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Why is hanging out with dictators wrong?

January 14, 2016 at 1:34 pm

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales is back in Abu Dhabi. Those of you kind enough to read this column regularly might remember that in December 2014, Wales accepted a $500,000 grant from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government to set up a new human rights organisation. In a heated email exchange, Wales revealed his bizarre logic in accepting the money, saying using the grant for human rights activism would allow him to “f*** with them”. “Yes, I could have declined the money,” Wales told me, “but why give money back to horrible people? So they can use it to pay for more jails?” As I politely pointed out, $500,000 is small change for the Emiratis, and this was an exercise in legitimacy building from Abu Dhabi spin doctors, not philanthropic largesse.

Wales is part of a set of globe-trotting mega-rich liberals theoretically concerned with human rights but taking decisions which seem completely at odds with their brief. Whether it’s sponsoring a propaganda version of Wikipedia in the autocratic Kazakhstan, or speaking at a state-sponsored event in Oman, or accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the UAE, or indeed a prior career in the pornography industry; Wales’ self-description as a “human rights activist” begins to look tenuous.

Some residents of these countries are naturally unimpressed. An Emirati Wikipedian ticked off Wales for not initially publicising the 2014 gift.

There is no freedom in the UAE Mr. Wales … When you donate the $500,000 please do so openly by putting out press releases on these donations. There is no stronger message that you can send to the regime in my country, and others in Arab world, than publicly declaring that you stand with the people who do not enjoy basic human rights. This will send a strong message to governments that they can’t place a price on human rights and for the silence of the West.

Now Wales is back – this time addressing the Ericsson’s Change Makers Forum, a bigwig telecommunications conference in Dubai. After repeated criticism from the Wikipedian community (much of which Wales’ has attempted to censor), what he told delegates, contained a mild rebuke of his hosts.

“Here in the UAE we have pervasive internet filtering, this is a problem,” Wales stated. “In March 2015 the Dubai police said that the use of virtual private networks [a secure way of accessing the internet without being surveilled by the government] is illegal and can be punishable under UAE law. We see this kind of statement from regulators and police … who don’t understand the internet very well. People will often see this as a knee-jerk reaction when they don’t actually mean it and can’t actually enforce it.”

If Wales’ is looking for credit for this tepid attack on the UAE’s record on freedom of speech, he shouldn’t get it. It isn’t internet monitoring per se that restricts freedom of speech – although that’s far from ideal. It’s torture. It’s beatings. It’s long prison sentences. In other words – it’s what happens after the internet surveillance, the threat of state-sponsored violence meted out via sham courts.

In his defence, Wales has taken a step forward. Last June, he did make a song and dance about imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi – although a full two years after Badawi had received his sentence.

It’s easy to rant, but there’s an important dissection to be done of the defence “well, engagement is better than non-engagement”. This is a rationale used by both Wales, his fellow globe-trotter Tony Blair, and often the British government – whenever they consort with human rights abusers.

In the words of Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s close friend and former adviser: “We keep being told that engaging … will deliver the changes we want to see. But it never happens. That’s because brutal, autocratic regimes are best dealt with through strength. Sustained confrontation toppled the Soviet empire. Sanctions ended apartheid.” Hilton’s words carry some weight. His own family fled communist authoritarians in Hungary during the early years of the Cold War.

We are also told the best kind of pressure on human rights is “quiet”, happening behind closed doors, and away from the glare of the media. Naturally that means we have no idea if it happens. Anecdotal evidences suggests that if these meetings do happen, they happen between low-level diplomats at best.

Bahrain makes for a good case study. Human rights organisations are agreed that Bahrain has gone rapidly backwards on human rights since 2011. Even the US State Department agrees. This is despite the UK offering specific support on reforming the courts and improving prison standards; an engagement programme successive government ministers have boasted about in Parliament.

This “engagement” hasn’t led to reform; it’s led to the al-Khalifas being able to say they are reforming, which is arguably worse. If anyone points out that the Bahrainis aren’t actually reforming, the UK just steps in to say they are. Likewise when friendly delegations of British MPs arrive, their comments are used to justify state repression.

It is the same with Wales. The Bin Zayeds will use his words to say they tolerate dissent and embrace criticism. They will do far more harm than good.

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