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.

Fighting for Freedom: Conservatism, human rights and discrimination

Today Bright Blue hosts its latest human rights conference, Fighting for Freedom: Conservatism, human rights and discrimination. The conference includes a keynote speech by the Minister for human rights, Dr Phillip Lee MP, and two panel sessions panel events with high-profile centre-right speakers such as Maria Miller MP and Andrew Mitchell MP.

The conference is the culmination of a major project exploring how conservatives can approach human rights issues in a thoughtful way, while encompassing traditional conservative values of individual freedom and empowerment. Throughout the project, Bright Blue has published reports and essay collections addressing some of the pivotal human rights debates in the UK and abroad.

We have taken a broad view of human rights. We have sought to understand and improve domestic and international human rights legislation. But we have also focused closely on the issue of tackling discrimination. Discrimination is, like the abuse of human rights, an unjustified barrier to individual freedom..

Our motivation

Our work in this area was particularly motivated by a desire to understand conservative scepticism towards Britain’s current human rights framework. Bright Blue began its work on human rights in late 2015. At that time, the Government was expected to shortly announce plans to repeal the Human Rights Act (HRA), and legislate for a new British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities (BBRR).

But, conservative scepticism towards our human rights framework was not just apparent among conservative decision makers and opinion formers. There was also strong evidence that Conservative voters were similarly sceptical. Opinion polls suggested Conservative voters were unconvinced of the merits of the HRA and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), for instance.

Yet, for us, there seemed no inherent reason why conservatives should be sceptical of human rights as a whole. Conservatives typically believe in the principles of personal freedom and a government limited by the rule of law. Human rights codify these fundamental conservative principles to protect individuals from an overreaching state and undue power.

In addition to the philosophical link between conservatism and human rights, there is a strong tradition of Conservative politicians championing the development and protection of human rights. The ECHR was drafted and championed by Conservative politicians after World War Two. As revealed in one of Bright Blue’s human rights reports, it was actually a Conservative MP – Quintin Hogg – who first advocated a bill to incorporate the ECHR into UK law.

As we continued our work into human rights it also became apparent how crucial the idea of tackling discrimination was to a conservative understanding of human rights. Central to conservative ideology is the concept that unfair barriers that prevent humans from flourishing should be removed to allow everyone to reach their full potential.

This belief has been strongly held by the two most recent Conservative Prime Ministers. David Cameron talked of ‘life chances’ and how his Government could transform the lives of the poorest in Britain. While Theresa May has railed against the ‘burning injustices’ which prevent certain people from reaching their full potential.

Our research

Our first major report on human rights was Britain breaking barriers. The report was published following a year long inquiry, led by a high-profile commission that included three former cabinet ministers. The report recommended 68 policies to strengthen human rights and tackle all forms of discrimination following a call for written evidence, an oral evidence session, and several site visits. High-profile recommendations included a call for Britain to remain a signatory of the ECHR and a proposal for new trade deals, after Brexit, to include obligations to improve human rights in partner countries.

Shortly afterwards we published Individual Identity which analysed why Conservative voters are often considered to be sceptical of the concept of human rights and their views on tackling discrimination. The report included a poll of 6,530 British adults which included 2,240 Conservative voters. The report unearthed some scepticism towards human rights among Conservative voters, but also found that Conservative voters do believe that discrimination exists in the UK and support policies which ‘level the playing ground’ for certain groups who experience discrimination.

Perhaps our most detailed appraisal of human rights legislation in Britain and its history can be found in Fighting for Freedom? In the report, Sir Michael Tugendhat, former High Court Judge and report author, explores the relationship between conservatism and human rights, the meaning and history of human rights in England, and assesses Britain's contemporary human rights framework. Tugendhat concludes by exploring a number of possible future reforms to Britain’s human rights legislation before arguing in favour of the HRA rather than a new BBRR.

During the project, we also published three essay collections. Conservatism and human rights, explored ways to tackle discrimination in Britain, the role of human rights in British foreign policy, and the significance of possible reform to Britain’s human rights framework. Burning Britain? sought to highlight some of Britain’s ‘burning injustices’, and provide solutions to help address them. While A sense of belonging evaluated the potential avenues to ensure integration and opportunity in modern Britain, specifically in isolated and deprived communities.  


