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
Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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