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Britain’s colonial legacies and broken promises 

July 24, 2020 at 9:21 am

Demonstrators, outside Downing street, hold placards and wave flags during a protest against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in London, UK on 15 May 2018 [Yunus Dalgic/Anadolu Agency]

Britain’s dramatic change of policy toward China has been underpinned by two charges. That Beijing violated its international treaty obligations in Hong Kong and secondly, that it has engaged in appalling human rights violations against its Uyghur population in Xinjiang Province.

Seen from London, China’s National Security Law in Hong Kong was one step too far. Its sweeping powers were viewed as a menacing threat to the “one country, two systems” formula which promised that the territory’s inhabitants will maintain their social and economic freedoms.

After its handover in July 1997, Hong Kong ceased to be a British colony. Sovereignty was returned to China and it became a special administrative region with extensive powers of autonomy.

Britain did not stop at condemning the new Security Law. Prime Minister Boris Johnson offered an estimated three million Hong Kong residents the opportunity to settle in the UK and later acquire British citizenship.

READ: Britain is two-faced over Saudi Arabia

In the event, residents of Hong Kong may consider themselves somewhat privileged when compared to the Windrush generation who came to Britain from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1973. Of the 550,000 who arrived as British subjects to rebuild the country there are still today an estimated 50,000 whose status has not been regularised. They have no legal rights, so many were either detained or deported.

The Caribbean diaspora to Britain coincided with the expulsion of 850,000 Palestinians from their homeland. John Dugard, the renowned South African jurist, has argued that the Palestinian national tragedy was a direct consequence of Britain’s betrayal of the sacred trust in Palestine.  Under the terms of the Mandate conferred by the League of Nations in 1920, Britain accepted a “sacred trust” to assist the Palestinian people to realise their aspiration of an independent democratic state. That trust remains unfulfilled until today.

Since 1948, Britain has had many opportunities to redress its historic injustices in Palestine. As it claimed moral responsibility for the residents of Hong Kong, it could have long done the same for the dispossessed Palestinians who, significantly, were not seeking a right to settle in Britain but instead the right to return to their homes.  Whether it relates to the breach of international treaties or violation of human rights, Britain’s response to Israeli abuses has never gone beyond verbal rebuke. Yet on the rare occasions that this occurred, they were never accompanied by explicit warnings with serious consequences. So, whereas China’s Security Law was confronted with threats of dire consequences, Israel’s plan to annex Palestinian land was merely deemed illegal and unacceptable.

READ: Arab silence on the Uyghur genocide is no surprise

On the specific question of human rights, Palestinians have fared no better. Years of appeals for international protection have all been ignored, despite the extensive catalogue of human rights abuses. It is now exactly ten years since the former British Prime Minister David Cameron described the Gaza Strip as a “prison camp.” After condemning the blockade of the territory, he declared that “Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp.” Although successive British governments have called for an end to the blockade, no other prime minister, before or after Cameron, has been as forceful and graphic in their description of the Gaza Strip.

Smoke and dust rise following an Israeli air strike in Gaza on 8 July 2014 [SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images]

Notwithstanding, when it comes to Palestine, Western politicians often seem to possess short memories. Hence, they were reminded about Gaza’s tragedy in January 2020 when a group of Catholic bishops from Europe and North America visited the territory. Upon their return, they issued a joint statement deploring the “profound humanitarian crisis” that they had witnessed and confirming the fact that Gaza had indeed become an “open-air prison.”

Whether it is in prison camps, open-air prisons, or concentration camps, no people should be subjected to such indignity because of their race, religion or colour. Prime Minister Johnson’s intervention on behalf of the Uyghur Muslims is welcome beyond measure; but it should not end with them. He must similarly recognise the appalling suffering inflicted on the two million Palestinians who inhabit the Gaza Strip. After all, their humanity is as priceless and sacrosanct as that of the Uyghur people.

READ: US adds Chinese companies to blacklist for treatment of Uyghurs

Had it not been for its colonial past, Britain would not be embroiled in this ongoing diplomatic confrontation with China. Even after the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, a commitment was made to the residents of the territory that the one state, two systems arrangement will preserve liberal democracy and guarantee their freedoms. Today, they are demanding that Britain honours its promise.

Half way around the world, similar undertakings were made to the Palestinian people. First in the Balfour Declaration, that nothing shall be done which may prejudice their civil and religious rights. And secondly by accepting the “sacred trust of civilisation” to lead them to self-determination and independence. Both promises remain unfulfilled.

Clearly, if Prime Minister Johnson is to convince the world that he is genuinely committed to human rights, he must discharge forthwith Britain’s historic responsibilities not just to Hong Kong, but Palestine as well.

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