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How Boris Johnson’s government lost its way on human rights

Downing Street claims civil liberties are at the top of its list of priorities for Global Britain. Is that really true?

By Freddie Hayward

“If this government thinks that it is seen as a bastion for freedom and human rights around the world, it is delusional, utterly delusional,” Philippe Sands, a human rights lawyer and the author of East West Street, told me when we spoke recently.

“There is no fundamental commitment to the idea of human rights,” he said, adding that the government has made it “pitiful and embarrassing to talk about a British commitment to human rights around the world”.

Sands’s withering condemnation may come as a surprise to those listening to Dominic Raab’s speech at the UN Human Rights Council in February. “The UK places the promotion and protection of human rights at the very top of our list of international priorities,” the Foreign Secretary proclaimed.

It might also surprise those who read the government’s recent Integrated Review, published in March, which set out its overarching security and foreign policy. The review describes defending “universal human rights” as a “priority action” and reaffirms the government’s commitment to the UN and the Council of Europe.

This messaging is part of the rhetoric around “Global Britain”: the slogan for the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy. Unleashed from the confines of the EU, the government says that Britain can now act as a “force for good in the world”.

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But so far, the human rights policy of Boris Johnson’s government has proven contradictory. The government has made some progress in defending human rights abroad, but this has been inconsistent and marred by a disregard for them at home.

Unable to blame the EU for holding it back, the government is wholly accountable for its foreign policy. So is it living up to its rhetoric, or is the pretence of Global Britain as a “force for good” masking a government which treats human rights with growing recklessness?

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It is not difficult to find evidence suggesting that Johnson’s government views human rights with insouciant disregard. A bill that became law in April, for instance, originally sought to shield British soldiers from prosecution for serious human rights violations, including torture and genocide, before the government eventually backed down following sustained opposition. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that the original bill would make it “substantially less likely” that the armed forces would be held accountable for serious human rights violations.

Johnson’s government has also upheld the policy of depriving those who joined ISIS of their citizenship. In the example of Shamima Begum, whose case made headlines in 2019 when Sajid Javid, who was then home secretary, acted to remove her British citizenship, Johnson’s government argued to the Supreme Court in November 2020 that national security trumped her right to appeal the decision, which led to an indefinite delay to her case. And last year, the Foreign Office halved its funding for human rights work from £52.4m to £27.9m, as the government cut the aid budget from 0.7 per cent of GDP to 0.5 per cent. 

Despite Raab’s speech to the Human Rights Council, the government has also rebuked key international institutions that are designed to protect human rights. Following the International Criminal Court’s announcement in March of an investigation into alleged war crimes in the Palestinian Territories, Johnson criticised the ICC for what he said appeared to be a “partial and prejudicial attack” on Israel. The Prime Minister has also undermined the authority of the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea through the explicit rejection of the latter’s ruling in January that the UK government should hand over the Chagos islands to Mauritius. In the early 1970s, between 1,500 and 2,000 Chagossians were forcibly deported from the archipelago and they have never been able to return.

What the government is trying to do is challenge the idea that the rule of law is eternal

Sands, who represented Mauritius in the most recent case relating to Chagos, thinks there’s a “total contempt for the idea of a rule of law, for the rights of people, for human rights, for lawyers, for judges” within this government. He is also acutely critical of the Prime Minister himself, for whom he thinks “lawyers, the rule of law and human rights are a joke”.

Not everyone is quite so critical of the government. The UK’s former UN ambassador and national security adviser, Mark Lyall Grant, argues that Johnson’s government, and the approach around Global Britain more broadly, do not represent a significant change in human rights policy. He believes that the language used in the Integrated Review with respect to human rights was “roughly the same language” used in the 2015 and 2018 reviews. “Human rights plays an important role, but not a dominant role in the government’s vision for Global Britain,” he told me.

From Lyall Grant’s perspective it’s unrealistic to aspire to a human rights policy devoid of economic and security considerations. In terms of foreign policy, “you’ve got the economic pillar, you’ve got the security pillar, and you’ve got the values pillar. The most significant debates that I attended at the National Security Council boiled down to a balance between those three pillars,” Lyall  Grant said.

