The UK, human rights and the new world disorder

At a recent BFPG event in Exeter, after a senior foreign office official had presented an impassioned case for the UK being a force for good in the world, one audience member sharply responded, ‘What right do we have to talk about being a force for good on the very day the UK Government admitted its responsibility for human rights abuses against a Libyan dissident and his wife?’.

It is a fair question. Indeed, the UK Government has now been forced to apologise to Mr Belhaj (said dissident) and his wife. Why? Because a recent legal case against the Government has very publicly proved just how badly the couple was treated.

The irony is that by so publicly submitting to the rule of law, our Government allows its faults to be highlighted.  Most other governments would have found a way to keep the issue hidden.

In these circumstances how helpful is it for the UK to champion human rights, when openness only attracts criticism?

This tough question is worth asking, because after decades when it seemed that the march of progress was on our side, and the liberal interpretation of “rights” was spreading around the world, liberal values are now out of fashion.  Emerging and revanchist powers – China and Russia in particular – are undermining key aspects of the liberal international order.

In the face of this, the key international governance institutions are showing ever more signs of stress, and the first indications of failure. The UN security Council is paralysed. The World Trade Organisation is increasingly beset by claim and counter claim. The IMF is being challenged by the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, set up specifically by China to provide an alternative financing model with more Asian control.

To make things even worse, this is all taking place in a context of massive global cultural and technological change. People around the world are connected like never before – and respect for institutions, authority and governments is waning.  

When faced with so much cynicism, is it not fair to ask whether there is actually any point in the UK trying to champion human rights globally? Particularly when our circumstances demand an ever-fiercer focus on trade and economic growth, often in partnership with countries that do not share our values in whole or in part, and in competition with economic powers that are very ready to do what whatever it takes to make the deal. Surely our values leave us fighting for our economic future with one arm, of not two, tied behind our back?

Perhaps part of the answer to this weary cynicism lies in leaving London and talking to people in different parts of the UK about our place in the world. Away from the overwrought Brexit fevered Whitehall village, the BFPG’s regional events on our place in the world suggest there is indeed a frustration with the UK’s foreign policy. It is often seen not to serve interests outside London adequately.

Yet at the same time there is a growing determination to develop stronger international trade links, between large regional and devolved authorities across the UK and their counterparts overseas. The interests of these UK regional communities is fiercely practical – with a focus on trade and skills – but with very specific regional concerns in different parts of the county, whether it be the importance of the maritime trade in Southampton, or of Chinese investment in Yorkshire.

But underlying it all is an understated but tenacious belief in treating people fairly, and the power of fairness to deliver the relationships and deals that will support the growing ambitions of our great cities, regions and devolved administrations. That sense of fairness ultimately translates into a desire to treat others as we would be treated – with dignity, with respect, and with Rights.

So tempting as it may be to slide down the route of least resistance, and to give in to the growing cynicism, our regional events suggest there is another way, and one which with the right leadership, vision and engagement could help revitalise Britain’s confidence and global impact.

What’s more, a strong and consistent international stand on fairness and human rights can attract and command the support and loyalty in the way that only truly principled leadership can do – both from our own citizens, but also globally. But we need to be sharper and bolder in stating this and not be afraid to admit our shortcomings.

Ultimately, championing human rights – whatever the cost to our reputation – is the surest way to create a ‘Global Britain’ that wins hearts and minds and delivers the prosperity and security we need in an increasingly uncertain and turbulent age.

Tom Cargill is Executive Director of the British Foreign Policy Group