A foreign policy with a conscience

Our government promised a foreign policy that will always have support for human rights at its irreducible core. It is not in our character as a nation to have a foreign policy without a conscience, and neither is it in our interests
— Lord William Hague, 2011

As much as political parties or governments try to shape policy, their policy is often shaped by the world around us. Whether it be William Wilberforce’s fight against slavery or the creation of the European Convention on Human Rights, inspired by Sir Winston Churchill as a response to the barbarity of the Second World War, great leaders can secure great progress responding to times of great crisis.

So how can the Conservative Party today build on the work of its forbearers to ensure human rights is at the heart of foreign policy? The Party could do well to look within its own rank and file, for there, there is plenty of food for thought. Whether it be the Conservative Women’s Organisation - pressing for greater representation of women both here in the UK and overseas – or their very own Conservative Human Rights Commission pushing for human rights to be priority.

At Amnesty our message to any government or political party is human rights matter both at home and abroad. So we strongly believe that the first step for any successful rights- respecting foreign policy is ensuring those values and rights are protected at home; this means standing up for human rights here in the UK, including our very own Human Rights Act, which protects all of us, all of the time.

So, that said, how can this Government achieve a foreign policy with a conscience? I will outline three key areas where progress can, has and should be made.

Individuals at risk

History often recalls the role of great leaders of change but we must never forget the many thousands of individuals who have struggled to secure these hard won rights and protections; their efforts have benefited us all. These brave human rights defenders, to this day, challenge brutality, oppression and injustice in every part of the world, often risking their lives to expose abuses and hold powerful people and states to account.

Yet we have seen a global crackdown on civil society space including a plethora of repressive legislation. Protecting these individuals and removing repressive red tape should be a central tenant of Conservative foreign policy; not only because restrictive NGO and funding laws will make these brave individuals less safe and able to carry out their work, but also it will likely restrict human rights and development programmes across FCO and DFID.

We’d like to see UK Ministers make a point of always meeting these brave human rights defenders on every ministerial overseas visit, thus taking a leaf out of Geoffrey Howe’s book. Geoffrey Howe felt the work of brave dissidents was so important that on one foreign visit he took part in a decoy party in Prague while his own FCO officials secretly met the Czechoslovakian Government’s political opponents.

Legacy building blocks

The Conservative Party may find much to build on in its own recent legacy. In the last six years we have seen the UK Government commit to spend 0.7% of its gross national income on aid every year, secure a global Arms Trade Treaty and put women’s rights front and centre of UK foreign policy. So what next? Well it’s the age old adage of putting words and agreements into practice.

In 2013, the Prime Minister hailed the Arms Trade Treaty as a landmark agreement that would "save lives and ease the immense human suffering caused by armed conflict". He said Britain should be proud of the role it had played in securing an agreement that would make the world safer for all.

Cut to 2016 where Amnesty has found that the UK Government is in breach of this very landmark Arms Trade Treaty by supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia in the context of its bombing campaign in Yemen, with a devastating cost of thousands of civilian casualties.

What is more, DFID funding efforts to help civilians caught up in the conflict, continue to be undermined by the Government fuelling the conflict with arms sales and technical support. By suspending these arms sales with immediate effect the UK could not only save lives and strengthen the impact of its own aid to the region, but also restore its pride and become a global leader championing the implementation of this vital Arms Trade Treaty once more.

The Conservative Party need look no further than the leadership on women’s rights shown by William Hague (and his closest advisers) as a setting off point for a nascent feminist foreign policy, with the Foreign Office Minister Baroness Anelay now passed the torch of preventing sexual violence in conflict. What is more, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan MP’s recent statement highlighting just how vital women are “to the fulfilment of stability, security, and cooperation and that responsibility for gender equality stretches beyond our own shores”, sets the challenge for the UK to continue to show how they will use foreign policy to better protect and empower women.

The human rights crisis of our time

We hear almost daily reports of people who have fled conflict and persecution in their own countries only to lose their lives in the Aegean or Mediterranean seas, or to be left facing further abuses and squalor in Europe. If a foreign policy is truly to have a conscience, then those in power need to provide the safe and legal routes for those desperately in need. One way to do this would be to expand the existing provisions for refugees to be reunited with their family in the UK.

This is the great crisis of our time. And great leadership is needed. It was the conservative thinker Edmund Burke who reportedly said all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men [and women] do nothing. The UK leadership in humanitarian aid should undoubtedly be recognised. However, the sheer magnitude of this crisis means that financial aid alone is not enough. The global refugee crisis has grown substantially over recent years, and its impact in Europe – while of a significantly lesser scale than in other poorer regions - has become much more visible and horrifying.

If some of the wealthiest countries do not take their fair share of refugees in response to this crisis, far poorer and far less stable countries will continue carry the overwhelming share; thus only increasing the risk of growing instability and further refugee migration. The question that the UK must ask itself in its response to the global refugee crisis is not whether they did nothing, but have they done enough? 

Kate Allen is the Director of Amnesty International UK

Image credit: Getting UK-funded food vouchers to Syrian refugees in Jordan - DFID