Why are ministers still ducking a debate on human rights abroad?

There are too many concerns to cover and too many issues on which ministers have been evasive for the government to refuse a full day’s debate.

Britain’s standing in the world is in part dependent upon our commitment to human rights and democracy. But sadly, MPs were this year again denied a chance to fully debate the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in promoting and protecting human rights abroad. This was the third year that I have replied to the annual debate in Westminster Hall on the FCO’s human rights work and the debate was, once again, highly unsatisfactory, not least because, in January 2014, we're discussing a report on the FCO’s human rights work in 2012.

Ninety minutes is not nearly enough time to cover the 27 countries of concern highlighted by the FCO’s own report, let alone discuss why the government has again left countries such as Bahrain off the list.

There are also broader global themes, such as the increasing prevalence of sexual violence in conflict, growing concern about the persecution of religious minorities abroad, regressive steps in some countries on LGBT equality and the government’s stance on business and human rights. The government's action on human rights - or lack of action in some cases - warrants the exposure and scrutiny of a full day’s debate.

So it is now time that FCO ministers agree to a debate in government time and on the floor of the House. There are too many concerns to cover and too many issues on which ministers have been evasive. The publication of an annual human rights report – which Labour introduced in government - should not be used as a fig leaf by ministers reluctant to broach difficult issues.

On Sri Lanka for example, David Cameron did eventually appear to question President Rajapaksa over his human rights record at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November. But this was long overdue. He was forced to speak out by campaigners like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, by the Tamil community in the UK and by the Labour Party urging the government to do more in the run up to the summit.

The Prime Minister could - and should - have intervened earlier to demand President Rajapaksa comply with UN resolutions emphasising the need for reconciliation and an independent, credible investigation into alleged violations of international law, or to support the UN High Commissioner for Human Right's call for an international inquiry. Something Douglas Alexander, as Labour's shadow foreign secretary, had been calling for since 2011. Labour repeatedly urged the government to use the Prime Minister's potential attendance at CHOGM as leverage. But letters to ministers, Parliamentary Questions and debates in Parliament did not elicit an appropriate response or real engagement with the issue. 

There was further hesitation and obfuscation when it came to China. China's global importance cannot be underestimated and we value a strong relationship with the world's largest country. But the government seems determined to view China through narrow blinkers, confining our bilateral relationship to a narrow understanding of our commercial interests. A closer, more strategic relationship does not mean that we should be silent on human rights issues. Parliamentary questions that I tabled to George Osborne about his discussions on human rights during his October visit received a generic answer from a junior minister who did not even accompany him to China.

So I tried again, this time tabling questions to the Prime Minister before he left China a month later. I tabled three "named day" questions which should have been answered three days later, calling on the Prime Minister to discuss specific human rights concerns, the UK and China's roles on the Human Rights Council, and climate change during his trip.

But it wasn't until after his trip had taken place that I received just the one answer: "The government is committed to engagement with China on a full range of subjects as part of a broad and mature relationship. Nothing was off limits in my conversations in China and I raised climate change and human rights issues and agreed a new round of the UK-China human rights dialogue in early 2014." Of course it is not always appropriate in foreign affairs to relate every word of diplomatic relations, but the Prime Minister’s response implies at best that he gives a cursory mention to human rights during meetings.

An upcoming test for the government’s approach will be the Deputy Prime Minister’s visit to Colombia, a country with which the EU has recently agreed a Free Trade Agreement, but where there are still disturbing human rights violations and threats to the lives of trade unionists and activists. I believe in engagement with Colombia, in support of the peace talks and its economic and democratic development, but we must be frank when there are shortcomings and this cannot be just another Ministerial trade mission.

The Foreign Secretary once espoused a foreign policy that has "consistent support for human rights and poverty reduction at its irreducible core". The coalition must do much more to prove to Parliament and to watching NGOs that the reality matches some ministers’ rhetoric.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang accompanies David Cameron to view an honour guard during inside the Great Hall of the People on December 2, 2013 in Beijing. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kerry McCarthy is the Labour MP for Bristol East and the shadow foreign minister.

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Senior Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians call for a progressive alliance

As Brexit gets underway, opposition grandees urge their parties – Labour, Lib Dems, the SNP and Greens – to form a pact.

A number of senior Labour and opposition politicians are calling for a cross-party alliance. In a bid to hold the Conservative government to account as Brexit negotiations kick off, party grandees are urging their leaders to put party politics to one side and work together.

