I agree with Ruth Davidson.
There’s five words that I thought that I would never say but, following the passing of King Abdulla of Saudi Arabia and Whitehall’s decision to fly the Union Jack at half mast, there was public criticism from the Scottish Conservative leader that was correct in my opinion. She called it a ‘steaming pile of nonsense’ and I think that many others across the UK would have been saying similar things.
Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is notoriously awful, creating a society that lives in fear and repression in a way that no 21st Century state should be allowed to act. Only recently, a political blogger was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 100 lashes for simply stating his opinion and calling for more tolerance; a travesty for those of us who cherish freedom of speech. Public executions are used as a device to control the state and oppress anyone or any group who dares to speak out or even express themselves as they wish. In sum, Saudi Arabia denies civil liberties and does so in a way that is horrifying and unjustifiable.
Yet, the British Monarch and David Cameron were quick to defend the decision to fly the flags at half-mast. They consider Saudi Arabia an ally against the war on terror and furthermore, the lowering of the flags is standard protocol for the death of a head of state. What they did not say but was known by everyone, is that the relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia extends to trade deals worth billions that have existed for many years.
My difficulty with these arguments is that we are picking and choosing what acts of suppression of speech and human rights abuses we condemn and what ones we let go. The attacks on Paris earlier this month were a powerful reminder of how much we value freedom of speech and are willing to fight for its existence, as well as stand up to terror and inhuman acts of evil. Why then, should we not feel moved to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights record and become a more tolerant and free society? I feel that it is one rule for one situation and then a different rule for another; and demonstrates the remarkable contradictions and inconsistency that exists in Western states.
Ruth Davidson was not the only politician to voice her opinion on this matter but it still did not get the publicity that it deserved. It may only have been symbolic but it would have been a powerful message to King Abdullah’s successor if Britain had chosen to go against tradition and not fly the flag at half-mast on this one occasion. Others may even go a stage further, and argue that it would have been common sense.
My only hope now is that the situation in Saudi Arabia is given proper attention and that there is an opportunity for drastic change and improvements. Women are gradually gaining more rights but it is slow progress, and the need for democratic values such as freedom of assembly, expression and protest are a long way off. No human being should have to live in a state where they cannot voice an opinion without fear for their life or be prosecuted for being who they are. This is a country that has executed citizens because they are homosexual.
Nothing can change King Abdullah’s legacy but more can be done by Britain and other Western states to step up and defend civil liberties in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. There should never be a debate about a flag following the death of a head of state, but when it has happened on the back of public executions, imprisonment for political bloggers, denial of political opposition and censorship of the media; then questions must be asked.
Human rights and freedom of speech are universal and, regardless of the wider context, they must be followed. To set a precedent that there are different rules for different leaders and states is a mockery to human life and the rights that we all possess. Hopefully, a new and more memorable chapter in Saudi Arabia’s history can be written; both freely and without fear.
By Jonathan Adamson, Junior Writer for Daily Political View.