Over seven years after he left office, former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, now Lord Cameron, has returned to frontline British politics after being appointed Foreign Secretary by current Prime Minster Rishi Sunak. As prime minister, Cameron often overlooked human rights issues. He hosted Egyptian President General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi less than two years after Sisi’s forces, as defence minister, killed 800 unarmed protesters at Rabaa al-Adawiya square in Cairo. He was also accused of secret vote-trading deals with Saudi Arabia so both states would be elected to the UN Human Rights Council. At home, Cameron angered civil rights groups by vowing to scrap the Human Rights Act. And he rolled out the red carpet when Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to the UK, even enjoying a pint and fish and chips with Xi. That was in 2015, just days after Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong bookseller, disappeared in Thailand only to later appear in a Chinese prison.
But let’s not look back. Let’s look forward. Below are some of the key areas, from a free speech perspective, that Index hope Cameron will urgently address:
Call China out on all violations
From a self-described “golden era” of ties with China during his premiership to accepting a role as vice-president of a £1 billion China-UK investment fund after his resignation, Cameron’s relationship with the country has long been close. As recently as September, Cameron spoke at two glitzy events in support of Colombo Port City, a Chinese-funded, multibillion-dollar project to build a metropolis in the Indo-Pacific which critics fear could become a Chinese military outpost. With these links in mind, questions may be raised about Cameron’s suitability in dealing with the Chinese government as Britain’s top diplomat – all of which is very worrying as China’s human rights record goes from bad to worse. Within the country, millions of Uyghurs have disappeared into a network of prisons and camps. Scores of feminist activists, journalists and human rights defenders also reside in jail. Then there is Hong Kong, where the erosion of human rights has been staggering in scope and pace. And as illustrated by our Banned by Beijing reports, China’s long arm is reaching into Europe and the UK where a number of Hong Kong, pro-democracy activists reside. These activists currently have arrest warrants issued against them by the Hong Kong Police Force which have been described as a “Chinese Fatwa”.
A cross-party group of MPs urged the government to block a planned visit to the UK by a senior Chinese official accused of overseeing the violations in Xinjiang in February and we think Cameron should push further by directly pressuring the Chinese authorities. Let’s not trade in human rights for, well, trade.
Specifically mention Jimmy Lai
Jimmy Lai is a Chinese-born, pro-democracy newspaper publisher and activist who is also a British citizen. Currently imprisoned in Hong Kong and in solitary confinement, Lai was charged with violating Hong Kong’s National Security Law for colluding with foreign forces. He was also charged with fraud, sedition and organising and participating in an unlawful assembly and is still awaiting trial for serious national security charges. His case exemplary of the crackdown on free speech and assembly in Hong Kong and his imprisonment has been condemned by human rights group around the world. This summer James Cleverly, the former Foreign Secretary, had brought up Lai’s case when he met with China’s Vice President. We urge Cameron to continue pushing for Lai’s release.
Also mention Alaa Abdel Fattah
Another activist who is currently imprisoned abroad, like Lai Egyptian Alaa Abdel Fattah is a British citizen. Abdel Fattah went on hunger strike in prison in Egypt in 2022 in protest at the conditions he is being held in. A blogger and pro-democracy activist, he is one of the best known of Egypt’s 60,000 political prisoners and is currently serving a five-year-prison sentence for allegedly “spreading false news”, a charge which human rights groups worldwide have condemned as false. The Egyptian authorities continually refuse to recognise Abdel Fattah’s British citizenship and allow embassy officials to see him, something which Index believes Cameron should raise immediately.
Like China, Saudi Arabia has also been accused of transnational repression on UK soil. Take Ghanem al Masarir as an example. A prominent satirist and regime critic, al Masarir is suing Saudi Arabia in the UK. At the centre of his case are allegations that he was physically assaulted by agents of the kingdom in London in 2018 and that Saudi Arabia ordered the hacking of his phone. The outcome of the case will have profound implications for individuals targeted by spyware in the UK and likely the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Press for press freedom in Israel-Hamas conflict
With the devastating conflict between Israel-Hamas still relatively new, Cameron will understandably have a lot to deal with. Index urges him to keep a close eye on the free speech situation there, such as the potential closure of the local bureau of Al Jazeera in Israel, which the country has indicated it will hold off from, and the broader media freedom landscape in both Israel and Gaza. We’ve outlined other free speech challenges here and again we hope Cameron doesn’t shy away from those that fall within his remit.
