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 New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times