The Foreign Office must make human rights its priority

Thirteen years ago, James Mawdsley and I co-authored a paper called New Ground: Engaging people with the Conservative Party through a bold, principled and imaginative foreign policy. We wrote that paper because we were tired of people continuously questioning how we could be human rights activists and Conservatives. To us, the two go hand in hand. If, as Conservatives, we believe in freedom of the individual, the rule of law, limited government that is there to serve and empower not over-regulate and restrict, then these are values that should be placed at the very centre of foreign policy as much as domestic policy. We should be as concerned about a person tied up and tortured in a distant prison as we are about business-people tied up in red tape.

The Conservative Party and human rights

We worked hard to make our case, and it was well received by the leadership of the party at the time. In 2005 Liam Fox, when he briefly served as Shadow Foreign Secretary, established the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, as a body within the party that exists to highlight international human rights concerns, to bring issues to the attention of the frontbench, to provide recommendations and to help inform our foreign policy. When he became Shadow Foreign Secretary a few months later, William Hague embraced our Commission and made a series of speeches, which I contributed to, pledging to put human rights “at the very heart of foreign policy”. He said it clearly, and he said it repeatedly.

In government, of course the complexities of the world, questions around balancing trade, security and human rights, and the influence of the real-politik Foreign Office mandarins crept in, but nevertheless William Hague continued to give human rights attention, and his Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict was a bold and creative initiative. As the biographer of William Wilberforce, the man who led the campaign to end the slave trade, William Hague seemed to be a Foreign Secretary with a purpose, a man motivated by the vision and values of his biographical subject.

It is therefore a cause of very deep and profound sadness to read the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s recent report on the Foreign Office’s handling of human rights, which claims that human rights have been downgraded in foreign policy. This confirms the alarmingly frank admission by the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office Sir Simon McDonald, last October. And the perception is shared by the House of Commons International Development Committee in their latest report, and by a new House of Lords report which argues that William Hague’s cherished initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict is now at risk. These reports sadden me, but I am grateful to their authors for highlighting the truth.

Downgrading human rights

To add to this list of woes, there is the Government’s handling of China and Saudi Arabia, both deeply troubling. According to Chinese activist Yang Jianli, “this is the darkest moment for Chinese human rights in years”. Is now really the time to be declaring we wish to be China’s best friend? To use the former Governor of Hong Kong Lord Patten’s phrase, “do we ever have a bottom line?”

Too much kowtowing does not make for good foreign policy. As James MacGregor, chairman of APCO, said during Xi Jinping’s visit to the UK: “If you act like a panting puppy, the object of your attention is going to think they’ve got you on a leash. China does not respect people who suck up to them.”

To be fair to the Foreign Office, the Minister of State responsible for human rights, Baroness Anelay, is, I believe, a sincere, committed and capable champion of human rights. I don’t question her dedication or her integrity at all. Indeed, she is a bright light within the dark corridors of power. When I hear her speak about the Government’s commitment to human rights, I feel reassured.

Equally, to be fair to the Foreign Office, the increase in funding for human rights initiatives, through the new Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy, is very welcome.

But despite these two positive elements, there is no doubt that the Government’s conduct on foreign policy since the departure of William Hague has led to a perception that it cares less about human rights than before, and that trade trumps everything. I have not heard the current Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond speak about human rights; other Ministers do so when pressed in the House of Commons, as was the case on China during President Xi Jinping’s visit last October, but they give the impression of reluctance and of doing so for the sake of appearances. The only reflection on human rights I have heard from the Foreign Secretary was a defensive article on International Human Rights Day, defending his “British way” of promoting human rights. While I agree with him that there are times when discrete, behind-the-scenes diplomacy can be productive, public advocacy is also needed and a clear, consistent, repeated articulation of how our values shape our foreign policy is required.

There are few Conservatives who put the case for human rights and freedom around the world better than Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in challenging Communism, Winston Churchill in fighting Nazism and William Wilberforce in ending the slave trade. We would all do well to watch Ronald Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech and Westminster Address regularly, to remind us of our values.

After over a decade of fighting the battle for conservatism and human rights to be seen as intertwined in foreign policy, and after some years of making great progress in that battle, I am today deeply concerned that we are in the process of tearing up the hard work done in Opposition, forfeiting the goodwill of human rights defenders, and creating the impression that we are only concerned about dollar signs with no regard to torture marks. It is vital that we reverse this without delay. It is time for a major speech by the Foreign Secretary on human rights, reiterating the repeated pledges made by William Hague; it is time for a reassessment of our approach to China and Saudi Arabia; it is time to put human rights back where they belong, at the very heart of Conservative foreign policy. As Henry Scoop Jackson put it, "If you believe in the cause of freedom, then proclaim it, live it and protect it, for humanity's future depends on it"

Benedict Rogers is a writer and human rights activist, and member of Bright Blue's human rights commission