LONDON (Reuters) - From bizarre claims about the use of “mercenaries” to tongue-in-cheek travel advisories, countries long used to Western criticism of their own human rights records are relishing Britain’s embarrassment over the riots sweeping its cities.
With its long colonial past and its carefully nurtured self-image as the mother of parliamentary democracy and fair play, Britain is especially vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy and double standards.
London’s status as a multi-ethnic global village, home to immigrants from around the world, has also helped to guarantee the riots strong international attention and coverage, from Pakistan to Poland, from France to Zimbabwe.
Britain’s critics have not disappointed.
Libyan state television said Thursday British Prime Minister David Cameron was using Irish and Scottish “mercenaries” to tame the riots in English cities. Scotland, Ireland and Wales have been largely spared the violence.
British warplanes and ships, along with those of several NATO allies, have been attacking the forces of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi for months to stop them shelling rebel cities.
Gaddafi is accused of hiring mercenaries mostly from African states to fight the rebels.
State media in Libya, Iran and elsewhere have sought to depict the British looting, arson and rioting as legitimate protests born of social deprivation that the Conservative-led government is now using heavy-handed measures to crush.
Cameron has branded the burning and looting “criminality pure and simple” and he told an emergency session of parliament Thursday that the rioters would be tracked down and punished.
The British leader also said he would keep a higher police presence of 16,000 officers on London streets through the weekend and would consider calling in troops.
Uganda’s Daily Monitor carried an ironic travel advisory to people planning to visit “one of the world’s richest countries,” saying: “It is advised that only trips of absolute necessity be made.”
Honeymooners flying to London’s Heathrow airport should refrain from visiting the city and instead take an onward flight to Scotland’s Outer Hebrides “where there is plenty of sheep and a bit of wind,” it said.
“They can enjoy a quiet honeymoon there. If they really have to go to mainland Britain, they are advised not to travel together. The bride can go to Scotland, the husband to Wales.”
Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, whose relations with Britain, his country’s former colonial master, have long been poor over his human rights record, weighed into the fray too.
“Britain, I understand, is on fire, London especially, and we hope they can extinguish their fire, pay attention to their internal problems and to that fire now blazing all over, and leave us alone,” the Zimbabwe Guardian quoted him saying.
Iran has been especially vocal in its taunting of Britain over the riots, turning the tables on a country that helped lead Western condemnation of Tehran’s crackdown on streets demonstrations that followed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in June 2009.
The hardline conservative Iranian daily Kayhan likened the riots Thursday to the “awakenings” of the Arab Spring that have toppled or badly shaken despotic Arab rulers.
“Now the nations’ uprisings and tumult against illegitimate rule, after the Middle East region and North Africa, has found its way to the heart of Europe,” it said in an editorial.
Wednesday Ahmadinejad called on Britain to curb its “savage” treatment of the rioters and to tackle the poverty and discrimination he said underlay the violence.
Britain’s top diplomat in Tehran responded Thursday with a letter saying London was happy to discuss its handling of the street unrest.
“I would remind you that the UK has a standing invitation to all U.N. special rapporteurs and has facilitated the visits of a number of these rapporteurs to the UK in recent years,” British Charge d‘Affaires Jane Marriott wrote.
“I urge the Iranian government to extend a similar courtesy to the dedicated U.N. special rapporteur for the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, to enable him to address the international community’s grave concerns about ongoing human rights violations within Iran.”
The U.N. Human Rights Council voted in March to nominate a special rapporteur for Iran to look into its crackdown on the opposition and frequent use of the death penalty. Iran has so far declined to allow Shaheed to visit.
Britain’s European partners including France, Italy and Austria have issued travel advisories to their nationals visiting London and other cities urging them to show caution.
Israel has also advised its citizens to exercise vigilance when visiting British cities and an Israeli travel agency said up to 30 percent of customers had canceled planned flights and hotel reservations in Britain in recent days.
“People (are) afraid to fly to London, people don’t want to fly with the children, people don’t want to fly with their families,” Elishama Atias, manager of the Kanfei Meshek travel agency in Jerusalem told Reuters television.
Additional reporting by Robin Pomeroy and Hashem Kalantari in Tehran, Souhail Karam in Rabat, other Reuters bureau; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Myra MacDonald