Comment: Cameron faces a human rights test when Dubai comes to town

Earlier today three British men Suneet Jeerh, Grant Cameron and Karl Williams, were found guilty of drug offences by a court in Dubai and sentenced to four years in prison. Quite rightly this case is headline news in the UK – after all, there were serious allegations that the men were badly beaten and subjected to electric shocks while in custody.

Last week Amnesty International along with six other human rights organisations wrote to the prime minister urging him to raise this case and to challenge the deteriorating human rights record of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

On Tuesday David Cameron will meet Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the UAE. On top of the Jeerh/Grant/Williams case there’s the deeply troubling one of 94 people on trial – and facing sentences of up to 15 years in prison – for allegedly violating article 180 of the country's penal code, which prohibits founding, organising, or operating a group that aims to overthrow the country’s political system. The detainees include the prominent human rights lawyers Mohamed al-Roken and Mohamed al-Mansoori, as well as judges, lawyers, teachers, and student leaders. Among them are Judge Mohammed Saeed al-Abdouli and Dr Hadef al-Owais, a jurist and university professor.

Will Mr Cameron raise these cases with Sheikh Khalifa as the two sit down to talk business? We know how keen Cameron is to encourage open economies. Last year alone he agreed major deals with the UAE to export UK-manufactured goods, including 'security' equipment. Ther's already a close economic relationship in place: UAE investments support premier league football clubs, horse racing and it is also home to the world's largest Sovereign Wealth Fund, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, which owns shares in Thames Water.

Of course, we're living in tough economic times and governments understandably seek opportunities to boost the economy through trade deals. However important this may be, it is vital that this commercial diplomacy does not come at the cost of staying silent on human rights. Cameron must raise these concerns with Sheikh Khalifa.

The UAE is by no means alone in using legislation to clamp down on opposition and close down the space in which civil society operates. In recent years Amnesty has witnessed a deeply disturbing trend as governments across the globe adopt legislation that restricts this space. Some of these states may be rattled by the events of the Arab Spring and are worried that popular public opinion may throw them from power. Amnesty and other organisations such as Front Line Defenders have documented how repressive new laws have been passed in Algeria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burundi, China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lithuania, Moldova and Russia.

Last week Amnesty released a detailed report documenting President Putin's witch hunt against NGOs and others deemed troublesome to the Kremlin. And last week also saw the first prosecution under Russia's 'foreign agents law', with the Association in Defence of Voters' Rights Golos (Voice) fined 300,000 roubles (approximately £6,500). The systematic undermining and violation of the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association have been the hallmark of Vladimir Putin’s human rights record during the first year of his third mandate as Russian president, but he is by no means alone in pursuing such measures.

Recently we've also seen Saudi Arabian human rights defender Dr Abdulkareem Yousef al-Khoder ordered by the courts there to be detained for four months on charges which appear to be based solely on his legitimate human rights work. Like other Gulf states, Saudi Arabia’s default position when faced with criticism is to close down the space from where that criticism emerges.

Here, crucially, we need to see consistency from our own prime minister. Mr Cameron must be as vociferous in raising human rights with our trading partners as he is with 'beyond the pale' nations like Syria, Iran or North Korea. When he talks about alleviating global poverty Cameron refers to a 'golden thread' of conditions that enable open economies and open societies to thrive. This is all well and good, but he must understand that this 'thread' and the rights pertaining to it are universal and relevant for all countries and their citizens. If, as he suggests, "open economies are themselves best ensured by open societies: rights for women and minorities, a free media, integrity in government, and the freedom to participate in society and have a say over how your country is run" – then he must raise human rights concerns in his one-to-one meetings with key people like the UAE's Sheikh Khalifa. Allies and foes must both receive straight talking on human rights.

While the UK government has made some attempts to support civil society overseas – not least through some of the funding that the FCO and DfID provide to overseas organisations – it is time to see some consistency. A more thorough and strategic approach needs to be employed: joining up government departments, training overseas missions, ensuring that such rights are central to the post-2015 MDG agenda, and of course ensuring that ministers raise concerns with their counterparts.

Let's face it, David Cameron understands that civic engagement equals precious social capital. His 'big society' aims to capitalise on this. So it is vital that he recognises that this does not end at the UK shoreline and that his government must take a consistent approach to supporting civil society globally.

So with David Cameron meeting the UAE's Sheikh Khalifa this week, let’s see some concrete evidence that the prime minister is putting his principles into practice where it matters.

Allan Hogarth is head of policy and government affairs at Amnesty International UK.

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