John Bercow: Forget Little Britain. Let's join up with the international brigade

We must take the initiative in highlighting injustice


The Tory party needs to develop a far broader and more imaginative approach to international affairs. A Tory foreign policy must be about more than the American special relationship, Europe or Zimbabwe. All of these issues matter but, if pursued exclusively, they represent too narrow an approach to our responsibilities. Both because it is right in itself, and to appeal effectively to a sophisticated electorate, Conservatives need to fight the cause of conflict resolution, human rights and international development.

We should be passionately concerned about the mass slaughter in Darfur, the rendition and torture of terrorist suspects, the oppression of the people of Burma and the plight of more than a billion people who exist on less than a dollar a day.

As the new shadow foreign secretary, William Hague has the chance to fashion a principled foreign policy which is both more consistent and effective than that of New Labour. A period of silence on our traditional foreign policy issues would do no harm as we focus on the abuse of human rights.

Let William start with Darfur. In September, Jack Straw told the Labour Party conference that the world had "a collective responsibility to protect all citizens from genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity". This fine rhetoric must be turned into action in Darfur where 300,000 people have been slaughtered in two years. Aerial bombing, mass shooting, widespread rape, theft of livestock, destruction of crops and poisoning of water supplies are all part of the cocktail of savagery that has stunned the world.

To date, the response of the international community has been risible. Every so often the United Nations Security Council chides the butchers of Khartoum and hints vaguely at actions that might follow if the Sudan government does not start to behave itself. Meanwhile, the death toll mounts.

The top priority now is to strengthen the African Union force. It is no use talking about peacekeeping. What is needed is a mandate for peace enforcement. Moreover, Britain and others must provide the training, equipment and logistical support that the force needs to be able to protect civilians. Crucially, the AU force must be blue-helmeted with all the financial backing that will thereby flow automatically from the UN.

While the international community is dithering, thousands in Darfur are dying. As the UK holds the presidency of the Security Council this month, the Conservative opposition should clamour every day for the UK government to press for decisive Security Council action.

There is widespread concern about the use of torture to obtain evidence from terrorist suspects. The Conservative Party must proclaim its traditional belief in civil liberties and insist that this country should demand the same respect for human rights from friend and foe alike.

For example, cooperation with Uzbekistan in fighting global terrorism must not deter us from telling the truth: its government's practice of boiling dissident journalists to death is intolerable. Similarly, reports that British-made arms were used by the Uzbek government against civilians should alarm all democrats and we should press insistently for the British government to investigate these reports.

Tories should be no less robust in telling the United States that its conduct at Guantanamo Bay is wrong. When accusations of maltreatment are made, such as with rendition, Britain should not meekly accept the US line but always be prepared to look at the independent evidence. Conservatives should stress that Britain's role is not to be a craven lickspittle but a candid friend.

In any list of the world's most brutal and sadistic regimes, the military junta in Burma must be at, or near, the top. Rape as a weapon of war, compulsory relocation, forced labour, use of child soldiers, human mine sweepers, water torture, religious persecution and the wanton destruction of villages all testify to the regime's bestiality. Yet Burma has never been an item on the Security Council agenda, and thus the junta has been free to tyrannise with impunity. Almost as astonishingly, there has never been an oral statement in the Commons on the crisis in Burma. If ministers refuse to debate the issue in government time, Conservatives should devote opposition time to it instead.

Conservatives should call for robust sanctions against the oil, gas, gems and timber sectors. This would cut funds to the military, undermine the totalitarian state apparatus and hasten change. The UN should impose an arms embargo so the government stops slaughtering its own people. We should also press for the referral of Burma to the International Criminal Court for suspected war crimes, crimes against humanity and attempted genocide.

Grinding poverty in sub-Saharan Africa would be a scandal even if the West had not contributed to it. Yet the scandal is even greater for the fact that we have. Rich nations preach free enterprise but practise protectionism on a grotesque scale. In subsidising our agriculture to the tune of $6bn (£3.4bn) a week, we are deliberately making the poor poorer.

Stopping that dumping and opening our markets are not merely economically desirable, but morally imperative. Such trade reform is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for development. Large-scale aid, debt relief and good governance are vital too and the challenge for Tories is to promote a meaningful partnership for progress.

William Hague has the opportunity not merely to adjust our tone or policy, but to change our entire mindset. Inevitably, the Government has power and resources which the Opposition does not enjoy, but we should not let ministers set the agenda. We must take the initiative in highlighting injustice, challenging governments to honour their legal obligations and insisting that they help those unable to help themselves.

A new Tory internationalism would not be a slogan for a week but a priority for decades to come. Let it be part of our renewed appeal to a discontented electorate.

John Bercow MP was shadow secretary of state for International Development from November 2003 to September 2004

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