EXCL Ministers face fresh human rights questions over ‘troubling' PR tie-up with Dubai
A major human rights group has demanded answers from ministers over a pledge to help the government of Dubai sharpen its public relations skills.
A 'Memorandum of Understanding' with the emirate commits officials from the UK's Government Communications Service to a two-year tie-up with the government of Dubai to "improve the perception of public services" and help "project influence" in both Britain and the United Arab Emirates.
It was signed by Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt earlier this year and has now been released in full to PoliticsHome under Freedom of Information laws.
But Amnesty International raised fears that the agreement, which pledges to help both sides sharpen "media practice, behavioural change and digital engagement", could help the Government of Dubai put a positive spin on a string of human rights concerns. Labour meanwhile warned it could "benefit a regime with an extremely poor record on human rights".
Polly Truscott, Amnesty International UK's foreign affairs expert, told PoliticsHome: "Given the UAE’s extremely worrying human rights record, the MoU throws up a host of troubling questions."
She said: "With prisoners of conscience like the human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor languishing in an Emirati jail following a lengthy sentence for social media posts ‘damaging the UAE’s reputation’, what hope can he and others have that the MoU will in any way address their plight?
"Instead, will the deal simply mean the Dubai authorities - with the UK’s help - become more adept at glossing over the country’s numerous human rights violations?"
Earlier this year Mr Mansoor was sentenced to ten years in prison over a series of Twitter and Facebook posts which authorities said had damaged the UAE’s “reputation abroad”. He was previously jailed for three years for “insulting UAE leaders” and providing “false reports” that could “harm the policies of the state”.
Ms Truscott also questioned whether any human rights experts would be present on a "steering committee" which will oversee the project.
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett, who has asked a string of questions about the agreement in the House of Commons, told PoliticsHome: "The memorandum is strikingly vague, and looks more like a PR stunt designed to benefit a regime with an extremely poor record on human rights and press freedom."
The Labour frontbencher added: "Boris Johnson may have left the Foreign Office, but it’s clear the Government’s foreign policy still lacks care for our country’s reputation or for the well-being of those in other countries.
"The Government must urgently reassure the public that consideration of human rights is placed at the heart of any joint activity that emerges under this agreement."
The Cabinet Office, which oversees the GCS, declined to say whether the Govenrment had received any representations from human rights groups over the agreement.
A Government spokesperson said: "The UK Government works closely with all our strategic allies across the globe including the United Arab Emirates. The MOU is to improve the capability and transparency of the government of Dubai's communications service for the benefit of all its citizens."
A Whitehall source meanwhile stressed that the GCS did not plan to charge for any of its work and said that no staff transfers or secondments with the Government of Dubai were planned "at this time".
But Ms Truscott warned: “Government-to-government deals of this kind need to include meaningful human rights checks and they need to be open and accountable.
"Anything less is simply going to fuel a suspicion that the UK sees the Gulf as first and foremost a business opportunity, regardless of whether the region’s beleaguered human rights activists are being persecuted and jailed.”
The MoU, available to read in full below, says the UK and Dubai will publish a joint report on the 'Future of Public Service Communications' by 2020, with a conference planned to discuss "next steps" in May of that year.
It also promises to "report quarterly on the progress made", although no public update has been published since the MoU was signed in May.