Today’s conference, supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Global Dialogue, brings together some of the leading voices on human rights in Britain and beyond. Through two panel sessions, one on tackling discrimination in the UK, and the other discussing the importance of championing human rights overseas, we hope to further expand and inform the discussion on human rights, particularly at what is a critical time for policymaking in the UK.

Amabel Scott is a research assistant at Bright Blue

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

Civil partnerships – to abolish or extend?

For four years, Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan have fought a legal campaign to secure civil partnerships for heterosexual couples. They disagree with the “historically patriarchal” implications of traditional marriages and believe they should, like same-sex couples, be granted the right to choose between marriage and civil partnership.

As an unmarried couple, Steinfeld and Keidan do not benefit from the financial and legal protection enjoyed by their married counterparts. The couple argue that they should be permitted these basic rights through a civil partnership if they wish.

The legal situation

The Civil Partnership Act, passed by the Labour Government in 2004, entitles same-sex couples to enter a civil partnership whereby they receive the same legal effects, rights and obligations as a legal marriage. Civil partnerships are almost identical to legal marriages, with the exception that they must not include a religious component. Couples in civil partnerships are treated equally in matters of inheritance, next-of-kin arrangements, tax and pensions. Their partnership can be dissolved under the same rules as a traditional marriage. 

Civil partnerships are currently only available to same-sex couples in the UK. Prior to the introduction of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act in 2013, under which same-sex couples can now legally marry, the Civil Partnership Act was the first to provide same-sex couples with the equivalent legal entitlements as opposite-sex couples. Now, unlike heterosexual couples, same-sex couples can choose between marriage or civil partnerships depending on their personal preferences.

Many feel that this is discriminatory, as heterosexual couples who cohabitate, but do not wish to legally marry, must resign themselves to having fewer legal rights. For example, if one partner dies and does not leave a will, then the other will not legally be entitled to inherit from them regardless of the length of their relationship.

There are implications for parenthood too. Whereas married parents and unmarried mothers gain automatic parental responsibility of their child, unmarried fathers can only acquire parental responsibility by being present at the registration of the birth, getting a parental responsibility agreement from the mother, or a parental responsibility order from a court.

Why not extend civil partnerships for all?

The debate on civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples came to the fore in 2016 when Steinfeld and Keidan had their initial claim rejected by the High Court in England. Following a successful appeal, they have now brought their case to the UK Supreme Court, coinciding with the launch of a Private Members Bill to allow opposite-sex couples in England and Wales to form civil partnerships by Conservative MP Tim Loughton.

Steinfeld and Keidan have urged the Government to “stop making excuses”, referring to Cabinet reshuffles in the recent years that have led to u-turns on government pledges to allow heterosexual civil partnerships. Most recently, Ministers have been condemned for spending £65,000 on the “indefensible” court battle against civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples.

There are potential benefits of extending civil partnerships to all. The number of unmarried, heterosexual couples with children who split up is significantly higher than married couples – it could be that this is remedied, in part, by offering opposite-sex couples civil partnerships as a legal alternative to marriage.

The recent announcement of a Government review of civil partnerships has fuelled fears that they might be scrapped altogether. However, Equalities Minister, the Rt Hon Penny Mordaunt MP, insists that the Government is “open minded on this matter”. If civil partnerships are scrapped, same-sex couples in civil partnerships could be forced to convert their union to a legal marriage.

The Government review, however, should consider whether there is any significant demand for opposite-sex and same-sex civil partnerships. Since the introduction of the Same Sex Couples Act, demand for civil partnerships has been in rapid decline. Between 2007 and 2013, an average of 6,305 civil partnerships were registered per year, but this dropped to just 890 in 2016. Many same-sex couples have also chosen to convert their civil partnerships into legal marriages.

Moreover, the extension of civil partnerships raises questions about the legal rights and treatment of other forms of relationships. For example, blood relatives who raise a child together could miss out on legal and financial benefits that will be granted to those couples who are married or in a civil partnership.


Steinfeld and Keidan’s campaign has increased the profile of the campaign for extending civil partnerships to heterosexual couples. The Government has now promised a review on whether civil partnerships should be extended, or scrapped altogether.

Amabel Scott is a research assistant at Bright Blue

Effective social action: an approach to delivering race equality

Deciding how to effectively address a social ill often appears to be fraught with difficulty.  The Government launch of the Serious Violence Strategy, is perhaps the latest example. The call by many families and communities for action to end the violence that has seen a rise in the number of deaths in London, has quickly descended into hyperbole, with the suggestions that the ‘murder-rate’ in London has overtaken New York regularly repeated, without qualification or explanation.  However, it often appears that the only way to secure social action is to highlight how damaging a problem is and the urgency of action. In this context, it is no surprise then, those of us calling for action to address the impact of racism will highlight the persistence of discrimination in access to employment or under-representation in popular media, or over-representation in poorest quality private housing.  But, such an approach to addressing racial discrimination has its limitations. First, it is very easy to slip into a victimology that denies agency and sees black and minority ethnic people as passive victims with little opportunity to control and shape their lives. Second, it is equally easy to conclude that not much has changed since the arrival of the Windrush and as a consequence there has been little improvement in the experience and outcomes of those who have hoped to make a better life for them and their children in Britain.  Third, and perhaps most worrying for effective social action, we pay little attention to whether policies, strategies or interventions have worked, with whom and why.

Yet there are examples of attempts to progress race equality by better understanding what works and building on this.  In the mid-1990s a study by the Foundation of what were then called family centres (Butt and Box, 1998) highlighted the widespread deployment of parent education programmes, but the lack of take-up of these programmes by black and minority ethnic parents.  Literature reviews at the time suggested that it was not that parents from these communities did not need support, it was more that programmes were not reaching out to these parents and/or the curriculums were not engaging and retaining parents. This was at odds with evidence from the US, which showed African American, as well as Latin American and Asian American parents, attending programmes which resulted in growth in their own confidence, positive change in relationships and in improvements in outcomes for children.  We conducted a review of programmes available in the US and brought over one to trial in England. After working with parents to sensitise the programme to England, it was deployed in London and the West Midlands through black and minority ethnic-led and other voluntary organisations.

The Strengthening Families Strengthening Communities (SFSC) parenting programme sets out to support a violence free healthy lifestyle.  SFSC is a 13 week, inclusive, evidence-based parenting programme designed to promote some of the protective factors associated with better outcomes for children.  At the same time, SFSC helps parents to explore and develop strategies for dealing with the factors in parenting that are associated with increased risk of poor outcomes for children, such as harsh and/or inconsistent discipline.  Focusing on helping parents to develop self esteem, self discipline and social competence in children and young people, as well as enhancing family cohesion and building effective support networks for parents and children alike, SFSC offers a real opportunity for building family and community resilience.

The evidence from a range of evaluations shows not only high rates of retention (on average 76 per cent complete the programme) and recommendation (99 per cent would recommend the programme to other families) it also shows a range of outcomes from including a statistically significant change in parents’ self-esteem, confidence in their parenting, family relationships (in the main with their partner, but also with other adults) and relationships with their children. Parents also report growth in their child’s self-esteem and their child’s ability to manage their own behaviour.

Furthermore studies demonstrate both reach and impact with a range of parents who have not been engaged by other programmes or approaches. Karlsen (2013) looked at a sample of 1842 parents and highlighted the diversity of the parents who complete SFSC; showing a large proportion of people on low incomes (on average 60 per cent of participants have household income of less than £10,000), fathers (59 per cent of programmes have at least one father participating), lone parents (on average 60 per cent of participants were lone parents at the time of participating), and a range of white and black and minority ethnic parents regularly participate (in overall terms 55 per cent of participants were from black and minority ethnic groups and 45 per cent were white communities).  Other published studies have used scientifically validated tests to report on these and other outcomes. In 2010, Lindsay et al from the Warwick University’s Centre for Educational Development and Research, published another comparative study examining three model parenting programmes delivered in the UK, and reported that parents who had completed SFSC demonstrated statistically significant improvements in mental well-being and parenting efficacy.

SFSC was one of the three recommended programmes for the Department of Education funded Parenting Early Intervention Pathfinders 2006-2008 and was one of the evidence-based programmes supported by National Academy for Parenting Practitioners between 2008 and 2010 and subsequently by the Children’s Workforce Development Council.  More recently, SFSC was included in the CanParent Government-led trial to make parenting programmes available to all parents of under 5’s and has also been used by the Family Intervention Pathfinders in Bristol, Grimsby, Leicester and Tower Hamlets. SFSC continues to be a programme used to prevent violence by local authorities such as Waltham Forest, Hertfordshire and Manchester, a point recognised by the Government’s Serious Violence Strategy.

It would be foolhardy to claim that the experience of SFSC suggests that our approach to progressing race equality is the only effective one.  Furthermore, understanding what has made a difference can prove to be a challenge as illustrated by the debate that has surrounded improvement in educational attainment of a range of black and minority ethnic children in London.  However, the demonstrable success in reaching, engaging and impacting on black and minority ethnic parents and children suggests that it is certainly one effective approach. Our experience also suggests that when we are successful in understanding and implementing support for black and minority ethnic communities, we are likely to put in place the components to reach and impact white majority communities who were poorly served to date.

Jabeer Butt is Acting Chief Executive at the Race Equality Foundation

Repealing the eighth – The wider impact

Today, the Republic of Ireland votes on whether to repeal the country’s eighth amendment, and, in doing so, lift a thirty-five year ban on abortion. The referendum has provoked debate across the world, including in the UK.

Ireland’s eighth amendment provides an unborn infant with equal rights to life as a mother, effectively outlawing abortion in the country. The amendment was passed in 1983 amidst widespread support, with only five constituencies voting against it. Since then, over 170,000 women have been forced to travel outside of Ireland for an abortion, and the trauma and fear caused by these journeys has been well documented.

In 2012, the case of Salvita Halappanavar, who died after she was refused an emergency termination during a miscarriage, caused outrage in Ireland and signified the beginning of a campaign to amend the law. Subsequently, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was passed to allow the termination of pregnancy in cases where there is a “substantial risk” to the mother’s life. However, ‘Yes’ voters who wish to repeal the eighth amendment argue this is not enough, and that all women should be allowed to make a choice depending on their own personal circumstances.

The repeal campaign has a large lead in the polls, although this margin has narrowed in recent weeks. If the yes campaign is successful, abortion will be permitted for all pregnancies up to 12 weeks, and at any time in cases where the mother’s life is at risk, there is a medical emergency or a fatal foetal abnormality. Alternatively, if Ireland votes against the repeal, the eighth amendment will remain as it is.

The Situation in Britain

While Britain’s stance on abortion is significantly more liberal than Ireland’s, some observers have argued that there is more to do to increase access to abortion. Currently, abortion in this country is regulated by both the 1967 Abortion Act and the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. Under the former, an abortion can legally be carried out by a registered doctor, providing that it has been authorised ‘in good faith’ by two medical practitioners and complies with at least one of the following terms; that the pregnancy has not exceeded 24 weeks, could cause serious harm or death to the woman, or that the child is likely to suffer from severe, debilitating disabilities.

In practise, these conditions are more lenient – in essence, an abortion is available to any woman in mainland Britain who has not passed 24 weeks of pregnancy. The Offences Against the Person Act means that home abortions, even when carried out with the same medication used in certified clinics, is punishable by life in prison, but these instances are rare as most women seeking abortions in Britain tend to visit certified clinics.

The law is very different in Northern Ireland. Here, abortion is only legal under the terms of the Infant Preservation Act, which permits termination only if the mother is at risk of serious mental or physical harm. In 2014, a 19-year old woman was given a suspended prison sentence after buying drugs on the internet to induce a miscarriage because she did not have enough money to travel to mainland Britain for a legal abortion. Cases like this have provoked criticism about Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. A recent inter-Departmental report from the Northern Irish government has called for changes to the law, which they believe prevents women from accessing proper standards of healthcare, and places doctors in situations which are ‘professionally untenable’.

Further reform?

Since the legalisation of abortion in mainland Britain fifty years ago, a debate has emerged over whether British abortion laws are still too stringent. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has launched a campaign which calls for the outright decriminalisation of abortion in all parts of the UK. This would include allowing women to use abortions pills in the home, rather than having to face the financial implications, physical distress and emotional strain of travelling to and from abortion clinics.

The home-use abortion pill has already been legalised in Scotland, a move which has received praise from medical organisations but has been condemned by pro-life campaigns; The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) are calling for a judicial review of the new legislation, describing the home-use pill as a form of “DIY abortion”. There are also fears that legalising the home-use abortion pill could lead to some women using it as a form of contraception which could lead to poorer sexual health.  

Further concerns that outright decriminalisation will eliminate the 24-week time limit for terminations have been raised. However, the British Medical Association (BMA), who voted in favour of decriminalisation, insists that regulations will still be in place – but these sanctions will be imposed by medical rather than criminal bodies. Nonetheless, in a public survey found that 72% of respondents opposed further changes to Britain’s abortion laws.


Whichever way Ireland votes in its referendum today, the highly charged debate around abortion is likely to continue in the UK and Ireland. Recent debates in the House of Commons suggest there is widespread sympathy for allowing women to access abortions at home to avoid the distress caused by visiting a medical practitioner. However, equally, there remain strong critics of this apparent liberalisation of abortion laws in Parliament. It therefore remains unclear how abortion laws will evolve in the UK in the years to come.

Amabel Scott is a research assistant at Bright Blue









We need to talk about human rights

When Theresa May pledged to correct the ‘burning injustices’ in modern society, she indicated that the Government would be happy to have difficult conversations to help address unfairness wherever it exists. The Prime Minister's commitment provides us with an opportunity to debate how we create a fair society.  For me, human rights must always be at the core of any vision of a ‘shared society’ – whether we are seeking to address unfair treatment, discrimination or improve social mobility. Indeed both the domestic and international human rights frameworks provide us with valuable tools to address and resolve all these issues. I would like to see a more open and honest conversation about the value of human rights and how they can be used to make Britain fairer.

More importantly, this isn’t a conversation that the Conservative Party should shy away from. Not just because they are the party of Government, but because they have a strong historical record in this area – whether it was Disraeli’s extension of the franchise or Churchill’s pivotal role in advocating for the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), a document drafted by Conservative MP, David Maxwell-Fyfe.

It is well known that the human rights debate amongst Conservatives has not always been straightforward.  Uncertainty in many quarters has resulted in calls for the UK to leave the ECHR and to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. These debates have been postponed until after Brexit but they are definitely not going to go away and we must ensure that everyone is properly equipped to participate in this debate.

As Great Britain’s national equality and human rights body, the Commission is the guardian of human rights and equalities. These areas of our parliamentary mandate have rarely felt more relevant. Yet, as the Prime Minister’s ‘burning injustices’ speech showed, Conservatives are far more at home addressing inequality than human rights. Equality is an easier concept to understand and to promote; it's essentially about fairness. Who wouldn’t support the desire to create a level playing field whether its focus is tackling the gender pay gap or improving employment prospects for ethnic minority communities and disabled people?

Human rights on the other hand are altogether more nuanced. Fairness doesn’t transpose quite as straightforwardly to human rights. For example, some people feel it isn't fair for prisoners to have the right to vote. For many, human rights feel like a zero-sum game. The fact that human rights apply to everyone and are universal is also a tricky concept for some. Indeed recent research by Bright Blue has shown universality is a divisive issue for many Conservatives.  As such, many people prefer a ‘pick and mix’ approach to human rights and are happier supporting the right to a fair trial for suspected criminals than ensuring convicted criminals have the right to a private and family life.

To look more closely at public attitudes towards human rights the Commission has recently worked with ComRes. Our survey has thrown up some encouraging findings. For example, we found that 90% of people surveyed support human rights as a concept. This is valuable evidence for Conservatives who want to change the nature of the debate and show that people aren't quite as opposed to the concept of human rights as some media reports might lead us to believe. We also tested views about the continued protection of rights after Brexit. Tellingly, there was strong agreement with 79% of people in favour of maintaining current protections. This is valuable information about where we need to focus our attention.

My anxiety, however, is that the polarising political environment of Brexit means that the Government’s attention is narrowly focused on economic matters at the expense of human rights. Clearly economic and trade issues are vital to the future of our country – but so too are our values.  How we treat others will define us as a nation and for this reason we have argued passionately that rights must be protected in British law once we leave the EU.

I'm certain that people didn’t vote for Brexit in order to have their rights at work weakened or to lose protection of their personal data – both elements of the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights that the Government currently plans to remove from UK law.  Although the House of Lords recently voted to secure amendments to maintain these protections we must wait to see how these amendments fare in the House of Commons.

The Commission will continue its important work to understand how people perceive human rights and how we can build wider support for their role. I am keen that the Commission facilitates a wider debate beyond those who are supportive and those who are opposed to human rights. We need to move beyond these echo chambers by providing real life examples of how human rights help all of us.  Human rights are a force for good and we should not be afraid to say so - not just to people who agree with us but to the wider public too.

David Isaac is the Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission

In whose best interests?

Best interest cases, where life-sustaining treatment “can lawfully be withheld or withdrawn from a patient who lacks capacity in circumstances where commencing or continuing such treatment is deemed not to be in their best interests”, tend to garner widespread attention. Most recently, the plight of the parents of Alfie Evans, who died following a tumultuous legal battle with the doctors of Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, has attracted global interest.

The legal grounding

Medical cases concerning terminally-ill children are usually resolved by parents and doctors behind closed doors. However, a spike in the number of high-profile legal battles in recent years has raised questions about the need for clearer legislation.

Currently, the legal foundation for the withdrawal of parental rights relies on the 1989 Children’s Act, which permits state intervention if a child is “at risk of harm”. The Act, whilst broadly providing parents with the right to choose what happens to their child, can be challenged if doctors believe their decision could lead the child to suffer from significant harm (defined as ill-treatment or the impairment of development). Parental rights may only be overturned by a ruling from the Royal Courts of Justice, which depends heavily on complex medical opinion to determine what lies in the child’s best interests.

Legal disputes of this nature have become increasingly prevalent as advances in paediatric medicine provide new opportunities for successful treatment. The case of Charlie Gard, who died from a rare genetic condition in 2017 following a five-month legal battle, draws many parallels to that of Alfie Evans. Charlie’s parents believed that their son could receive life-saving treatment in the US, but his transfer was prevented when a decision by the Royal Courts of Justice found that they had been misled on the treatment’s success rates by a doctor from Great Ormond Street Hospital. The decision, which generated public outrage, has raised questions about the ethical implications of judicial involvement in such cases. 

Alfie’s case

Alfie Evans was seven-months old when he began to suffer seizures and was admitted to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool in December 2016. A year later, in December 2017, disputes over Alfie’s treatment between staff at Alder Hey and Alfie’s father Tom Evans resulted in the involvement of the Family Division of the High Court, overseen by the Hon. Mr Justice Hayden. Legal representatives for the doctors at Alder Hey believed that Alfie’s condition was untreatable, and any further medical intervention would be futile. Alfie’s parents argued that they should be allowed to fly Alfie to Rome’s Bambino Gesu Paediatric Hospital to pursue further treatments.

Following an extensive review of evidence from medical professionals at Alder Hey, doctors from Bambino Gesu and paediatric specialists from around the globe, Mr Justice Hayden ruled against the wishes of Alfie’s parents, stating that the child should not be removed from Alder Hey. Further appeals by Alfie’s parents were rejected by Supreme Court justices and judges from the European Court of Human Rights, and Alfie died on the 28th April, five days after the removal of life-support.

State vs. individual rights

At the centre of the dispute over Alfie’s case lies a deeply philosophical and politicised conflict regarding the role of the state versus the rights of the individual. The state, represented by the court and the doctors of Alder Hey, determined that transporting Alfie to Italy would not be in the child’s best interests. This was due to extensive medical evidence which indicated that Alfie could not be cured due to significant, irreversible brain damage. Indeed this was even accepted by the doctors at Bambino Gesu who were only able to offer Alfie an alternative form of palliative care. Furthermore, medical professionals believe that moving Alfie was likely to induce further seizures, and there was a very real chance of Alfie dying while being transported to Italy.

Nonetheless, some observers believed that parents should always have the final decision on the welfare of their children. The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson believes that “bad law” like this should not be allowed to stand in the way of a parent’s choice – especially when other sources of care are proffered from around the globe. When it comes to human rights, he argues, the removal of fundamental parental choice is markedly regressive. Simultaneously, a campaign led by MEP Stephen Woolf is calling for the introduction of ‘Alfie’s Law’, to allow parents to make the final decision regarding their children’s care. Similar to the legal initiative started by Charlie Gard’s parents, the campaign seeks to prevent prolonged legal disputes between hospitals and families and return full rights to the parents of sick children. 

However, there remains significant concern about this ‘parents know best’ approach. A good proportion of best interest cases, so far, have involved parents who are Jehovah's Witnesses. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that their religion requires them to refuse certain medical treatments, such as blood transfusions. Allowing parents to always have the final say on their child’s medical treatment could therefore lead to the unnecessary deaths of many children of Jehovah's Witnesses – even when they require relatively simple medical procedures.


High-profile quarrelling - especially that which inspires vitriol and abuse – should not overshadow the suffering of a vulnerable, grieving family, and the medical professionals who face a barrage of conflicting opinions as they make life-changing decisions on the welfare of very vulnerable children. In almost all cases, both doctors and parents obviously hold the child’s wellbeing in the highest regard. It is important that, when reviewing or challenging the legislation surrounding these cases, those with significant public profiles are more respectful of those most closely involved. 

Amabel Scott is a research assistant at Bright Blue

Britain can lead the way in protecting civilians in conflict

Even wars have rules. One of the rules, grounded in moral ideas about mercy, compassion and restraint, is that civilians should be protected – and protecting children from the worst excesses of armed conflicts they played no part in creating is surely a test of our shared humanity.

We are failing that test. Millions of children have had their lives torn apart by unimaginable acts of violence. In some cases, these children are the target of murderous attacks, rape, kidnapping and forced recruitment into armed groups. In others, they are viewed by warring groups as expendable collateral damage by military commanders who oversee indiscriminate bombardments in high-density urban areas, the obstruction of humanitarian aid, or the destruction of schools and hospitals.

Save the Children is dealing with the everyday realities of modern conflict – and with the culture of impunity surrounding attacks on children. In Yemen, the organisation’s staff are responding to the needs of children suffering extreme malnutrition as a consequence of war, the obstruction of humanitarian aid, and economic dislocation. In Syria, Save the Children’s partners have had schools and health clinics bombed. From South Sudan to Iraq, Yemen and the DRC, programmes are responding to the needs of children who have been traumatised or separated from their families.

The UK can play a leadership role in combating the impunity surrounding attacks on civilians. This is not about convening one-off summits. Leadership requires a carefully thought out strategy aimed at strengthening the three critical pillars of civilian protection: humanitarian law, human rights law and international criminal law. It is also about projecting the norms and values that underpin these instruments through the UK’s distinctive voice in international affairs.

This is not a theoretical debate. What you get with the erosion of universal values is chemical attacks in Syria, indiscriminate airstrikes in Yemen, and the use of civilians as human shields in Iraq. When combatants are unrestrained by rules, laws and norms, you get 400,000 children left on the brink of starvation in Yemen, schoolgirls being abducted in Nigeria, and young children raped by armed groups in South Sudan.

No one demonstrates the need for civilian protection better than 13-year-old Noran from Yemen. In 2015 the blast wave from four airstrikes nearby knocked her down, irreparably damaging her spine. Confined to a wheelchair, her life has never been the same. She loved going to school but now struggles to even hold a pen. Her future prospects are greatly diminished and her poignant words a reminder to us all that we must do more to protect civilians, especially children, just like her. 

In the past I used to go to school on foot,” she says. “My life was beautiful because I could walk and write. Now, I can’t walk to school. I can only go with the wheelchair. I was able to go out, play and go to school absolutely fine and normal. I was able to sit on a chair at my desk and write but now when I try to write, my hand hurts because of the injury in my back. And on top of all that, I am not able to play like I used to. I dream of finishing school and becoming a doctor.” 

That is the story of just one child – but millions of children are today at risk because of a failure to protect civilians in armed conflict. That is why RUSI and Save the Children have come together to address what we see as one of the defining challenges of our generation.

On Tuesday May 8th we launched Ensuring the Protection of Civilians in Modern Conflict’, which examines how a combination of British leadership in military expertise, soft power, and humanitarian response can drive responsible military practice and accountability measures that protect civilians in conflict.  

We know that it is possible to make a difference. Previous initiatives like British leadership on preventing sexual violence in conflict and global campaigns on landmines have demonstrated that changes in policy, practice and global norms can limit attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure. They also strengthen the existing international frameworks and norms that are in critical need of protection – which is why last month’s announcement by the Foreign Secretary that the UK will endorse the Safe Schools Declaration was so welcome.

Through the UK’s membership of key multilateral groups and its world-class diplomatic service, high-quality overseas aid and some of the world’s best trained armed forces, it is uniquely placed to champion civilian protection. As the Government prepares to leave the European Union, it is presented with a unique opportunity to step forward on the global stage and play a leading role in protecting civilians in conflict based on its expertise, values and priorities.  

