Make Britain a human rights champion

Human Rights Watch's Tom Porteous gives his take on the direction foreign policy should take under G

In his speech accepting the leadership of the Labour Party on Sunday, Gordon Brown hinted that his foreign policy would be dominated by two themes: counter terrorism and international development.

On counter terrorism he emphasized the need to win ‘the struggle of ideas and ideals’. On development he promised to ‘wage an unremitting battle’ against poverty. On both these fronts, human rights and the rule of law are essential components of a successful strategy.

In Egypt and Pakistan, the UK and the United States should stop working hand in glove with repressive dictatorships which are responsible for torture, arbitrary detention and suppression of non-violent opposition. This policy is playing into the hands of exactly those radical groups it is designed to contain, bolstering the popularity of forces that advocate political violence.

In Afghanistan and Somalia, the UK and the United States should end their dependence on abusive warlords to fight insurgencies. They should work harder to ensure protection for civilians caught up in conflict. And they should put more effort into understanding the complex political environments of those conflicts. Otherwise they will continue to lose hearts and minds to the insurgents.

On Iraq, Brown has said that the UK ‘will meet its obligations’. But there is little sign that it is meeting its moral and humanitarian obligation to help alleviate the suffering of the 2.2 million Iraqi refugees who have engulfed the Iraq’s neighbours as a result of an ill-prepared war of choice. Brown must address this massive crisis not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because if he does not it will spawn more resentment and radicalization.

Brown recognises that ‘a Middle East settlement upholding a two state solution’ in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories is ‘an essential contribution’ to winning the battle of ideas and ideals. But this is unlikely to come about unless the UK, the EU and the United States show scrupulous evenhandedness in upholding the rights of civilians on both sides in the conflicts simmering in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank.

The government has a clear duty to keep its citizens safe from terrorist attacks. But that does not excuse counter terrorism measures and policies which violate basic human rights. Brown should drop his plans to extend to 90 days the period for which terrorism suspects can be held before being charged. And he should end government efforts to deport foreign suspects to states like Jordan and Libya which practise torture, based on flimsy promises of humane treatment.

Under Labour, the UK government has been at the forefront of international development efforts to reduce poverty in Africa and elsewhere. It has learned that foreign aid only works if it goes hand in hand with conflict resolution and better governance. But you can’t have effective conflict resolution and better governance without giving human rights and the rule of law a central role.

Brown should work to put effective economic pressure on the Sudanese government to implement its commitment to allow deployment of a joint UN African Union force in Darfur, to stop the abuses there and to cooperate with international efforts to bring abusers to justice. To do otherwise gives a green light to other would-be abusers and will ensure that Darfur continues to bleed.

The UK should also speak out much more loudly against the human rights abuses of repressive and corrupt governments in the developing world, even if they are allies. The UK is right to excoriate Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe or the government of Burma for their rights violations. But it should also acknowledge and criticize the serious abuses carried out by governments that are recipients of UK development assistance such as Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Oil rich Angola and Nigeria are important trade partners of the UK. But their governments have, without serious criticism from the UK, perpetrated massive corruption against their people. While their elites loot national and local government treasuries, schools and health clinics go un-built or are in shambles and 90 percent of their populations live on less than $2 a day. Brown should fight this devastating corruption by strengthening the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and other international and local anti-corruption mechanisms.

Whether governments like the UK are engaged in a struggle against terrorism or one against poverty, human rights and the rule of law are not luxuries they can afford to discard when the going gets tough. The relegation of human rights in recent years has made the world a more dangerous place. Three of the biggest powers in the world, the United States, Russia and China are discounted as credible champions of human rights because they are also abusers of human rights, albeit to different degrees.

Gordon Brown should revive the UK’s dormant championship of human rights and push the EU to fill the leadership void so that at least one strong global player stands up to the worst abusers and speaks up for the abused. That’s how to win the ‘struggle of ideas and ideals’.

Tom Porteous is the London director of Human Rights Watch
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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.