Fiona Bruce is MP for Congleton and Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. Baroness Hodgson is a former President of the Conservative Party’s National Convention. Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.
How wonderful it was to hear Theresa May, on the steps on 10 Downing Street, pledge to fight injustice, as she began her premiership. Equally encouraging is her renewed promise to make fighting modern day slavery a priority, and her decision to delay the Hinckley Point project and review Chinese investment. Boris Johnson’s pledge to lead a campaign to bring ISIS to justice for war crimes is also a very welcome beginning to his tenure as Foreign Secretary.
We hope that the Prime Minister’s fight against injustice will not be confined to domestic policy, and that these promises will form the foundations of a foreign policy promoting the British values of freedom, justice, the rule of law and human dignity around the world.
Ten years ago, shortly after he became Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague promised to put human rights “at the very heart of foreign policy”. This was an undertaking that he held to firmly during his tenure as Foreign Secretary, leading the world on agendas such as the inspirational, much-needed Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative and one on women, peace and security.
Much has been done; yet there is so much still to do. There are imperative reasons why international human rights should continue at the heart of British foreign policy.
First, human rights violations are morally and legally wrong, and it is our responsibility as one of the world’s most established democracies to speak out for those who are denied the freedoms we take for granted.
Second, human rights violations – when they are widespread and systematic – are symptomatic of wider instability in a country: dictatorship, religious extremism, terrorism, corruption and the absence of the rule of law. It therefore cannot be in our interests to let human rights abuses go unchallenged, because regimes which have no regard for their citizens’ basic rights do not make reliable partners, and countries where there is impunity or war are hardly stable places for investment. As we leave the European Union and negotiate new trade arrangements around the world, we should be mindful of these concerns and careful to ensure we do business responsibly.
Third, as Conservatives we believe in the freedom of the individual, the rule of law and limited government. We believe that the state is there to serve and empower, not repress and bind. If we believe those values are right for us, are they not right for everyone? Our foreign policy should be infused with our values. It was, after all, a Conservative – William Wilberforce – who led the campaign to end the slave trade two hundred years ago; a Conservative – Winston Churchill – who led the world in challenging fascism, and Conservatives – Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan – who, together with others, helped to defeat the Soviet Union and bring down communism across Eastern Europe. In all three cases, Conservatives standing up to tyranny and for freedom. We should follow their example.
Our new Prime Minister is no stranger to these types of issues. It was Theresa May, as Home Secretary, who introduced the Modern Slavery Act, a long overdue and courageous legislative initiative to tackle what she called the “brutal crime” of human trafficking – so it is very welcome indeed that she will continue this struggle as Prime Minister. In a speech in 2013 she described it as “a key priority for me personally”. And she paid tribute to William Hague’s work on women’s rights in foreign policy. “With this initiative,” she said, “he has shown how it is possible to use the UK’s influence to rally almost the entire world to tackle a problem that it has been unwilling to confront.”
Boris Johnson’s statements also give us hope. In May last year he wrote an article about the destruction of the world heritage site of Palmyra by ISIS, in which he said: “For me, Palmyra embodies the great ideas we owe to the Greeks and the Romans: openness, generosity to other cultures – and above all the ideal of religious and intellectual freedom and tolerance. That is worth fighting for.” It is indeed, and we hope that he will take that fight for those values not only to ISIS but to every other perpetrator of repression and brutality in the world.
The role of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, set up by Liam Fox when he was briefly Shadow Foreign Secretary and warmly embraced by William Hague, is to contribute to keeping the government informed about human rights concerns around the world, to offer policy solutions where possible and to hold the government to account when we believe it could do more. As Conservatives we are loyal to the party and its leadership, and the Commission is a party body – but we have a degree of independence that enables us to be a ‘critical friend’ where necessary, as we were recently with our new report on China, The Darkest Moment.
We hope that this report, warmly endorsed by the former Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, and the former Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, will lead to a review of our China policy. Early indications are that this may be more likely under Mrs May. Of course we must continue to engage and trade with China, but we can and should also speak out more on its appalling human rights abuses.
Without exception, everyone who gave evidence to our China inquiry described the human rights situation in the country as the worst in many years, perhaps since the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989. Our report highlights a whole range of concerns, but the crackdown on lawyers, the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong and the barbaric practice of forced organ harvesting ought to be among the issues in the Foreign Secretary’s in-tray. May might like to look at the example set by Germany’s Angela Merkel, who has spoken out consistently on human rights in China, proving that it is indeed possible to trade and champion human rights at the same time.
Britain is now repositioning itself as “a great global player,” in the Foreign Secretary’s words, and as such we have all the more responsibility to lead the world in the fight against human rights violations. Now is not the time to abandon this stance but to build on William Hague’s efforts to put human rights at the heart of foreign policy. We encourage the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to seize this opportunity and continue to champion human rights around the world.