• Saudi Arabia, Human Rights and Sir Gerald Howarth’s Nonsense

    This is a really important topic and piece which I think needs to be understood by many, not least the politicians working on the world stage. In fact, politicians seem these days to lack in philosophical rigour and understanding. Let me show you one such example here. The topic of Saudi Arabia, its history of human rights abuses, and it sitting so ironically on the UN Human Rights Council is one which is hitting the media outlets in the UK presently.

    Wiki states, in its entry to the United Nations Human Rights Council:

    In September 2015, Faisal bin Hassan Trad, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, has been elected Chair of the United Nations Human Rights Council panel that appoints independent experts.[115][116] UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer said: “It is scandalous that the UN chose a country that has beheaded more people this year than Isis to be head of a key human rights panel. Petro-dollars and politics have trumped human rights.”[117]

    As The Conversation reports:

    Meanwhile, despite its vast wealth, the country apparently failed to welcome refugees fleeing conflicts in the region. Rights to adequate housing, food, water, healthcare and a livelihood are neither protected nor upheld. And it has been roundly criticised for yet another catastrophic stampede at the Hajj, a new bone of contention in its alreadyfrigid relations with Iran.

    Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses are many and broad. Torture and ill-treatment are common, widespread and generally committed with impunity. The death penalty and corporal punishment are routinely ordered by the courts in criminal cases. Access to justice, fair trials and due process are denied, with many convictions based on confessions extracted under duress.

    Discrimination against the Shia minority is rife. Migrant workers face serious abuse and are offered precious little government protection. Human rights defenders are harassed, detained and prevented from undertaking their work. Freedoms of expression, assembly and belief are regularly violated by law enforcement agencies and by government agents.

    Storm in a teacup

    Saudi Arabia also has an appalling record of discriminating against women. Using economic, political, education and health criteria, the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index in 2012 ranked Saudi Arabia 131 out of 135 countries.

    The country’s governorship system effectively means that women are unable to participate in society. Somewhat perversely, Saudi Arabia is party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The committee that monitors states’ compliance with their obligations arising under that treaty has expressed grave concerns about Saudi women’s rights.

    Similar concerns have been raised by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discriminationand the Committee Against Torture. UN experts have spoken out against summary executions by firing squad and beheading. UN independent experts have also made recommendations on torture and ill-treatment, racism and xenophobia, arbitrary detention, and freedoms of belief and of expression within Saudi Arabia.

    But of course, very little media attention is devoted to these issues until Saudi Arabia puts its head above the parapet, as it has on this latest case. And even then, lucrative international contracts aside, little can be done to effect significant change from afar.

    Saudi Arabia is protected by its Gulf neighbours, and by its political allies within the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation. The country’s oil reserves and wealth, its ties with the US, and its position among allied Muslim states mean that this latest media storm is very much confined to a teacup.

    It is pretty intuitively clear that Saudi Arabia should not have anything to do with the modelling and enforcing of normative human rights across the world.

    The other morning, on BBC Radio 5Live, Nicky Campbell hosted a Your Call hour programme on this topic in light of the ongoing and impending punishment of a British citizen Karl Andree, who was caught in Saudi Arabia with some moonshine homebrew in his car:

    British grandfather Karl Andree has lived in Saudi Arabia for 25 years so he, of all people, should have known the dangers of flouting that country’s anti-drinking laws.

    Andree’s son Simon said as much on the BBC’s Today programme as he appealed for his father’s corporal punishment to be lifted. Andree senior faces 350 lashes in a public flogging for being caught with homemade wine in his car. He has already served a year-long prison term for the offence.

    Simon Andree said the family respected Saudi culture but begged for clemency for his father, who is asthmatic and suffering from cancer. The case highlights both the barbarity of a regime with many ties to Britain and also the softly, softly approach of those familiar with its ways.

    The tension exists in Saudi Arabia having laws and punishments, in line with Islamic conservatism, which run contrary to progressive moral values. So when someone from a progressively moral country (ie the UK) is caught for doing something perfectly legal in his home country, is imprisoned for over a year and then ordered to have 350 lashes (whilst also being very ill and with real chances of dying as a result of the punishment), we have an interesting scenario.