Avoid Trump cards
Assuming Cameron remains in place for more than a year, which is a big assumption given the current turnover within the Conservative Party (not to mention a potential UK general election), he’ll be in place for the next US election. The battle is already heating up and former US President Donald Trump is doing what he does best – firing verbal missiles at his opposition and critics. On Saturday at a rally in New Hampshire, Trump said he’d “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country that lie and steal and cheat on elections,” once again repeating his false claim of election fraud depriving him of a win in 2020. It’s hard to forget that incredibly awkward handshake between Trump and the late Queen Elizabeth II and the Trump era certainly tested the UK and USA’s “special relationship”. So what will our special relationship look like if Trump is voted back in?
With UK-China relations warming, the president of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, will pay a state visit to the UK from 20-23 October. The UK government hopes the visit will help finalise multibillion-pound deals for Chinese state-owned companies to contribute to the building of two British nuclear power plants.
Many — including the Dalai Lama — are concerned that Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne are putting the desire for profit above concern for human rights.
Xi may be staying in luxury at Buckingham Palace during his visit, but here are just five examples of how respect for free speech in China doesn’t get past the front door:
The current London exhibition almost didn’t go ahead as the British Embassy in Beijing turned down Ai’s request for a business visa in connection with his criminal conviction for tax fraud — an accusation he denies. British Home Secretary Theresa May eventually overturned the embassy’s decision, but only after a mass public outcry. This shouldn’t be the height of the British government’s efforts to address Chinese human rights abuses.
2. The use of online “opinion monitors”
China’s Terracotta Army, the 8,000-strong force of sculptures depicting warriors and horses, was purpose-built to protect emperor Qin Shi Huang, who died in 210 BC, in his afterlife. In the modern day, China’s army of “opinion monitors”, which has been purpose-built to protect China’s current leaders from criticism and dissent, dwarfs anything the Qin dynasty could muster.
China’s hundreds of millions of web users increasingly use blogs to condemn the state, but posts are routinely deleted by government employees. In 2012, monitors banned more than 100 search terms relating to the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989 and even shut down Google services.
3. Banning books
Often overshadowed by China’s internet censorship, we shouldn’t forget that Chinese authorities have a rich history of restricting free expression in literature. In 1931, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was banned for its portrayal of anthropomorphised animals for fear children would regard humans and animals as equal. During Chairman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, all aspects of arts and culture had to promote and aid the revolution. Libraries full of historical and foreign texts were destroyed and books deemed undesirable were burned.
The country’s post-Mao transition has been marked by a commitment to “modernising”. While the Chinese populace has access to more information than ever before, their leaders’ continuation of banning books on grounds of non-conformity and deviance are anything but modern.
Publications which are still banned — often for perceived politically incorrect content — include the memoirs of Li Rui, a retired Chinese politician and dissident who caused a stir in the CCP by calling for political reform; Lung Ying-tai’s Big River, Big Sea about the Chinese Civil War; and Jung Chang’s best-selling Wild Swans, a history that spans a century, recounting the lives of three female generations in the author’s family.
The women had been linked to several actions over the years which highlight issues such as domestic violence and the poor provision of women’s toilets, obvious embarrassments to the authorities.
As a result of their detention, China’s small, but increasingly vocal feminist movement was dealt a heavy blow. Demonstrations were cancelled and debate was effectively silenced. Five of the activists were released fairly quickly, but five more were in prison until 13 April, with two being denied treatment for serious medical conditions while in custody.
5. Repressing Uyghur Muslims
China continues to persecute the largely Muslim minority Uyghurs of Xinjiang. A tough system of policies and regulations deny Uyghurs religious freedom and by extension freedom of expression, association and assembly.
The abuse of national security and anti-terror laws to persecute Uyghurs and further deny them freedom of expression was highlighted in the recent ban by the Chinese authorities on 22 Muslim names in Xinjiang in an apparent attempt to discourage extremism among the region’s Uyghur residents. Many children were barred from attending school unless their names were changed.
Ryan McChrystal is the assistant online editor at Index on Censorship
I have been away, with thankfully intermittent internet access limiting my access to top quality prime minister/pig-related punning, so apologies if you see your fantastic pun replicated here. Entirely unintentional.
If you’ve been even more away than me, a quick recap of the story that will never die: Conservative peer Lord Ashscroft, he of the polls, has brought out a book — along with the Sunday Times’ Isabel Oakeshott — about Prime Minister David Cameron. Among the accusations levelled at Cameron are that Conservative colleagues see Libya as “his Iraq”, that he attempted to get a friend off criminal charges and that he listened to Supertramp.
