Britain’s new human rights sanctions regime will aid Nigeria’s persecuted Christians

The UK Government has revealed it is set to sanction high-profile individuals with a track record of human rights abuses around the world. This is welcome news, as a resurgent ISIS and negligent leaders in West Africa have left Commonwealth countries such as Nigeria dangerously exposed to terrorism and exploitation.

During a recent debate in the House of Commons, a representative of Boris Johnson issued a number of key revelations about the future direction of the Foreign Office and Department for International Development with regard to human rights abuses.

Since January 2019, an estimated number of over 1500 Christians have been slaughtered in North-Eastern Nigeria. This is in addition to over 6000 deaths before that, since 2015 when the current president came to office on a mandate of tackling insecurity and corruption.

As the leader of a UK humanitarian organisation working to stop this silent slaughter, hardly reported by the media and escalating on a daily basis, I commend the UK Government’s efforts.

In particular, I applaud its efforts to publish the UK’s first autonomous global human rights sanctions regime, which will aim to deter officials from committing serious human rights violations and hold those that do accountable. It is hard to believe that there is no complicity from high ranking officials in either the government, the military or both.

Boris Johnson’s team has further committed to providing religious literacy training for relevant Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) officials posted around the world. In a welcome move, it also reaffirmed its work to table a UN Security Council resolution on the persecution of Christians and other believers in the Middle East and Africa. In particular, West Africa which has become the new frontier and hotbed for global terrorism as the Sahel currently hosts over 30 different and deadly insurgency groups.

Sanctions could become a vital tool in the fight against the widescale abuse of human rights across the globe and specifically for West Africa.

A sanctions regime would follow various precedents impacting nations, including one in 2017, when the US withheld nearly $96 million in foreign aid to Egypt and refused to commit to a further $195 million as a penalty for the country’s abysmal human rights record but the sting in the tail could be the directing of them at individuals.

Recently, the US president has proposed apportioning foreign aid based on how countries treat their religious minorities. The scheme would involve designating a ranking system under which foreign aid handouts could be reviewed depending on the severity of the situation in each country but with some other countries accused of actually sponsoring terrorism and persecution, a scheme directed at freezing the assets and accounts of individuals known or shown to be complicit in violations could directly demobilise key perpetrators.

At this moment, the EU is also preparing a human rights sanctions regime, which would allow the bloc to target specific individuals in breach of good practice. Such a regime is likely to impact on previously masked actors in Nigeria’s insecurity crisis.

So the FCO minister’s acknowledgements that ‘”for more than a decade, Islamic insurgents including Boko Haram—Islamic State in West Africa—have caused immense suffering to the Muslim and Christian populations”, and that Britain has “made clear to authorities at the highest levels in Nigeria the importance of protecting civilians and we regularly raise our concerns about the increasing violence” is a very encouraging sign.

Connecting the security issue with trade in the region, particularly given the £6.5 billion worth of trade deals signed at January’s UK-Africa Investment Summit, Nigel Adams MP, the Minister of State for Asia and International Development concluded that “The UK will also be a global champion for free trade, which is a force for good that underpins stable, open and prosperous global economies.”

Jim Shannon MP, who led the debate, made core demands of the Government, including sending peacekeeping forces to Nigeria, renewing its offer to assist in the search and rescue of Leah Sharibu and other ISIS captives, focusing more or most of its international development aid on Nigeria to assist the victims and protect the vulnerable, and providing security advice and warnings to British investors in the region.

I urge the UK Government to continue and further increase its measures to save the persecuted Christians of Nigeria as well as all other people caught up in the region’s insecurities. The nation, Nigeria ranks twelfth on Open Doors World Watch List 2020 of the countries in which Christians are most persecuted. By comparison, Syria ranks eleventh and Saudi Arabia ranks thirteenth, with Iraq fifteenth and Egypt sixteenth. Nigeria is currently just one rank below ‘extreme’.

The difficult situation for persecuted Christians is compounded by the hostile media context. Reporters Without Borders ranks Nigeria 120 out of 180 countries for press freedom, noting a ‘climate of permanent violence’. It places just above Afghanistan.

A resulting lack of transparency makes it harder to expose endemic corruption. The Corruption Perceptions Index 2019 ranked Nigeria at 146th in the world – two places lower than 2018 – scoring an abysmal 26 points out of a possible 100, level with Iran. It is difficult to imagine these statistics describing one of the most prominent members of the Commonwealth, and a long-time friend of Britain. I suggest this is a warning sign, and should be a crucial subject on the agenda at June’s Commonwealth Conference, hosted in Rwanda.

It is good news that the UK is starting to ramp up the pressure on human rights abusers, in Nigeria and abroad. Too many Christians have been killed in the most gruesome ways imaginable for the UK to turn a blind eye.

For those with deep pockets, a new sanctions regime will prove highly effective in changing the high-worth individuals abusing human rights and allowing the persecution of Christians with impunity. We might start to see those whose international business, income and reputation are most affected changing their tune, in the process saving the lives and livelihoods of millions.

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