Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. He works for the human rights advocacy organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and was PPC for City of Durham in 2005.
I have a confession to make. I agree with Jeremy Corbyn. Not on most matters. Not on the economy, not on his far-Left high-spend, high-tax, nationalise industry ideas, not on his hug Hamas, Hezbollah and the IRA agenda, not on his befriending of Vladimir Putin, not on withdrawal from NATO, not on his non-interventionism in humanitarian crises or his over-interventionism in our daily lives, not on his hatred of the monarchy, not on his anti-Semitic Islamist friends, not on his dangerous neo-Marxist tendencies. But on one thing: human rights in foreign policy. And I believe every Conservative should agree with him too.
“I’ve been standing up for human rights, challenging oppressive regimes for 30 years as a backbench MP,” he told the Labour Party Conference. He has, and I salute him for it. “And before that as an individual activist,” he added. “Just because I’ve become the leader of this party, I’m not going to stop standing up on those issues or being that activist.”
Ten years ago, when I was the Conservative Party candidate in the City of Durham, I said almost exactly the same thing (except for the 30 years as an MP and the leader of this party bits). I have been working for human rights for the past 21 years: all my adult life. That is why I spend so much of my life in war zones, refugee camps and jungle hide-outs, or visiting dissidents in prison, or dodging the police in repressive countries, or criticising oppressive regimes and ideologies, or hosting dissidents and activists from other countries. That is why in 2003, 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. That is why Liam Fox as Shadow Foreign Secretary established the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission ten years ago, and William Hague embraced it. It is why I have helped lead the Commission for the past ten years, working with successive chairs: MPs Gary Streeter, Stephen Crabb, Tony Baldry, Robert Buckland and now Fiona Bruce. It is why the Commission has been so outspoken on issues such as North Korea and the Maldives. And it is why I helped draft several speeches for William Hague as Foreign Secretary, pledging repeatedly to put “human rights at the very heart of foreign policy”.
But I am concerned that in government, we have fallen short of that pledge. Or at the very least, we no longer talk about it. As Conservatives, we always say we stand for freedom, and for the rule of law. Those values should infuse our foreign policy as much as our domestic policy. We should be the champions of freedom and opportunity, at home and abroad.
I have always been a strong supporter of the Prime Minister, and have written frequently on this site over the years in his defence. At times, he has been seized with an admirable moral purpose in foreign policy, in response to crises. He showed leadership on Libya in response to Gaddafi’s mass murder of his own people; he tried to exercise similar moral leadership in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. And he is showing some similar instincts in response to the current twin challenges of ISIL and Assad today. You may or may not agree with the particular solutions proposed in each case, but the principles of defending innocent victims of horrific human rights violations feature clearly in the thinking. Similarly, William Hague’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative was an excellent step and should be continued.
Yet our foreign policy is worryingly inconsistent. Take just two examples: China and Saudi Arabia.
In Anthony Seldon’s new book Cameron at 10: The Inside Story 2010-2015, there is a chapter on China and Russia. The authors describe how as Foreign Secretary, William Hague was “resistant to any ‘kowtowing’ to the Chinese”. A Number 10 aide is quoted as insisting that “You get no favours from China by showing you can be pushed around”. I agree. Yet after Beijing lost its temper because David Cameron met the Dalai Lama, kow-tow we did. “They’ve had no strategy on China,” one source is quoted as saying. “It’s just all compromise, appeasement and reaction in a knee-jerk way.” That is profoundly disappointing.
China’s human rights record has deteriorated still further in this past year, with almost 300 lawyers and their associates being arrested, and the destruction of hundreds of crosses in Zhejiang. It cannot be in our national interests to stay silent on this. The importance of trade with an economy the size of China, and the significance of the strategic relationship with Beijing on issues such as climate change, cannot be denied. But for trade to flourish and for investors to have confidence in China, we need the rule of law. What does the arrest of hundreds of lawyers say for the reliability of China’s legal system?
China is the only country in the world that has a Nobel Laureate, Liu Xiaobo, under house arrest, or that is responsible for the disappearance and severe torture of an award-winning lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, or that tear-gassed a 76 year-old Hong Kong barrister and democrat, Martin Lee, after he had called for calm at a demonstration during last year’s Umbrella movement in protest at Beijing’s violation of the territory’s Basic Law and Joint Declaration?
Will David Cameron raise each of these specific cases during Xi Jinping’s visit at the end of this month? Publicly. Not behind closed doors, but in front of a microphone. I hope so.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia. How have they secured a top human rights role in the United Nations when they executed 87 people last year, appear poised to behead Ali Mohammed al-Nimr for taking part in a demonstration when he was 17, flogged a blogger, brutally deny basic human rights to women, non-Muslims and homosexuals, and export the hate-filled Wahhabi-Salafi ideology that is at the root of so much religious intolerance around the world today? How is it that we raised flags when the King died, yet stay silent in the face of such medieval barbarity?
So I agree with Jeremy Corbyn when he said last week: “My first message to David Cameron: Intervene now personally with the Saudi Arabian regime to stop the beheading and crucifixion of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, who is threatened with the death penalty, for taking part in a demonstration at the age of 17. And while you’re about it, terminate that bid made by our Ministry of Justice’s to provide services for Saudi Arabia – which would be required to carry out the sentence that would be put down on Mohammed Ali al-Nimr.”
I agree with him when said last week: “We have to be very clear about what we stand for in human rights. A refusal to stand up is the kind of thing that really damages Britain’s standing in the world. I have huge admiration for human rights defenders all over the world. I’ve met hundreds of these very brave people during my lifetime working on international issues.”
We used to hear similar messages from our front bench. In 2011, William Hague said:
“Our government promised from the outset a foreign policy that will always have support for human rights and poverty reduction 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. The belief in political and economic freedom, in human rights and in the rule of law, are part of our national DNA. Where human rights abuses go unchecked our security and our prosperity suffers as well. And how we are seen to uphold our own values is a crucial component of our influence in the world.”
William Hague was right then. Jeremy Corbyn is right now. Let us, as Conservatives, not cede this cause which we so energetically championed when we were in Opposition and in the early years of government. I hope to hear from David Cameron and Philip Hammond about what human rights and the rule of law mean for our foreign policy going forward. And I hope that the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission can continue to make a constructive contribution to ensuring that Conservatives are champions of freedom for all humankind.
On Monday 5 October at 5pm, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission will hold a fringe meeting at the Party Conference in Manchester on these themes. Details are in the conference programme.