Human rights: Ethics isn’t on the Foreign Office’s map

A senior mandarin has admitted that promoting human rights abroad is no longer one of the Government’s priorities 

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In a little-noticed exchange towards the end of July, the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, was asked by a Labour MP whether there was any truth in the rumour that his department’s annual human-rights report was being “drastically” cut back. Hammond responded without hesitation: “Yes. I don’t think it is a rumour.” He added that the change should be seen not as a cutback but as an attempt to make a “very lengthy document” easier to use.

Publishing an annual human-rights report was one of Robin Cook’s initiatives when he became Foreign Secretary in 1997. It quickly came to be regarded as an invaluable resource, providing reliable summaries of countries where torture and other abuses were rife, but it was also a measure of the Labour government’s commitment to promoting democracy. Here is the opening line from the foreword to the 2003 edition, which happens to be on my bookshelves: “A concern for the victims of humanrights abuses lies at the heart of the Government’s foreign policy”.

Compare that statement with the evidence given last month by the top civil servant at the Foreign Office, Sir Simon McDonald. In only his second week in the job, McDonald was relaxed and assured when he appeared before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Asked by the same Labour MP, Ann Clwyd, whether human rights were now a lower priority at the Foreign Office, McDonald acknowledged what amounts to a dramatic shift in policy: “Well,” he began, “answering as Permanent Secretary, I say that although it is one of the things we follow, it is not one of our top priorities.” 

Pressed by Clwyd, who suggested that human rights are now “pretty low” on the agenda compared with trade and industry, McDonald said he “would dispute that it’s low down but [not] that right now the prosperity agenda is higher up the list”. The exchange sheds a fascinating light on George Osborne’s trip to China, which resulted in the spectacle of a senior British minister being praised in  China’s state media for his reluctance to confront his hosts about their ruthless suppression of dissent.

This year’s edition of the human rights report lists China as “country of concern” but the tone reflects what can now be seen as the new priorities. “China’s economic growth continued in 2014, leading to further improvements in the social and economic rights of many of its citizens,” the section begins. It goes on to acknowledge that civil and political rights remain restricted, but the contrast with the language of earlier editions is striking. 

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A woman wears a decorated crown as she takes part in a human rights protest in central London

The 2003 edition opens with a bald catalogue of abuse, including torture, arbitrary detention, “extensive” use of the death penalty, psychiatric abuse, mistreatment of prisoners, and deprivation of religious and cultural rights in Tibet and Xinjiang. 

A preference for “stability” over rights is one reason for the dreadful state of the Middle East

 

I don’t believe that China has become a nicer, more democratic country in the 11 years separating the two reports. But we now have a Conservative Government whose disdain for the idea of universal human rights has been signalled in ministerial speeches about “British values”, not to mention a manifesto commitment to get rid of the Human Rights Act. The latter has been under unremitting assault for years in the right-wing press, where “yuman rites” are regularly mocked by Daily Mail columnists. 

Substantial numbers of people now appear to believe that the Human Rights Act confers unfair advantages on foreigners, instead of establishing mechanisms to ensure that everyone is treated fairly under the law. The Act was one of the most significant achievements of the Labour government elected in 1997, along with Cook’s declaration of an “ethical dimension” to British foreign policy. The record of Tony Blair’s government has been overshadowed by the disaster of the Iraq war, which led to Cook’s resignation as Leader of the House, but his original speech is still worth reading.

“Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves,” Cook said. The speech caused outrage in Tory circles, something I fully understood only when I heard two of John Major’s former ministers complain about the implication that they hadn’t cared about democracy and human rights.

Cook’s vision turned out to be too radical for Tony Blair, who sacked him as Foreign Secretary when he won his second term as Prime Minister in 2001. Blair’s approach to human rights was an incoherent mess: he intervened to stop abuses in Sierra Leone and Kosovo but held out the hand of friendship to two of the world’s worst dictators, Colonel Gaddafi and President Assad. Blair’s willingness to do business with Assad, with whom he appeared at a press conference in Downing Street, is a prime example of foreign policy failure; Assad went on torturing his opponents and suppressing dissent, ensuring that any attempt to overthrow him would be brutal and prolonged.

The preference for “stability” over promoting human rights is one of the reasons why the Middle East is in such a dreadful state today. No dictatorship lasts for ever, but the outcome is likely to be much worse if legitimate forms of dissent have been crushed. British governments have made the same mistake time after time, shoring up nasty regimes and then throwing up their hands when the result is bloody and horrible. 

Incredible as it seems to right-wing politicians, foreign policy is an area where self-interest and principle point in the same direction. Robin Cook knew it, opposing the notion that “political values can be left behind when we check in our passports to travel on diplomatic business”. That’s what this Government seems to be doing. I hope it comes back to haunt them. 

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