    This has ignited the debate about Saudi Arabia in light of the fact that the UK does so much business with the country, especially in the area of arms and military equipment.

    Former Defence Minister and member of the All-Party Group on Saudi Arabia, Sir Gerald Howarth (Conservative MP) recently featured on Nicky Campbell’s 5Live programme and said these things on the topic:

    “The relationship with Saudi Arabia… is one of the most important relationships that we have… it’s a region of the world in which we have influence; it is a very key player in… a very dangerous part of the world. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not the United Kingdom. You cite a whole load of things which we do and which they don’t do. They have their own laws; their laws are well-publicised… we expect people who come to our country to abide by our rules…”

    Nicky Campbell went on to talk of other human rights issues: the person facing crucifixion for something he did when he was 17,  and Raif Badawi (10 years in jail for writing a blog). Campbell stated:

    “Surely you would have to say human rights are universal; but the minute you say that they are not, you then are justifying things in other countries – you say ‘that’s what they do, let them get on with it’ – female genital mutilation, stoning homosexuals to death, which is what happens in Saudi Arabia; you have to apply human rights universally, otherwise there are all sorts of things we have to let people get on with that are utterly unacceptable.”

    Howarth replied:

    “Actually Nicky, what you are saying is that we have to apply OUR understanding of human rights, and yes of course I think that lashing somebody is way over the top and the other things – crucifixion and other things like that – are absolutely abominable. But it’s not our country. It’s up to the people of our country to decide how they want to live their lives, how they want to-“

    Nicky Campbell interrupted:

    “Well they can’t decide how they want to live their lives because they-“


    “Of course they can. At the very worst they could have an uprising. But it’s not for us to tell all these countries how to behave. When I went to Afghanistan and Iraq following those conflicts… I was horrified at the agenda that was being promoted by the Department for International Development. They were prioritising gender equality! It’s not for us to tell the Afghans how they have to relate to women in their country!”

    I will analyse this absolutely terrible approach later. Thankfully, Campbell did recognise the issues with Howarth’s approach:

    “The logical conclusion of what you’re saying is that in countries where female genital mutilation is acceptable, er that’s fine, just let them get on with it.”


    “I’m not saying that! Of course you make representations and this Prime Minister, David Cameron, has been at the forefront of making a representation in pretty tough terms to those of our allies who he feels, and we feel, are not applying the standards of human rights that we expect and that we would like them to adopt. He’s been very vocal in that, but he’s also recognising that these relationships are very important to the United Kingdom in a very turbulent and difficult world, and sometimes we have to make hard decisions in the wider interests of not only the United Kingdom, but of the regional stability in these other parts of the world. I don’t want anybody to think that I am condoning anything that is being done to Mr Andree; I don’t, but it is their country, it’s their laws, and when people come to my country, I expect them to abide by our laws and our customs and I expect the to speak English; I don’t expect them to go around and try to behead police officers in Hounslow. This is wholly unacceptable in our country and anybody who tries to bring these barbarian attitudes to our country gets short shrift from me.”


    “So they’re barbarians here but allies abroad? [BOOM!] That’s just the way of the world.”


    “Well [laughing] I wasn’t putting it like that Nicky [chortle, because, you know, that was a really funny joke Nicky made]. What I was saying is that there are some people who come to our country who aren’t committing offences like drinking to excess – some of them do that of course – because they don’t drink in Gulf countries – they come here and they’re not averse to having…”

    And the interview petered out. There are so many contradictions, occurrences of philosophical hari kiri, that I just don’t know where to start. Perhaps moral relativism is a good place to start.

    Moral Relativism

    Howarth appears to espouse some kind of moral relativism where the arbitrary leftovers of history in invisible lines in the sand as borders can apparently define moral value. Something over here has some kind of moral truth, whereas over here that truth is different, or that value is different. To make things clear, let us use a reductio ad absurdum, using an extreme case to illustrate a logical point. Let’s take the something awful like the raping of a child. Let’s assume that there is some kind of moral reasoning which can establish that, all things remaining the same, such an act is morally abhorrent. It has some kind of universal moral evaluation.

