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From Washington to Riyadh, Britain is on bended knee

March 23, 2015 at 1:27 pm

Since Britain dropped the “Great” prefix from its name and its superpower status became nothing more than a reference point in some history books, it has struggled with its ratings on the world stage. One defining moment came in 2003 when the then Prime Minister Tony Blair was accused of turning the country into the 51st state of America; even worse, Britain became known as America’s poodle.

As far as Blair was concerned, though, when he received an ecstatic reception in the US Congress after the invasion of Iraq he was treated virtually as an equal to President George W Bush. Deluded and seduced by the illusion of power, Blair fell in line with America’s unconditional support for Israel and all that that entailed: the continued oppression of the Palestinians, excuses for not intervening in Israel’s offensives against the people of Gaza and turning blind eyes to Israeli violations of UN resolutions and breeches of international law by the building of illegal settlements on stolen Palestinian land.

This craven, simpering attitude towards the US has become even worse under Prime Minister David Cameron. Every time he picks up the phone to Barack Obama we even get to know how long the call lasts, as though it’s a measure of their political closeness.

I have witnessed personally the ever-diminishing power of Britain’s voice on the world stage through the long and detailed correspondence I’ve had with my local MPs in London and the Scottish Borders. Both have written dutifully to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on my behalf demanding to know about a whole range of human rights issues, including what is being done about the plight of political prisoners in Egypt, the detainees in Guantanamo, Palestinian children held in the prisons of Israel and impending executions of prisoners in Saudi Arabia, as well as the deplorable treatment of journalists incarcerated in the Arab world.

I have come to the conclusion that Britain now has no real influence on the world stage; that the “special relationship” between Washington and London is one-sided in favour of the US; and that we have also become the lickspittle bag carriers for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as apologists for the dictators who have thrown billions of dollars at derailing the Arab Spring in North Africa. This was driven home to me as I sat in the public gallery overlooking the chamber of the House of Commons a few days ago. The motion being debated was, “That this House calls on the US Government to release Shaker Aamer from his imprisonment in Guantánamo Bay and to allow him to return to his family in the UK.”

Aamer is better known as the Last Londoner in Guantanamo, a British resident with indefinite leave to stay who recently renounced his Saudi citizenship to reinforce the view that his home is in Britain, where his British-born wife and their four British-born children live.

The debate itself was amazing as former government ministers from both the Conservative and Labour benches spoke in support of it. Their views were endorsed by an array of Liberal Democrat MPs and Caroline Lucas from the Green Party. Some of the politicians excoriated the US and the appalling treatment it has given to detainees during the “War on Terror”; others asked if British intelligence had been complicit in their kidnap, rendition and torture.

Sir Gerald Kaufman, the veteran Labour MP for Manchester Gorton, is well worth quoting at length: “Guantánamo Bay is illegal and its maintenance is a war crime – it is as great a war crime as any other being committed anywhere in the world. Obama, in his original election campaign, promised he would close it. He has been there more than six years and it is still open. We can have a discussion about the extent to which he has been prevented from closing it by a rogue Congress, but he has not made an issue of it; he maintains an illegal war crimes camp and has done so under his Administration for more than six years and, like a lot of the other things he does, he gets away with it.

“Let us look at this man who maintains this illegal torture camp, where waterboarding, solitary confinement and inhuman treatment are daily occurrences. This is the man, the President of the United States, who sends out drones over Pakistan which have killed 3,000 Pakistanis. This is the man who sends out assassination teams to kill people of whom he disapproves all over the world. He claims to be in charge of a liberal democracy, yet, as I repeat, if this were taking place in any other country, he would be up on his feet, with beautiful eloquence, for which he is noted, saying how inhuman it was and how unacceptable it was. If this were happening under Islamic State or in Libya – I do not know whether he is going to denounce the abominable death sentences for those in the Muslim Brotherhood which have just been announced in Egypt – or in any other country in the world, he would be up on his feet saying, ‘This is a war crime.’

“… But what kind of a special relationship is it where one member of a relationship takes all the time and the other is regarded as a junior, negligible partner? That is what we have here: the United Kingdom loyal to the United States – perhaps too loyal, and I say that without being critical of our Government – and the United States not giving a damn. So we denounce the inhuman treatment of Shaker Aamer and demand that he be released, and we shall go on demanding that, but we also say to the United States, ‘Don’t be sanctimonious about other countries when you commit war crimes’.”

There was a lighter moment when another Labour MP, Jeremy Corbyn, joined the debate: “I do not doubt that there would have been the threat of military action and all kinds of other things against any country that held a US citizen in these circumstances. I am not advocating sending the SAS to Guantánamo Bay to free Shaker Aamer or anything like that; what I am saying is that if the close relationship with the USA means anything, Shaker Aamer must be released immediately.”

