Foreign Secretaries may come and go, but their inability to spot irony seems to be consistent. Back in February 2014 I commented on William Hague’s apparent concern about press restrictions in Egypt at a time when the Guardian newspaper in the UK was reporting on the threats of Legal Action they had received from the Government if they did not relinquish material leaked by Snowden and stop their reporting based upon that material.
Our current Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, has followed Hague’s example with his condemnation of the Chinese State’s repression of the Uighurs in an announcement to the House of Commons of the sanctions to be applied on Chinese Officials judged to be directly involved. In that announcement, Raab rightly said that:
“Evidence points to a highly disturbing programme of repression” and that the world “cannot simply look the other way” as “one of the worst human rights crises of our time” unfolds.
He went on to say:
“Expressions of religion have been criminalised, Uighur language and culture discriminated against on a systematic scale.
“There is widespread use of forced labour, women forcibly sterilised, children separated from their parents.”
Whilst it is immensely gratifying that the UK has (at long last) decided to join with the EU and the US in condemning China’s actions, I cannot help but note that, like Hague before him, Raab seemed to miss the beam in his own eye when he went on to condemn:
“An entire population subject to surveillance, including collection of DNA, use of facial recognition software and so called predictive policing algorithms.”
This at a time when the UK Government has itself clamped down on protest through the controversial Coronavirus Act. That Act is time limited, though the Government seems keen to extend it for another six months. Furthermore, Johnson and his Ministers seem to have acquired an unfortunate taste for suppression of protest because the even more controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill now making its way through the Commons will give the Police powers to prevent any gathering that might “impact” on or cause “unease” in people. Protests are by their very nature designed to have an impact, and an impact that might make some people uneasy. So if passed into Law this Bill would give Police the power to stop almost any protest on the streets of the UK. As the BBC report above notes, there have already been violent clashes between Police and protestors against the passage of the Bill.
It is perhaps unsurprising that China should be the most heavily surveilled country in the world, but the UK is not far behind. According to a 2020 survey by Comparitech, of the top 20 surveilled cities in the World, 18 are in China, but London is third in the list. And the UK has a poor record in its use of facial recognition software. Liberty has long campaigned against its use. As they note here:
“In August 2020, the Court of Appeal agreed with Liberty’s arguments on behalf of Cardiff resident Ed Bridges, finding that the legal framework relied upon by South Wales Police to use facial recognition does not protect our rights. The Court also found that South Wales Police had failed to adequately take account of the discriminatory impact of facial recognition technology, and had failed to meet its obligations under equality laws and data protection laws.
The Metropolitan Police began regularly using facial recognition earlier this year, despite a review of its own trials finding the technology may be unlawful for similar reasons to those raised by Liberty.”
So, sadly, once again I must note that UK Ministers really need to be more consistent. If repressive surveillance, including the use of facial recognition software is to be condemned in China, I submit it is equally to be condemned in the UK.