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’.