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6 April 2016

Britain is weaker if our principles are for sale

Our commitment to human rights abroad has never been weaker, says Hilary Benn.

By Hilary Benn

Britain’s voice in the world is a reflection not only of the strength of our economy, but also the leadership we demonstrate in standing up for fundamental rights around the world.

Indeed, our long-term security and prosperity are best protected when we seek to uphold and protect human rights and democratic freedoms beyond our own shores.

It was not so long ago that this was taken as read. Indeed, in 2011 the then Foreign Secretary William Hague declared there would be “no downgrading of human rights under this government.” He said that pursuing a foreign policy with a conscience was in the “long-term enlightened national interest of our country.” 

So it is troubling that, across a number of areas of the Conservative government’s foreign policy, human rights concerns now appear to be of secondary importance to commercial diplomacy.

This change in priorities was spelled out in no uncertain terms by the FCO’s permanent secretary, Simon Macdonald, when he told the cross-party foreign affairs select committee in October that human rights are “not one of the top priorities” in the department. 

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The committee’s latest report into the FCO’s approach to human rights, published today, further confirms this to be the case, but the alarm bells have been ringing for some time. 

Take our relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Whether it’s the now-cancelled UK-Saudi prisons contract, or the FCO’s response to the mass executions that took place in the Kingdom earlier this year, the UK Government has increasingly appeared weak. And when it comes to arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the FCO has been evasive.

Under UK and EU law, the Government should not grant arms export licences to a country if there is a “clear risk” that the items might be used in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law.

Whilst it is abundantly clear that such a risk exists in relation to the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign in Yemen, where a humanitarian disaster is unfolding, more than 100 UK licences have been issued in the past 12 months alone.

Phillip Hammond has said that Saudi Arabia’s denials that it is breaching the laws of war in Yemen are “not enough” and that “proper investigations” are needed. And yet he has consistently refused to heed Labour’s call for a suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia while a full investigation takes place into whether breaches of international humanitarian law have occurred.

In Britain’s relations with China, too, there is cause for concern.

George Osborne’s focus on trade rather than human rights during his visit in November 2015 to China’s restive Xinjiang province earned him praise from the state-run Global Times, who ran an editorial saying he was “the first Western official in recent years who has stressed more the region’s business potential instead of finding fault over the human rights issue”.  

This is not the sort of praise that any British diplomat, let alone the Chancellor of the Exchequer, should find flattering.

In stark contrast to the US, Canada and Germany, the British Embassy in Beijing marked UN Human Rights Day in December by praising what it said were Beijing’s attempts to better protect the civil and political rights of its citizens, and yet Human Rights Watch says the Chinese government has since 2013 unleashed “an extraordinary assault on basic human rights and their defenders with a ferocity unseen in recent years.” 

A similar assault is underway in Egypt which, under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has seen a deeply worrying slide into authoritarianism. 

The past three years have been marked by a sharp rise in the number of arbitrary arrests, death sentences and executions, with some 40,000 dissenters jailed, including hundreds of journalists. 

Yet in November, President Sisi was given a diplomatic coup when he was invited to visit London on an official visit. In the joint press conference at Downing Street, the Prime Minister failed to mention human rights or democratic development.

Writing for the Independent, the Foreign Secretary has insisted that the government’s preferred approach of “quiet” engagement “behind the scenes” can be more effective than “lecturing people”. 

There are two problems with this approach.

First, it is not clear if or when behind the scenes discussions are taking place, and without proper scrutiny, standards may slip. 

In evidence to the foreign affairs committee in March last year, one government minister had to be asked several times whether human rights had been raised during a government-led trade delegation from Britain to Cairo, before admitting the issue had not. 

Secondly, although private discussions are of course important and can be useful, this should not be at the expense of speaking up when it is right and necessary to do so. 

Our relationships with Saudi Arabia, China and Egypt are undoubtedly important, whether in terms of trade, security or intelligence sharing. 

But the basis of any close relationship must be that the two parties can be honest with and, where necessary, critical of one another; indeed, this is in both countries’ national interest. 

Reluctance to fully champion human rights and fundamental freedoms not only runs counter to this country’s proudest traditions, it risks eroding our international standing and influence. 

If the government is not concerned about how this looks, it should be. By creating a perception that, for the UK, trade trumps everything else, we are not only “quieter” but also weaker.