Britain lauds 'momentous' Arab Spring, expresses concern on Palestinian-Israeli relations

Bassem Aly, Wednesday 11 Jul 2012

A British government report on human rights and democracy lauds 2011 as 'momentous,' but is pessimistic on the future of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict

Arab Spring
An anti-government protester displays paintings on her hand of other countries involved in the Arab Spring revolutions during a protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, October 26, 2011. The words read, "Go out". (Photo: Reuters)

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has highlighted its concerns on Arab Spring states in its report on the situation of human rights and democracy during 2011.

Entitled Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 Foreign and Commonwealth Office Report, the report states the events of the Arab Spring marked a "momentous year" in which peaceful protesters succeeded to topple long-established dictatorships.

The UK emphasises in the report its commitment to human rights as a core of its foreign policy, as well as to the necessities for democratic freedoms and the rule of law. The report gives special focus to the situations in Libya, Syria and Egypt, as well as Palestinian-Israeli relations.  

The report states that "no single cause was behind the Arab Spring." Rather, the Arab uprisings emerged in response to political and economic grievances that imposed huge burdens on social groups, such as unemployment, abuse of state power and corruption.

Thanks to "rapid growth in internet penetration" and social media networks that acted as a "driver" for protests and a mobilising tool outside state control, according to the report, protests spread.

Tensions behind the Arab Spring

In Egypt, political, economic and social tensions had been growing for "sometime" ahead of the January 25 Revolution in 2011. The report states that Britain had backed an orderly transition from authoritarianism to democracy during the early days of the protests, through the creation of a national unity government including opposition figures.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, according to the report, was the first international leader to visit Egypt after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. Cameron urged the necessity of transferring power to a new civilian and democratically elected government that respects international and regional treaty obligations.  

Some dissatisfaction with the human rights record in the country is noted. The report slams restrictions on freedom of association over the last year, with some government obstruction and harassment against local and international organisations last December.

Syria, on the other hand, has become the "primary focus" for Britain amid the unlawful killing and repression of civilians. The report said that Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague condemn the violence against pro-democracy protesters who carry "legitimate demands" concerning the establishment of a democratic political system.

"The UK is at the forefront of international efforts to end the crisis in Syria," the report says.

It adds that London has worked with the EU to impose sanctions targeting Syrian regime figures responsible for human rights violations and is pushing international efforts for a peaceful settlement to the 16-month uprising.

The Syrian uprising that started in March 2011 as a wave of peaceful protests against President Bashar Al-Assad's regime has turned into a year-long bloodbath and near civil war, with over 18,000 dead.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA), some of Al-Assad's opponents, has taken up arms in response to the unending crackdown by regime forces. The military has responded with destructive assaults on opposition areas, using tanks, helicopters and heavy artillery to destroy neighbourhoods in various cities.

Moving to Libya, the Libyan revolution that began on 17 February 2011 led to the ouster of ex-leader Muammar Gaddafi's regime after 42 years of tyrannical governance in the oil-rich state

Allegations by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by forces loyal to Gaddafi are lingering.

The report referred to endeavours by British foreign office officials that resulted in UN Security Council Resolutions 1970 (2011) and 1973 (2011) that provided the international community mandate to enforce a no-fly-zone to protect civilians encountering the threat of attack by Gaddafi troops.

Demonstrations against Gaddafi turned into a civil war. Gaddafi lost control of the eastern half of the country early last year and the rebels sought the help of the West to intervene in Libya to block the highly aggressive military crackdown by Gaddafi forces. 

It took months of NATO airstrikes to open the way for rebels to take the Libyan capital Tripoli. Gaddafi fled and two months later was caught and killed. Authority was transferred transitionally to the National Transitional Council (NTC).  

Currently, Libya is witnessing its first parliamentary elections in nearly 50 years, with almost 2,501 independents and 1,206 politically-associated candidates of more than 400 political entities awaiting the results of elections for Libya’s first national assembly, which will draft a new constitution, and form an interim government.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict

In its report, Britain expresses concern over the future of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories in the face of demolitions and evictions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

This is in parallel with an increase in the number of attacks by extremist Israeli settlers against Palestinians and the high proportion of civilian casualties and fatalities resulting from Israeli airstrikes on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Britain welcomed the Egyptian-brokered prisoner swap deal reached in October 2011, when Israel and Hamas agreed upon the return of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been held captive in Gaza for over five years, in exchange for around 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.

The deal also stipulated the right of Palestinian prisoners to receive family visits inside Israeli prisons.

Nevertheless, the report added that the British government would continue to focus on the treatment of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, where a number of human rights are denied.

The UK's concerns include permission to use electronic appliances in prisons, the presence of lawyers during investigations, and the cancellation of the administrative detention law that legalises the arrest of Palestinians under the claim that they are a threat to Israel's national security.

This law that has been in place since the end of the British Mandate in Palestine in 1948.

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