Abraham Lincoln, the United Arab Emirates and Manchester City FC

18 Apr 2018

In the centre of Manchester, in the appropriately named Lincoln Square, stands the towering statue of Abraham Lincoln. The statue of the 16th president of the United States is there to thank the working people of Manchester for the help they gave to the US in its fight for the abolition of slavery during its Civil War.

At the start of the Civil War, in 1861, there were 310,000 cotton workers in Lancashire working in 1,920 mills to spin and weave billions of yards of cloth each year, much of which was exported to the rest of the world.

About 80% of the raw cotton used by those mills came from the slave owning Southern Confederate states and when the Lincoln led Union imposed a naval blockade on the South, that source of raw cotton dried up. As a consequence, the majority of mills closed and workers, at a time when social security was considerably more limited than today, lost their jobs. By 1862 Stalybridge, for example, had just five out of 39 cotton mills operating and 7,000 unemployed.

Whilst some mill owners sought to persuade the British government to deploy the Royal Navy to break the Union blockade, on 31st December 1862, a meeting of cotton workers at the Manchester Free Trade Hall resolved, despite their increasing hardship, to support the Union in its fight against slavery. They set up a “General Emancipation Society”, which adopted the following address to be sent to Lincoln:

We honour you Free States as a particularly happy abode for the working millions whose industry is honoured. One thing alone has in the past lessened our sympathy with your country and our confidence in it, we mean the ascendancy of politicians who not merely maintained negro slavery but desired to extend and root it more firmly. Since we have discerned however that the victory of the Free States in the war which has so severely distressed us as well as afflicted you will strike off the fetters of the slave, you have attracted our warm and earnest sympathy.

Lincoln replied on 19thJanuary 1863 with the following:

To the working men of Manchester…. I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the workingmen at Manchester and in all Europe are called to endure in this crisis… Under these circumstances I cannot but regard your decisive utterances upon the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or country.

155 years later Manchester no longer manufacturers the world’s clothes, but it remains an international city and in recent years has taken in considerable sums of overseas investment, particularly from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In 2014 the Abu Dhabi United group, owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE’s deputy prime minister and member of the ruling royal family, entered into a £1 billion housing deal with Manchester City Council to build 6,000 new homes in once run down parts of Manchester. More famously, in 2008 the UAE bought Manchester City FC and, following its significant investment, the club has reaped the reward of three Premiership titles and appears to be on the verge of a period of dominance.

Manchester’s cotton workers recognised the benefits to the city of US cotton, while decrying the manner of its production. Likewise we in Manchester can be appreciative of the UAE’s investment, but just as the cotton workers were concerned about slavery in the US there is something that lessens our sympathy with the UAE and our confidence in it.

That something is the UAE’s flagrant human rights abuses and its unjust imprisonment of human rights campaigners such as Ahmed Mansoor. Ahmed is a pro-democracy and human rights campaigner who has been publicly critical of serious human rights abuses in the UAE. He is the 2015 Laureate for the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders and a member of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East Advisory Committee.

On 20th March 2017, about a dozen UAE security officers arrested Ahmed at his home in Ajman in the early hours of the morning. The UAE’s official news agency, WAM, claimed that Ahmed had been arrested on the orders of the Public Prosecution for Cybercrimes, detained pending further investigation and he is accused of using social media websites to “publish false information and rumours”, “promote [a] sectarian and hate-incited agenda”, and “publish false and misleading information that harm national unity and social harmony and damage the country’s reputation.” It is believed that Ahmed is being held in solitary confinement and has only received two family visits since he was imprisoned. Even though his trial has now started, he has not seen a lawyer. Amnesty International consider him to be a prisoner of conscience.

Opposing the UAE’s human rights abuses, whilst being appreciative of its investment in Manchester, does not come with anything like the costs endured by the cotton workers of old. Rather, Manchester City Council, as the custodian the rich progressive heritage of Manchester (which also includes the pro-democracy demonstrators killed by the cavalry at Peterloo, the suffragettes, and the largest anti-slavery petition in history), should use its relationship and influence with the owners of Manchester City FC to persuade the UAE to respect basic international obligations.

A start would be to name a street in Manchester after Ahmed. It would be a fitting honour to bestow upon an individual who embodies so many of the qualities that our city celebrates as a key part of its history. Recently a group of Manchester residents, including members of Garden Court North Chambers, launched such a campaign. Unfortunately, the Council’s initial response has not been positive, but we hope that you, following in the spirit of those cotton workers, will support the campaign and encourage the Council to use its influence to persuade the UAE to respect basic international obligations.

Andrew Byles is a barrister at Garden Court North Chambers.

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