    This means that this act committed in my local town is bad, across the county in Dorset is bad, over in London is bad, in France is bad, in Greece is bad. However, the scenario appears to be that if a country has, for whatever reason, allowed this in law, then it is somehow okay to commit this act there. Let’s imagine that this is permitted in Saudi Arabia. Howarth is saying that “They’re their laws, their country, and we should respect that.” Campbell was right to pick this up and say that this should mean that we should have a laissez-faire attitude to any international wrongdoing.

    No we shouldn’t. Would you sit back and allow children to be raped? No. Would we sit back and allow genocide in another country? No we wouldn’t. I can’t see Howarth defending Hitler, saying that, well, it was his laws and his country, so gassing Jews was something we should only make “representations” about. Whatever that means.

    Which brings me on to the next point. Howarth does advocate action: “representations”. So he says we are morally obligated to do something about it, only a particular thing, drawing an arbitrary line after “representations”, allowing them, but no more forceful actions. There seems to be some incoherent special pleading here. (I also wonder: if Karl Andree had been a member of his family, whether his pressure for action would be different.)

    The thing is, morality is what laws are based on. Moral reasoning is how we assert what should or shouldn’t happen. Raping a child is bad, so we will outlaw it. Moral reasoning is universal, or it should be according to thinkers like Immanuel Kant. This is what leads to moral norms. Without that, we have moral relativism (and yes, we could have a long discussion about moral skepticism which is something I am very interested in and actually advocate, but that is another story). In some sense, Howarth is saying, and it is useful to treat nations as individual humans sometimes, that he believes raping a child is wrong (barbarian, even) based on moral reasoning (and reason is universal, right?) but that person A believes it is right. And that’s ok for person A to think that. All Howarth can do is watch that child be raped and merely make representations; you know, try and convince person A to stop. Politely.


    “Actually Nicky, what you are saying is that we have to apply OUR understanding of human rights, and yes of course I think that lashing somebody is way over the top and the other things – crucifixion and other things like that – are absolutely abominable. But it’s not our country. It’s up to the people of our country to decide how they want to live their lives, how they want to-“

    Let’s imagine Howarth is on an island where he saw child rape taking place. It had no laws as a desert island. In reality, Howarth would, based most probably on moral intuition, run over and stop that person in some robust way.

    What Howarth is saying in the interview is that that this other person is entitled to his own moral framework, and who is he (Howarth) to step in and stop it in that person’s own domain?

    Remember, he also said this:

    “I was horrified at the agenda that was being promoted by the Department for International Development. They were prioritising gender equality! It’s not for us to tell the Afghans how they have to relate to women in their country!”

    Now swap “gender equality” with “stamping out child rape” (I am not saying this is legal in Afghanistan, obviously, but this shows the logic).

    “I was horrified at the agenda that was being promoted by the Department for International Development. They were prioritising stamping out child rape! It’s not for us to tell the Afghans how they have to relate to children in their country!”

    Of course, this now looks ridiculous. We would be up in arms if we were to sit, morally paralysed, whilst thousands upon thousands of instances of child rape took place under the observations of the Department for International Development. The point is not what the moral wrong is per se, but that there is a moral wrong. And if we have influence to rectify a moral wrong, we should. Either we do something, like go into countries and try to change them in any way, or we don’t. We just sit, morally paralysed or apathetic, festering in our own insulation and isolation, never to effect any change in the world, to make it a better place. Yes, there are a range of rights and wrongs, and, for example, it might not be worth getting involved with a country to make sure working donkeys are better looked after. There will always be an element of moral calculation (see the next section on consequentialism). But I hardly see that the DID working hard on equality of opportunity for both genders should horrify someone. This makes Howarth look like a moral monster himself, to me. Privileged white man being horrified at the UK working towards international gender equality! Shock! I could bore you with what those educational opportunities and rights for women would do to the economic stability and wellbeing of that country. That’s a poor quality politician not to seemingly be aware of this.

    So there is a lot here which is morally absurd, given the moral frameworks set out by the UN and by our own, morally progressive British laws. Just let Hitler do what he does over there. It’s all ok, it’s his country.


    The larger issues concern consequentialism, and one of the problems inherent in this major moral framework. To be fair, there is no prefect moral framework. Moral philosophers have been arguing for thousands of years and are still split along the main framework party lines. Many secular philosophers favour some sort of moral consequentialism which advocates moral value being derived by the consequences of a given action (often in terms of pleasure and pain). One famous issue with consequentialism is being able to use people instrumentally, endangering them, in order to get a greater good. If you, a healthy adult, walk into the hospital, what is not to stop the doctors, against your wishes, harvesting your organs so that five other people might survive? Your death is necessary for a greater good. Some will argue this is ok, some will argue not, others will forward arguments to account for this. The problem is that Howarth appeared to be espousing moral relativism earlier, and yet what really seems to be underpinning his intentions is moral consequentialism. Perhaps he doesn’t know why he thinks what he does.

    What Howarth appears to be saying is one of two things, or both:

    • That the economic relationship with the Saudis is not worth losing over fighting for gross violations of human rights
    • That the intelligence gathered and the influence as an ally of Saudi Arabia in the volatile Middle East is not worth losing over fighting for gross violations of human rights

    Of course, for both of these, we do not necessarily know either would be lost in fighting for human rights and putting direct pressure on the Saudis. It seems Howarth advocates giving up, fatalistically, without even trying, even though he claims such things are abominable. That’s a strong word.

    The UN

    “But it’s not for us to tell all these countries how to behave.”

    And what is the point of the United Nations is not to, you know, unite nations under shared moral benchmarks? I covered the bulk of this statement in previous sections and how it is synonymous with moral paralysis.

    As the international community represented by the UN, there would be something genuine and honest if there was a unanimous pressure put on the Saudis to enact change.

    Of course, when other big global players like China and Russia have terrible human rights records, things get tough and complex. But seriously, how can (and I think it is even more insidious when the rumours abound that the UK voted for them) Saudi Arabia sit on the UN human rights councils? It’s a dark game we play. I saw the Saudi Diplomat to the UN defend this on BBC Newsnight the other night. It was enough to make you cry.


    “Of course they can. At the very worst they could have an uprising.”

    The idea that nations themselves should be the only ones, in their own internal mechanisms, to enact change is patently absurd, as shown above in extreme cases. With Saudi Arabia, if gender equality and equality of opportunity is something which is a universal human right, then surely this is something we should be expecting and attempting to get enacted in Saudi Arabia. That Gerald Howarth, in all his comfortable upper middle class British privilege, can sit there and say, “Well, they can have an uprising” just goes to show how out of touch with reality he is. Women have only just got the vote in municipal elections, but they still can’t drive to even get there themselves! It’s okay women, just have an uprising. Just like that. Uprising against non-democratically elected authoritarian regimes is notoriously easy.


    The final piece in this is religion, the elephant in the room. Later callers in to the show shed much light on this and the programme is well worth listening to if you have iPlayer access. The religious police seem to have a lot to answer for and the Saudi royal family, being small in number, appear to pander to them and are even scared of them, allowing for a stagnation in moral progress.

    Essentially, we are not so much arguing with Saudi Arabia, but with a particular interpretation if Sharia, religious law, and how it is put into practice. It is unfortunate that these sorts of human rights violations seem to be wrapped up with religion. As such, when you are claiming they are the direct diktats of an immutable god, you get problems in trying to change and evolve such moral practices.

    I would appreciate, just once, a Conservative politician coming along and critically taking religious practices to task. However, it’s not their style, preferring to keep the small c conservatism of religion close to their chests.


    If this is the sort of reasoning and approach of one of our MPs sitting on important groups on the matter, than we have an issue. If this is a case of clear cut consequentialism such that we think it is in the long run morally better to suck in this evil now to gain a greater good later, then tell us this. Tell us this clearly. Lay it out. We can debate that. But DON’T dress it all up in confused claptrap which looks like a hodge-podge of moral relativism, privilege, I’m-alright-Jack nonsense and moral paralysis.

    Howarth and other such politicians need calling out on this. So here it is.

    On a side note, I think Nicky Campbell did a pretty good job, as he often does, given time constraints, and with often having to listen to moral madness, as he does on the Big Questions (which I was on and saw first hand). In this case, there was some jovial history with Howarth that perhaps got in the way of properly taking him to task.

    More philosophers are needed on these programmes!

    Category: FeaturedPhilosophyPoliticsReligion and Society


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce