Why human rights should be at the heart of Conservative foreign policy

Thirty-one years ago today, President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and gave one of the most inspiring clarion calls for freedom and human rights by any Conservative in recent times. Urging the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “open this gate” and “tear down this wall”, he contended that “There stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds . . . freedom is the victor . . . freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace.”

Today, as Bright Blue holds a conference on Conservatism and human rights, another American President meets with the leader of the world’s most oppressive regime, North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un. It is essential that human rights are put on the agenda alongside security, just as they were in the Helsinki Process with the Soviet Union three decades ago.

For Conservatives, human freedom is in our DNA. I am a human rights activist because I am a Conservative, and the very reason I am a Conservative is that I believe in freedom, the rule of law, the dignity of the individual, getting the State off your back: in other words, human rights. And I believe these values are universal – for everyone, everywhere. That is why I was so excited when, twelve years ago, as Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague promised that a Conservative government would put human rights “at the heart of foreign policy”.

In a speech alongside a courageous women’s activist from Burma, Charm Tong, his message was clear: “To dissidents, activists and brave people around the world who continue to struggle for democracy, freedom and human rights in their own countries, we want to say: we are on your side. To the victims of state-sponsored violence in its many forms again we say: we are on your side. To regimes that terrorize their own people, we must say: your behaviour is unacceptable and we will do all we possibly can to stop it.  To the international community, including our own Government, we say: when you act to stop these crimes against humanity, we will support you. But when you drag your feet or look away, we will not stay silent. And to the people of our own country, we must say: these issues matter. Slavery, murder, rape and torture are wrong, and we have a moral obligation to speak out and act.”

In many subsequent speeches, William Hague repeated that pledge. So where are we today?

The current Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has championed the right to education for girls around the world, and rightly so. He was visibly moved by what he saw and heard from the victims of ethnic cleansing in Burma when he visited earlier this year, and rightly so. He spoke out strongly when I was denied entry to Hong Kong on the orders of Beijing, and I appreciate the stand he took. And his Minister of State responsible for human rights, Lord Ahmad, has been an energetic voice for freedom of religion or belief around the world in particular. The Foreign Secretary has emphasized that: “Standing up for human rights is not only the right thing; it also helps to create a safer, more prosperous and progressive world. This is what Global Britain stands for. And promoting, championing and defending human rights is integral to the work of the Foreign Office and part of the everyday work of all British diplomats.”

This is welcome, but there is much more that could be done. Britain could be bolder in speaking out for human rights in China, as Germany’s Angela Merkel has consistently done. Britain could speak out more strongly against the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong. Britain could lead the world in ending impunity and calling for accountability for ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity in Burma. Britain could build on and expand William Hague’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. Britain could enforce targeted Magnitsky sanctions on Russian and other human rights abusers around the world. As it builds its ‘Global Britain’ brand, the government should consider how Britain could better promote the values and ideals behind that brand. More resources could be devoted to human rights, both in terms of personnel within the Foreign Office, and in terms of funding for human rights promotion around the world. The appointment of a senior-level Ambassador-at-Large for International Human Rights ought to be considered. Further thematic Prime Ministerial special envoys, such as the role that already exists for preventing sexual violence, could be created – for freedom of religion or belief, for example.

Human rights are under increasing threat around the world. There was a time not long ago where, following the end of the Cold War and the end of apartheid, it appeared that freedom was advancing. Today, open societies are threatened, liberty is curtailed and impunity goes unchallenged. Whether it is crimes against humanity in Syria, North Korea and Burma, or religious extremism in Pakistan, Iran, Nigeria and Indonesia, increasing repression from authoritarian regimes in China, Russia, Vietnam, Cuba, Eritrea, the erosion of freedom and autonomy in an open society such as Hong Kong, or even threats to human rights in democratic countries, the articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that exist to protect human dignity for everyone are at risk almost everywhere.

Human rights are not a luxury. They are not some sort of moral endeavour to be pursued when life is good. They are the bedrock of the values we take for granted and too many people give their lives for. It is therefore in our national interests to defend and promote human rights around the world. Most conflicts and much of the world’s poverty are caused by dictators, tyrants and terrorists who abuse human rights, reek of corruption and sow instability.

Human rights are sometimes considered to be at odds with short-term commercial and geopolitical interests. But that need not be so. By promoting human rights – the rule of law, basic freedoms – we are creating the conditions for more stable societies better equipped to tackle poverty, resolve conflict, build better governance and be more reliable business partners. Our foreign policy should always be based on our values.

There are few Conservatives who put the case for human rights 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. I recommend Reagan’s Westminster Address as the case for why Conservatives are natural defenders of human rights.

As Senator John McCain puts it in his new memoir, The Restless Wave: “We have advanced norms and rules of international relations that have benefited all. We have stood up to tyrants for mistreating their people … We don’t build walls to freedom and opportunity. We tear them down … We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we let other powers assume our leadership role, powers that reject our values … We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent.” He is speaking of his own country’s role, but his words apply to ours too.

Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, works for the international human rights organisation CSW, and is founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch.