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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

If the left leaves it to David Cameron, we'll have Brexit for sure

Only an upbeat, leftwing case can keep Britain in the European Union.

After months flapping and hesitation, and with much of the reporting and detail so dull that it has barely penetrated the consciousness of even those who speak the language of ‘directives’ and treaty provisions, the EU referendum is upon us. With David Cameron signalling concrete outcomes for negotiations, we seem to be set for June, whatever the protests from opposition parties about the date being too close to local and national elections.  

Cameron’s deal, whose most substantive element consists of denying in-work benefits to European citizens, exemplifies the kind of debate that Conservative strategists want to create: a tedious, labyrinthine parochialism, blending the EU’s procedural dullness with an unquestioned mythology of the little Englander. Try actually reading the various letters, let alone the draft decisions, that Cameron extracted from Donald Tusk, and the agreement turns to putty in your head. But in summary, what Cameron is negotiating is designed to keep the EU debate as an in-house affair within the right, to continue and formalise the framing of the debate as between two strains of anti-migrant sentiment, both of them backed by big business.

The deal may be reactionary, but it is also mediocre in its scope and impact. The worries that many of us had in the leftwing pro-In camp, that Cameron’s deal would push back freedom of movement and working and environmental protections so far that we would be unable to mobilise for continued membership of the EU, can now be put to bed. Quite the opposite of allowing Cameron's narrative to demoralise us, the left must now seize an opportunity to put imagination and ideas back at the heart of the referendum debate.

The British political landscape in which that debate will play out is a deceptively volatile environment. Party allegiance is at a nearly all time low. Inequality is growing, and so is the gap between attitudes. The backbone of the UKIP vote – and much of the Out vote – will come from a demographic that, sometimes impoverished by the legacy of Thatcherite economic policy, sees itself as left behind by migration and change. On top of the class war, there is a kind of culture war underway in today’s Britain: on one side those who see LGBT rights, open borders and internationalism as the future; on the other side, those who are scared of the future. About the only thing these groups have in common with one another is their anti-establishment instincts, their total disdain and mistrust of politics as usual.

The only political movement to have broken through the fog of cynicism and disillusionment in British politics has come from the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour has unleashed something new - and while large parts of the press, and some Labour backbenchers, have portrayed this rise as a crusade of the “croissant eating” metropolitan elite, the reality is very different. The rise of the new Labour left has given voice to a renewed socialist and working class politics; its explicitly radical, outsider approach has given it traction across the social divides – among the young looking for a future, and among Labour’s old base. 

A politics of hope – however vague that term might sound – is the only real answer to the populist Euroscepticism that the Out campaign will seek to embody. Radical politics, that proposes an alternative narrative to the scapegoating of migrants, has to find voice in the course of this referendum campaign: put simply, we need to persuade a minimum wage worker that they have more in common with a fellow Polish migrant worker than they do with their employer; we need to persuade someone on a social housing waiting list should blame the privatisation of the housing market, not other homeless families. Fundamentally, the real debate to be had is about who the public blames for social injustice: that is a question which only the left can satisfactorily answer.

The outsider-led volatility of British politics gives the EU referendum a special kind of unpredictability. For voters who have lost faith in the political establishment – and who often have little materially to lose from Brexit – the opportunity to deliver a blow to David Cameron this summer will be tempting. The almost consciously boring, business-dominated Britain Stronger In Europe campaign makes a perfect target for disenfranchised public sentiment, its campaigning style less informed by a metropolitan elite than by the landed gentry. Its main weapons – fear, danger and uncertainty – will work on some parts of the electorate, but will backfire on others, much as the Better Together campaign did in the Scottish referendum.

Last night, Another Europe is Possible held a launch meeting of about a hundred people in central London - with the backing of dozens of MPs, campaigners and academics across the country. It will aim to provide a radical, left wing voice to keep Britain in the EU.

If Britain votes to leave the EU in June, it will give the Right a mandate for a renewed set of attacks on workers’ rights, environmental protections, migrants and freedom of movement. But without an injection of idealism and radicalism,  an In vote will be a mandate for the status quo - at home and in Brussels. In order to seize the real potential of the referendum, the left has to approach the campaign with big ideas and demands. And we have to mobilise.