction over Palestine. The UK has also voted at the UN General Assembly against seeking an opinion on the legality of the occupation from the International Court of Justice.

Hypocritical diplomacy has its defenders. Countries should look after their own interests. Aren’t diplomats ‘sent abroad to lie for their country’? Yet there is a price, which Britain and the west are paying over Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Much of the world has come to believe that Britain (and many in the west) does not believe in human rights and weaponizes them in our own interests. They contrast British attitudes to Russian barbarity in Ukraine to British complicity with Saudi barbarity in Yemen. 

And for those on the receiving end, James Cleverly’s claims that Britain will also hold to account those who abuse human rights are stomach-churning.

Peter Oborne is a journalist and author