No one cares about any of that stuff at all. The one thing everyone is, frankly, still cracking up about was the revelation in Monday’s Daily Mail (which is serialising the book) that Cameron, while at university, took part in an initiation ceremony for a drinking club which involved putting the parts of a prime minister we shouldn’t think about in a pig’s head. The head, it should be noted, was not attached to a live animal.
This is obviously enormously odd, and hilarious. I’m not about to get po-faced about sexual deviance, or how Cameron is screwing the country even more than he did that pig head, or, as I have seen, ponder the dark occult symbolism of our elite universities. Because, really, it’s not symbolic of anything apart from students being utter, utter clowns.
That is, of course, assuming that it is true. Something that is by no means certain. The source for the allegation is apparently an Oxford contemporary of Cameron’s who is now an MP, who reckons he has seen a photograph of a compromised future prime minister engaging with the hog’s head.
Now, “a bloke I know reckons he saw a photo” may be a decent threshold of proof for a pub anecdote (bonus points if the bloke is upgraded from mere bloke to “my brother’s friend” lending a real tangibility): but this is not presented as a pub anecdote, and as a presentation of proof, it doesn’t really do: it would never stand up in court, as the pig said to the aspiring Piers Gaveston member.
Given that, should David Cameron sue? Tricky business. Fine things that our new libel laws now are, does one really want a court case hinging on whether or not one performed indecencies on swine flesh a lifetime ago? Even if you win, do you want to go down in history as the Prime Minister who definitely didn’t have sex with a dead pig? One may as well buy a t-shirt with “not a wrong ‘un, honest” written on it.
In an interesting Guardian article, Damian McBride, a former spin doctor for Cameron’s predecessor Gordon Brown, wonders why Cameron’s people have not issued an official dismissal of “Piggate”, or any of the other allegation in the Ashcroft/Oakeshott book, pointing out that “In the absence of an instant bucket of water, the story has caught fire over the past two days. Not only that, it’s allowed other newspapers to declare open season on Cameron’s private life, as we see from today’s ‘coke parties’ splash in the Sun.”
I can understand McBride’s point, but I do think that Cameron’s people did the right thing here, mostly because if they start engaging with the specific allegations in the book, sooner or later they come round to having to confirm or deny the porcine partnering. We’re back to square one.
Where’s the free speech rub in this, I hear you ask? Well, there’s the simple fact that you have to be able to take as well as give in these matters. During Jeremy Corbyn’s ascendance to power as Labour leader, many of his followers complained daily of the outrageous “smears” of the dread MSM. In his leadership acceptance speech, Corbyn himself complained of the “most appalling levels of abuse from some of our media over the past three months” apparently suffered by him and his family during his campaign, which seemed to amount to some reheated speculation about the cause for a split from a previous partner and the shocking, shocking revelation that he ate baked beans out of a tin. Before you write in, questioning Corbyn’s public declarations and political associations is a necessary and important function of the press. People who complained about Corbyn’s apparent abuse now seem totally OK repeating allegations made by a wealthy Conservative peer in the pages of the Daily Mail. Which is fine, but just be aware of the mismatch. (To his credit, Corbyn appears to have entirely avoided the topic, though Cameron was lucky that there was no PMQs this week due to conference season).
Public figures will be open to scorn, ridicule, abuse and more. Their every move, from even before they aspired to power, will be pored over for clues and significance (as has been done by, for example, the New Statesman’s Laurie Penny with Cameron’s curious incident avec le cochon). It may happen, as we grow into an age where no one is embarrassable anymore, because they’ve already put everything on Instagram, that these stories will no longer make any sense. But for now they still happen, and on balance, it is good that they do.
When it comes to public figures, we should err away from caution. The extremely wealthy Ashcroft’s intervention with this string of what the KGB used to call Kompromat against Cameron is not perhaps the best example of the old speak-truth-to-power schtick (it’s more power calling other power names because it didn’t get what it wanted — a cabinet post, allegedly), but nonetheless, being rude about powerful people is very important and even cathartic — ask any cartoonist.
The rush of schweinficker jokes may have done little more than lifted the autumn gloom, but it’s strangely satisfying that in a democracy we can openly mock our leaders, safe in the knowledge that whatever they do, they’ll only make it worse for themselves.