The former Labour minister Chris Mullin believes that “the only way forward” is “an eventual pact between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens not to oppose each other in marginal seats”. 

 “Given the loss of Scotland,it will be difficult for any party that is not the Conservative party to form a government on its own in the foreseeable future," Mullin argues, but he admits, “no doubt tribalists on both sides will find this upsetting” and laments that, “it may take three or four election defeats for the penny to drop”.

But there are other Labour and Liberal grandees who are envisaging such a future for Britain’s progressive parties.

The Lib Dem peer and former party leader Ming Campbell predicts that “there could be some pressure” after the 2020 election for Labour MPs to look at “SDP Mark II”, and reveals, “a real sense among the left and the centre-left that the only way Conservative hegemony is going to be undermined is for a far higher degree of cooperation”.

The Gang of Four’s David Owen, a former Labour foreign secretary who co-founded the SDP, warns Labour that it must “face up to reality” and “proudly and completely coherently” agree to work with the SNP.

“It is perfectly legitimate for the Labour party to work with them,” he tells me. “We have to live with that reality. You have to be ready to talk to them. You won’t agree with them on separation but you can agree on many other areas, or you certainly should be trying.”

The Labour peer and former home secretary Charles Clarke agrees that Labour must “open up an alliance with the SNP” on fighting for Britain to remain in the single market, calling it “an opportunity that’s just opened”. He criticises his party for having “completely failed to deal with how we relate to the SNP” during the 2015 election campaign, saying, “Ed Miliband completely messed that up”.

“The SNP will still be a big factor after the 2020 general election,” Clarke says. “Therefore we have to find a way to deal with them if we’re interested in being in power after the election.”

Clarke also advises his party to make pacts with the Lib Dems ahead of the election in individual constituencies in the southwest up to London.

“We should help the Lib Dems to win some of those seats, a dozen of those seats back from the Tories,” he argues. “I think a seat-by-seat examination in certain seats which would weaken the Tory position is worth thinking about. There are a few seats where us not running – or being broadly supportive of the Lib Dems – might reduce the number of Tory seats.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown agrees that such cooperation could help reduce the Tory majority. When leader, he worked informally in the Nineties with then opposition leader Tony Blair to coordinate their challenge to the Conservative government.

“We’re quite like we were in 1992 when Tony Blair and I started working together but with bells on,” Ashdown tells me. “We have to do something quite similar to what Blair and I did, we have to create the mood of a sort of space, where people of an intelligent focus can gather – I think this is going to be done much more organically than organisationally.”

Ashdown describes methods of cooperation, including the cross-party Cook-Maclennan Agreement on constitutional reform, uniting on Scottish devolution, a coordinated approach to PMQs, and publishing 50 seats in the Daily Mirror before the 1997 election, outlining seats where Labour and Lib Dem voters should tactically vote for one another to defeat Tory candidates.

“We created the climate of an expectation of cooperation,” Ashdown recalls. Pursuing the spirit of this time, he has set up a movement called More United, which urges cross-party support of candidates and campaigns that subscribe to progressive values.

He reveals that that “Tory Central Office are pretty hostile to the idea, Mr Corbyn is pretty hostile to the idea”, but there are Conservative and Labour MPs who are “talking about participating in the process”.

Indeed, my colleague George reveals in his report for the magazine this week that a close ally of George Osborne has approached the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron about forming a new centrist party called “The Democrats”. It’s an idea that the former chancellor had reportedly already pitched to Labour MPs.

Labour peer and former cabinet minister Tessa Jowell says this is “the moment” to “build a different kind of progressive activism and progressive alliance”, as people are engaging in movements more than parties. But she says politicians should be “wary of reaching out for what is too easily defined as an elite metropolitan solution which can also be seen as simply another power grab”.

She warns against a “We’re going to have a new party, here’s the board, here’s the doorplate, and now you’re invited to join” approach. “Talk of a new party is for the birds without reach and without groundedness – and we have no evidence of that at the moment.”

A senior politician who wished not to be named echoes Jowell’s caution. “The problem is that if you’re surrounded by a group of people who think that greater cooperation is necessary and possible – people who all think the same as you – then there’s a terrible temptation to think that everyone thinks the same as you,” they say.

They warn against looking back at the “halcyon days” of Blair’s cooperation with the Lib Dems. “It’s worth remembering they fell out eventually! Most political marriages end in divorce, don’t they?”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.