Theresa May denies sacrificing human rights for trade

The British Prime Minister has come in for criticism ahead of a meeting with Saudi Arabian leaders

Theresa May denies sacrificing human rights for trade

British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to troops as she arrives in Ammam, Jordan, 03-04-2017. Image: Sam Lister/PA Wire/PA Images

The British Prime Minister has moved to deny that she is sacrificing human rights for trade as she prepares to meet with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

Theresa May has been on a charm offensive in recent months as she attempts to secure new trade deals for Britain upon its exit from the European Union.

She will fly in to Saudi Arabia this afternoon where she has promised to stand up for human rights – as well as the national interests of Britain.

The Saudi regime has come in for heavy criticism from human rights organisations over its treatment of women and widespread human rights abuses against its own citizens.

The country has also been sharply criticised for the devastation caused by its ongoing airstrikes in Yemen - contributing to the humanitarian crisis in the country.

Brutal civil war

Fighting between government forces - backed by a Saudi-led coalition of Gulf States - and Houthi rebels in Yemen has left the country on the brink of famine with thousands dead.

Over 10,000 civilians have lost their lives in the conflict while millions more have been displaced.

The United States has supported the coalition against the Houthis over the past year with intelligence, weapons and mid-air refuelling aircraft – and there have been suggestions from the Trump administration over recent weeks that America is considering deeper involvement.

Britain meanwhile - a long-time ally of Saudi Arabia - has been backing the Middle Eastern power’s ongoing military campaigns through massive arms sales and military support

Sacrificing human rights

Ahead of her trip, Mrs May denied the UK was selling out on its principles - and pledged to raise human rights issues during her meeting with Saudi leaders.

“What we are doing is continuing the links that we have had for a long time with countries that are important to us around the world” she told the BBC.

She said it was important for Britain to maintain international relationships so that she is in a position to raise human rights issues when necessary.

“Rather than just standing on the sidelines and sniping, it's important to engage, to talk to people, to talk about our interests and to raise, yes, difficult issues when we feel it's necessary to do so,” she said.

"We are concerned about the humanitarian situation. That's why the UK last year was the fourth largest donor to the Yemen in terms of humanitarian aid - £103m (€120m).

“We will be continuing with that.”

Women's rights

In an interview with reporters onboard her plane to Jordan yesterday, Mrs May said she also hoped to use the trip to send a message about women in leadership – but stopped short of criticising the Saudi system which bars women from driving and forces them to obtain permission from a male guardian to travel or marry.

It is unclear whether she will agree to wear a headscarf – something both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former US first lady Michelle Obama both refused to do on recent tours of the country.

Far-right French Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen recently cancelled a meeting in Lebanon after refusing to wear a headscarf for a meeting with country’s top Sunni leaders.

The altar of the arms trade

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labour Party called on Mrs May to put human rights and international law at the centre of her talks with Saudi leaders. 

Totally unacceptable

Amnesty International’s head of policy and government affairs in the UK urged Mrs May to use the trip to highlight Saudi Arabia’s “totally unacceptable” human rights record.

"Torture, grossly unfair trials and the use of the death penalty are rampant in Saudi Arabia, while reckless Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen are causing endless death and destruction,” he said.

"The security of those Yemeni civilians, who are being killed and injured by these reckless air strikes, must be on the agenda.”

He called on the UK to immediately suspend the sale of UK arms to Saudi Arabia, “that could be used to carry out yet more atrocities in Yemen.” 

The visit to Saudi is the second leg of Mrs May’s Gulf tour.

She visited Jordan yesterday where she pledged to send UK military trainers to help the nation's air force in the fight against ISIS.