by Professor Lord Alton of Liverpool
China’s Foreign Ministry recently threatened a “forceful counter-attack” against measures the United Kingdom has taken to address worsening Chinese violations of the rights of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
After Beijing introduced a national security law that set the stage for escalating crackdowns, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab rightly announced that the UK was suspending its extradition treaty with China.
Raab also said that the UK would not consider reversing these measures “unless and until there are clear and robust safeguards, which are able to prevent extradition from the UK being misused under the new national security legislation.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has directed withdrawal over the next several years of Chinese-made equipment from Britain’s emerging 5G network.
On their own, the existing measures highlight the type of policies that allow the UK and its allies to put meaningful pressure on foreign dictators and authoritarians without risking dangerously rapid escalation. No democratic nation should be cowed by threats of retaliation against purely economic or diplomatic measures. Sadly, that is what we are currently doing with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
And the UK is not alone. It’s also true for much of Europe, particularly the fellow participants of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Despite the U.S. withdrawal and comprehensive Iranian violations, European governments, in the interest of keeping that agreement on life support, have tended towards abject compromise in a number of areas. It is particularly striking that Western policymakers have made far less noise about Tehran’s reaction to pro-democracy demonstrations than they have about Beijing’s.
This is despite the fact that in last November alone, the Islamic Republic killed an estimated 1,500 peaceful protesters in a matter of days. The crackdown came in response to a spontaneous, nationwide uprising, which was a dramatic escalation from a similar uprising that occurred in January 2018.
Western silence over the latest crackdown only reinforces the sense of impunity that has been building in Tehran since the earliest days of the nation’s Islamic revolution. This inadequate Western response to Iran’s crackdown on recent protests is far from the worst example of European and American leaders reinforcing that impunity.
Recall that in the summer of 1988, a number of Iranian officials became perpetrators of one of the worst recorded crimes against humanity. Following a fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini, “death commissions” were set up throughout the country to interrogate political prisoners, empowered to pass capital sentences on those who failed to demonstrate complete loyalty to the theocratic system. Almost invariably, those sentences took immediate effect, with defendants being hanged in groups at all times of the day until the death toll mounted to around 30,000.
The UK government knows these executions took place and is well aware that the exact details of the massacre were suppressed because many victims were buried in secret mass graves and some of those graves have since been destroyed. The general reaction to the 1988 massacre set the tone for Tehran’s long-standing treatment by the international community, which is largely motivated by the elusive prospect of moderation within the theocratic regime. Fortunately, increasing numbers of policymakers are questioning this consensus of appeasement.
A more realistic approach to Iran began with the United States, whose State Department spokesperson, Morgan Ortagus, recently condemned the Iranian judiciary for “persistent violations of human rights,” and called specific attention to the unresolved issue of the 1988 massacre: “The United States calls on the international community to conduct independent investigations and to provide accountability and justice for the victims of these horrendous violations of human rights organised by the Iranian regime.”
At a bare minimum, the United Kingdom should join in voicing this appeal for a UN-led inquiry into the massacre, with the goal of holding perpetrators accountable in international courts. And if the government is truly serious about its global defence of human rights and democracy and holding totalitarian regimes to account for their atrocities, it might consider going further and expressing support for the Iranian resistance movement.
When the UK began to take meaningful action with regard to Hong Kong, the Chinese Foreign Ministry accused the UK government of pandering to Washington. This was only to be expected and, in the circumstances, it, too, is a sign that London is doing the right thing.
The UK and the U.S. have similar values and a profound belief in democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. They need to show confidence in articulating belief in those values and standing with those who seek the same freedoms for themselves. Many other nations share those values and will stand united with the UK and the U.S. in opposing the systematic repression of the Iranian people.
This article first appeared in International Policy Digest