Cyprus Mail
CM Regular ColumnistOpinion

Royals can be refugees too 

File photo
The persecution of Harry and Meghan by Britain’s tabloids

By Alper Ali Riza

Prince Harry and his wife Meghan are privileged refugees who have been given asylum in Canada. They fled the UK because of a well-grounded fear of persecution by the tabloid press.

Newspapers like the Daily Mail disingenuously claim the right to breach Harry and Meghan’s privacy and interfere with their correspondence because they are members of the Royal Family. Yet there is no public interest involved in disrespecting their privacy as it is blindingly obvious that the true purpose of newspapers like the Daily Mail is to sell their papers. The public interest defence is only available if violating someone’s privacy is necessary and has a legitimate purpose. Selling newspapers is neither necessary nor legitimate as it is done for private profit masquerading as exercising freedom of speech.

One can well understand if Prince Harry were about to succeed to the throne, it could be in the public interest to publish his wife’s correspondence with her father if, for example, it revealed her to be engaged in some criminal conduct a la Mary Queen of Scots. But Harry is sixth in line to the throne. The only public interest there is in him is that he performs royal duties and receives public money. Hence his decision to forego both and flee to Canada.

No one can argue with Prince Harry that his fear was irrational or paranoid. After all his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in Paris in 1997 pursued by the paparazzi. As a 12- year-old boy he walked behind his mother’s coffin from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey. She was aged just 38 and it left an indelible mark on his psyche. His privacy is being violated by the press the same way his mother was pursued to her premature death. He is now 36 and is fleeing the UK because the British state is unable to protect his privacy from the press despite his plea that the tabloids “destroy people and destroys lives”.

Persecution takes many forms and can range from serious harassment and discrimination of the type suffered by Harry and Meghan to the gas chambers of Auschwitz – whose liberation by Soviet Russia 75 years ago was commemorated in Israel last week.

It is normally on the grounds of race, religion or political opinion. But there is also a residual open-ended category that covers royals, the nobility, gay people, women and other social groups who cannot help who they are or their sex or sexual orientation.

The persecution of refugees is usually from state actors such as police and the secret services but it can also be from non-state agents. When the persecution is from non-state agents – the press in the case of Harry and Meghan – it is the primary duty of every state is to protect its citizens from harassment, honoured in the breach in Britain when it comes to protection of privacy.

International protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention is based on the idea that if the state responsible for protecting its citizens cannot provide proper protection, international law obliges state parties to step up and provide protection to refugees who reach their borders.

Historically, this was a prohibition on the return of refugees to the borders of the countries from which they fled in fear of persecution. Crucially in European Union there is now also an obligation to grant asylum under a complicated system that decides between different EU states the member state with the obligation to examine a case and grant asylum if the claim is made good.

The persecuted social group Prince Harry and his wife belong to is the British royal family. The Refugee Convention came about as a direct result of the persecution suffered by the Jewish people in the hands of the Nazis, but it was also inspired by the fate of the Russian nobility, including the murder of the whole Romanov dynasty, after the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed in 1918 at Yekaterinburg after the Bolsheviks took over in 1917. Britain whose King George V was Tsar Nicholas’ cousin, felt unable to offer the Romanovs asylum and the jury is still out if he refused or was simply unable to help.

The drafters of refugee law used the plight of discarded royals, nobles and feudal landlords who were identifiable as a social group to broaden the ambit of refugee protection in international law.

Unsurprisingly the whole Russian nobility became a persecuted group. They were singled out as enemies of the revolution and abolished as a class. Most escaped to western Europe where international treaties already in place precluded their return to Russia.

More recently Britain gave asylum to King Constantine of Greece who escaped to Rome in 1967 and then to Britain. He still lives in UK and is close to Prince Charles and god father to Prince William.

The Shah of Iran was less fortunate. After he was overthrown and stricken with cancer, he could not find a country to offer him asylum until president Anwar Sadat stepped up. He died in Cairo in 1980.

Refugees are demonised by populist politicians in Europe and US. However, as the case of Harry and Meghan shows, persecution and the reasons for it can vary enormously and countries like Canada still welcome those fleeing persecution, be they princes or paupers. Of course Harry and Meghan are privileged refugees. Their escape to Canada has been easy and they are able to return to UK. It is just that they are not willing to put up with the right-wing tabloid press for fear it might destroy them. Who can blame the son of Diana for fearing the press?

Alper Ali Riza is a queen’s counsel and a part-time judge in the UK

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