Tackling one of the most difficult challenges facing millions of children and their families is no easy task. But it is possible – and we owe it to children like Nora.

Kevin Watkins is Chief Executive at Save the Children UK


When will Britain step up on Burma?

Over the last nine months some 700,000 ethnic Rohingya in Burma have been driven from their homes across the border into Bangladesh by the Burmese military. The attacks have been described by the UN as “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing”, while Human Rights Watch and others found the atrocities amount to “crimes against humanity”. Yet the international response to this crisis has been woefully inadequate. Britain, which has traditionally led on Burma on the UN Security Council, carries a particular responsibility for this failure. In a sharp critique, the British parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee said recently that the Government’s diplomatic leadership on Burma “has struggled to achieve a clear sense of direction and has so far had meagre results”.

Last week’s trip by the UN Security Council to Bangladesh and Burma, to see and hear for themselves the plight of the Rohingya, was supposed to produce a more concerted and effective international response. Britain should have led the way in promoting this.  But initial public statements by representatives to the UN Security Council, especially Britain, suggest that this critical opportunity was missed.

Although Bangladesh is hosting nearly a million refugees, and Britain and other donors are providing large amounts of humanitarian aid, overall international efforts are falling short, with some of the most vulnerable Rohingya still not receiving the support they need. Human Rights Watch documented dozens of Burmese soldiers raping Rohingya women and girls as part of their campaign of ethnic cleansing, including horrific gang rapes.  Yet their suffering and trauma continues. There are some 40,000 pregnant women and girls among the Rohingya refugee population, some of them raped by Burmese soldiers, and some are due to give birth in the coming weeks.  But Andrew Gilmour, a UN Assistant Secretary General, lamented recently that camps are not providing proper care or protection for them, and that survivors’ access to support - especially psychological and reproductive health services - is too limited.

It is commendable that a senior UN official should speak out in this way. But where is Britain’s voice? For nearly five years, the British government has said that combatting sexual violence in conflict is a high priority, and it created the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative to implement that commitment. But faced with widespread rape against the Rohingya and with survivors’ huge need for care and support, Britain has not showed the decisive global leadership on this issue that the PSVI promised.

Britain should be helping to lead a strengthened international response in respect of refugee returns. None of the Rohingya will have forgotten the death, destruction and terror that forced them to flee their homes, or the profound discrimination and persecution they have experienced for generations in Burma. They will only return voluntarily to Burma when there is a fundamental change in these conditions. At a minimum, that means security guarantees, freedom of movement, an end to discriminatory citizenship laws, livelihood opportunities, and the return of stolen homes or compensation for those destroyed.  The Burmese military and hostile elements of the Burmese government will not concede these changes easily. It will take sustained and increased international pressure, of the kind that has been sorely lacking to date. One very concrete step that Britain and other EU states should take is the early imposition of targeted sanctions on senior figures in the Burmese military.  Other states should be encouraged to adopt similar measures.

A clear and consistent international position on accountability and justice is also crucial. Astonishingly, Britain’s representative to the UN, Karen Pierce, suggested this week that the Burmese government might undertake another domestic inquiry into the crimes committed against the Rohingya and that it should be supported in doing so. This is absurd. Is Ms Pierce really unaware of the Burmese military’s long history of impunity for mass killings and sexual violence? In the midst of the current crisis, the Burmese military has released two reports denying all accusations of rape and killings by its own security forces, and last week Min Aung Hlaing, the army’s Commander-in-Chief, denied that the Burmese military has ever, in its entire history, committed rape. Pierce also repeated Suu Kyi’s cynical claim that her government is willing to “look” at any evidence provided, an offer belied by Burma’s refusal to allow access to the UN Fact-Finding Mission established by the Human Rights Council.

If it is serious about justice for the Rohingya, as its claims to be, the British government should work with other Security Council members to press for a Council resolution that refers Burma to the International Criminal Court.This will not be easy. But there is often no quick route to justice. It would be a shameful betrayal of the Rohingya not to vigorously pursue every opportunity to bring to account those responsible for the heinous crimes committed against them.

David Mepham is UK Director of Human Rights Watch. He tweets @mephamd