Most of the other contributions from MPs across all parties were in a similar vein, as can be seen here on Parliament TV from 16.24.46 onwards. It was a perfect example of the power in unity and democracy at work, until Tobias Ellwood, a Tory MP and junior minister at the Foreign Office, who was speaking for the British government, got to his feet.

Although he said that the government is “absolutely committed to securing the release of Mr Aamer”, he then followed it up with a string of lame excuses and obfuscation about what, exactly, the government has done with its special ally.

Such a response to a stimulating debate was, said Dennis Skinner MP, an anti-climax: “Almost all of what [Toby Ellwood] has had to say is a sop to Congress, to the Americans generally and to the president, rather than an explanation to the House that he and his superiors will try their level best to get Mr Aamer out. He is like an apologist for the American regime.”

Ellwood refused to go into any details about discussions that the British government has had with its US counterparts over the release of Aamer, but alarm bells did ring when it emerged that US officials may have attempted to negotiate the forced return of Shaker Aamer to Saudi Arabia, despite a promise made to Britain not to do so.

This was revealed in previously secret documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act: in August 2010, less than two months after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the then Foreign Secretary William Hague that she “welcomed… discussing Mr Aamer’s case”, the US instructed its Saudi embassy with regards to “engaging Saudi Arabia on Shaker Aamer”.

Aamer, a father of four British children, has been held at Guantanamo Bay without charge or trial since 2002. He has been cleared for release twice, by the Bush administration in 2007, and by President Obama in 2009. The British government has said repeatedly that he should be returned to his British wife and children in London. In January, following talks between Prime Minister David Cameron and President Obama, the White House said that it would “prioritise” Mr Aamer’s case, but concerns were raised when, one month later, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said that the case was not on his desk.

Despite the issue being raised with Ellwood several times in the House of Commons he refused to even acknowledge that any secret meetings between Britain and the US, and the US and Saudi Arabia, had taken place. Lawyers now fear that Aamer may be handed over to the Saudi regime.

Another document reveals how, at an August 2013 meeting between senior US officials and the Saudi interior minister, Shaker Aamer was described as a “Saudi citizen with significant ties to the UK”. Investigative journalist Andy Worthington confirms that this meeting did take place and Shaker was described thus. “This is a disturbing understatement of Shaker’s status as a legal British resident,” he said, “and it is, of course, troubling that Shaker’s fate was discussed with the Saudis by his US captors, when the UK has been calling for his release.”

Worthington added that it is also disturbing because another meeting, between “a delegation of United Kingdom (UK) senior officials from a range of counter-terrorism agencies” and “a USG interagency team, consisting of officials from the Departments of State, Defence, Justice, and Office of Director of National Intelligence” took place in Washington DC just two months later, on 29 October, 2013. All the details of that meeting (four pages in total) were redacted, although the participants were named.

The government minister refused to elaborate on what was discussed during the October 2013 meeting which has resulted in Shaker’s continuing detention at Guantánamo Bay. It is this which prompted Skinner to call Ellwood an apologist for the US Administration.

“I am not privy to the very complicated process, involving six United States Government Departments, which every single detainee will have to undergo before being cleared for release. That is the process that Shaker Aamer must undergo, like everyone else who has been released so far or will be released in the future,” Ellwood told MPs.

Sadly, his response was an echo of the many letters I’ve received back from the FCO making excuses for the bad behaviour, abuse of human rights and flagrant breaches of UN rules and regulations of the US and it close allies.

Little wonder that few of us were surprised when it emerged that secret meetings with the Saudi government over the future of Guantanamo’s Last Londoner might trump any good being done in the UK by human rights campaigners, lawyers and politicians trying to secure the release of a man who has been held for 13 long years in a gulag with neither charge nor trial.

Whether we like it or not Saudi Arabia has a huge influence in London despite its appalling human rights record. However, when flags were flown at half-mast over Buckingham Palace, Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament to mark the death of the Saudi King Abdullah recently, it prompted gasps of anger and disbelief.

Not only that, but now it seems that David Cameron’s government is afraid to publish a report on the Muslim Brotherhood – instigated originally at the behest of the Gulf states, which have designated the group as a “terrorist organisation” – because it is said to exonerate the group completely of any terrorist activity. An in-depth analysis on this website explains why and concludes that, “The appeasement of the Saudis at the top levels of government knows few bounds.”

It appears that not only is Great Britain a long gone concept but also that Britain itself is vanishing and morphing into “Little Britain”. I don’t particularly mind that my beloved country has lost its imperial ambitions, but the thought of Cameron, or any other British prime minister, fawning on bended knee in Washington or Riyadh is both revolting and disturbing.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.