These competing considerations are reflected in the government’s Magnitsky-style human rights sanctions regime, which was established in July 2020. Magnitsky-style sanctions restrict the movements and finances of individuals who have committed human rights abuses. For instance, the UK sanctioned Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko for his crackdown on protesters over the summer. Elsewhere, the government has sanctioned Chinese officials and institutions involved in the persecution of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, as well as the Saudi officials involved in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi .

Raab has been keen to trumpet these actions, but inconsistencies remain. The week following the Saudi sanctions, it was announced that arm sales to Saudi Arabia would resume. Geoffrey Robertson, a human rights lawyer whose recent book Bad People advocates for greater use of Magnitsky-style sanctions, was not surprised that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who most likely ordered Khashoggi’s murder, was excluded from the sanctions list. “[The government] would never think of sanctioning the Crown Prince,” he said. As well as Saudi Arabia’s role as a military ally, Robertson argues that the Foreign Office is “inured to prioritising trade over human rights”.

Robertson is less critical of the government’s human rights policy than Sands. He notes that the campaign for Magnitsky-style sanctions was failing in 2016, whereas now it is up and running and has already borne some success. “So, I don’t think it’s all bad news,” he said. “I think we’ve got to accept the world has got more difficult.” 

In this difficult world, it is true that some progress is being made to promote human rights. Although inconsistently applied and vulnerable to the whims of geopolitics, the Magnitsky-style sanctions do target human rights abusers. The government’s recent offer to potentially 5.4 million Hong Kongers to settle in the UK following Beijing’s crackdown on democracy also suggests awareness of human rights (though this was predicated on Britain’s historical connection to Hong Kong). Further, this month the government set out its commitment to putting 40 million more girls in school by 2026, stating that “education is a human right”.

It’s just people who are manifestly ill-equipped for their positions

Perhaps, then, the crux of the issue lies elsewhere. The Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat is the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a fierce advocate for human rights. He believes that the government’s inconsistent approach is not located in a new disregard for human rights, but for the rule of law. Key members of the government, he argues, do not dislike human rights per se. Instead, they resent the constraint of rules and legal authority. The attempt to protect soldiers from prosecution, the bending of international law through depriving people’s citizenship, the Prime Minister’s rebuke of international courts: arguably, these examples are better explained by a disregard for the rule of law than for human rights. 

Tugendhat argues that the government’s record on human rights is in fact “pretty good” and that it “hasn’t tried to undermine human rights”, even if it may have inadvertently done so.

“That’s not what it’s trying to do. What it’s trying to do is challenge the idea that the rule of law is eternal. What it’s trying to actually say is the rule of law is variable. And it’s variable according to public decision, democratic outcomes, of which the [2019] election and the [Brexit] referendum were two.”

This attitude was on display in September when a minister admitted that government legislation would break international law in “a very specific and limited way”, as it was with Johnson’s attempt to prorogue parliament in 2019, which the Supreme Court later ruled “unlawful”.

However, Tugendhat’s distinction between human rights and the rule of law does not absolve the government. The two are not easily separated: human rights depend on an equal and fair application of the law. Whether the government’s action is better explained by a disrespect for the rule of law is an important question, but that does not detract from the human rights implications of its policies.

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In 2017, Johnson – then foreign secretary – made an erroneous statement the British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was teaching journalism before she was detained in Iran. His carelessness and lack of familiarity with the issue undermined the campaign to release her, and embarrassed Britain.

Nearly four years later, there are those who argue this recklessness plagues the government Johnson now leads, and is partly to blame for its disappointing record on human rights. While there may be examples of progress, the rhetoric of those at the top does not match their actions.

“It’s just people who are manifestly ill-equipped for their positions,” Sands posits. “Who have no sense of history, no sense of responsibility, no sense of engagement with the rest of the world.”

It is true that, as Lyall Grant argues, no government’s human rights policy will ever be independent of security and economic concerns. And neither should the change in the UK government’s policy since 2019 be overstated. But even understanding that, it is difficult to look at some of the decisions this government has taken and align them with its claim that human rights is “at the very top of our list of international priorities”.  

Without a consistent policy for human rights both at home and abroad, the government’s claim that post-Brexit Britain will be a “force for good in the world” seems hollow. As Sands puts it:

“That’s the irony: at the very moment when Britain has cast itself adrift and made itself more irrelevant internationally, it ought to be embracing its traditional values – the things for which it has been respected.”