Free speech is a fundamental British value, UK Prime Minister David Cameron insisted on Monday in a widely trailed speech outlining how his government planned to tackle “the struggle of our generation”: Islamic extremism.
Cameron made some of the right noises. He talked of the need for voices countering the extremist narrative to be heard more loudly: to be featured more often in newsprint, or given more airtime in broadcast. More speech is a good thing. One of the reasons why organisations like Index champion free speech as a fundamental good is a belief that more speech is the best counter to speech you dislike or with which you disagree, and that allowing those plethora of voices and ideas to be heard is what allows societies to advance. As author Elif Shafak wrote in a recent article for Index magazine: “The response to a book is another book. The response to a cartoon is another cartoon. Words need to be answered with words.”
Sadly, it became clear throughout the speech – as it has become clear through successive legislation in recent years – that Cameron and his government are not really committed to free speech. No, they are committed to ‘good’ speech, to speech that the government and its supporters decide is palatable. They are committed to funding and advocating the ideas and narratives of which they approve (“If you’re interested in reform; if you want to challenge the extremists in our midst; if you want to build an alternative narrative or if you just want to help protect your kids – we are with you and we will back you – with practical help, with funding, with campaigns, with protection and with political representation”) and banning those they don’t. His speech on Monday was, as ever, short on details in relation to the practicalities, but Cameron once again reiterated the notion that the government wants to introduce further curbs on ‘non-violent’ speech, in other words speech that falls short of inciting violence.
That is not what a commitment to free speech means. Free speech – the kind that allows democracies to flourish – allows people to espouse views that others find offensive, insulting, and even complete anathema to your way of life. And it allows other people to dispute those views. Free speech protections are what allows both the holocaust denier the right to spout nonsense about the Nazis and the wider population to refute them.
But Cameron does not share that commitment to free speech. The kind of free speech protection the Prime Minister envisages permits some as yet undefined version of acceptable speech but seeks to outlaw whatever this government deems beyond the pale. And herein lies the danger. Any attempt to proscribe ideas, or the voicing of ideas, beyond direct incitements to violence undermines the very principle of free speech – and ultimately undermines its benefits for civil society as a whole.
You only have to look at how widely drawn Cameron has to make the net to capture the ‘non-violent extremist’ narrative to understand how easily any group who challenges the government, or the prevailing majority view, might be drawn into his net. This is not the society we want to live in, where public speakers might have to register two weeks in advance and be vetted before being allowed on a podium, as was indicated in an earlier version of this speech trailed before the election. As former attorney general Dominic Grieve said recently: “When in doubt you should always go for the free speech option.” Grieve recently told Index: “In a free society people do have a right to be insulting about other people’s beliefs…I think that the free society requires that there should be should be the possibility of doing it.” This belief is at the core of any democracy and is worth fighting for. Something that David Cameron conveniently seems to be willing to relinquish.
Even more worryingly, Cameron goes even further by suggesting that not only may we be punished for this ill-defined non-violent speech, but we might also be required to demonstrate publicly our lack of support for such ideology. “We must demand that people also condemn the wild conspiracy theories, the anti-Semitism, and the sectarianism too,” the Prime Minister declared. Quite how this thought-police style demands will be enforced in practice is difficult to imagine – perhaps Katie Hopkins might be forced to make public apologies in areas of their country known for high levels of immigration for failing to show the correct British levels of ‘tolerance’ when she wrote about gunships and migrant boats?
We need to champion free speech
Some people seem to view free speech as a “nice-to-have” add-on, a mere luxury principle tacked on the end of other more basic rights. But respecting free expression is a fundamental tenet of democracy. It is qualified by other rights, but assessing those balances is something that should be done by a court of law not by an ever-creeping extension of government power to proscribe people and views it does not like. Cameron laid this blatant disregard for democracy bare last month when he said: “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.”
As soon as you have to fear not just breaking the law, but state interference for ‘non-crimes’ as well, you no longer have a democracy. And with no test for what words might put you in the category of law-abiding undesirables, how do we know when the ‘offence-hunters’ – sniffing out anyone who seems not to defend sufficiently ‘British values’ – might come for any one of us?
David Cameron raises the fearful spectre of an intolerant, violent Islamist state that wants to bring an end to the freedoms we cherish. If we are to succeed in protecting those freedoms, then we cannot let the government undermine the very values he says he is defending. If we let that happen, we will have already lost. Instead we need to defend the rights of everyone – including the extremists – to voice opinions we find abhorrent, or risk finding our ability to say we disagree with those views is lost too.