Last week Tim correctly identified that Conservative policies must have a clear moral purpose. A governing philosophy based on necessity alone is no basis for long term support.
This is just as true in our foreign policy as it is in domestic policy. The Conservative party has a proud history of charting a moral course in foreign affairs: defending the most vulnerable, combating tyrants and most importantly championing human rights. From Pitt to Churchill to Thatcher the UK has faced down authoritarianism and won.
William Hague took the helm at the FCO promising to reorientate British Foreign policy and to give it a more commercial focus and to repair Britain’s standing in the world. Both are worthy aims; for too long the foreign office has been an under-exploited resource in developing the British economy- the fact that Britain does more trade with Ireland than with any of the “BRIC” countries, is nothing short of a travesty. The arrogance of the Blair/Bush approach to international relations and allegations of complicity in torture make repairing our international standing a key priority.
But we must never allow these aims to detract from or dilute our commitment to human rights. Following the lead of Conservative Foreign Secretaries past, William Hague must take the lead in lobbying authoritarian regimes to respect the rule of law and uphold political and economic freedom. Today’s visit of the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergy Lavrov for bilateral talks provides a key opportunity to do this.
Lavrov’s visit is being billed as a bilateral trade discussion and a precursor to David Cameron’s visit to Russia this summer. However it comes on the back of increasing human rights violations and moves towards authoritarianism in Russia. Just two months ago a Moscow court found Russia’s most famous political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky guilty – imprisoning him for a further 8 years, following a show trial and an extraordinary intervention from political rival Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who just days before the verdict sought to influence the outcome.
Rather than leading in condemning this flagrant breach of the rule of law, a statement from Hague followed only after pressure from our American, French and German allies. What’s more just weeks later the Government backed, and was represented at the announcement of, the share swapping deal between BP and Russian State controlled Rosneft – 75% of whose assets were ‘expropriated’ from Khodorkovsky’s former company YUKOS. A recent Stockholm arbitration award for British investor RosInvest called the Yukos bankruptcy an expropriation, meaning that the UK essentially endorsed BP acquiring stolen assets. This could now mean that ordinary BP shareholders are in the possession of stolen assets which could well be reclaimed if Yukos win the upcoming European Court of Human Rights case where the company is seeking compensation of up to $100bn.
With an endorsement of the BP-Rosneft shareswap, the Government essentially sent a message to Moscow that human rights abuses will no longer be a barrier to doing business with the UK. It’s clear that this message has been heard and the Kremlin is growing in confidence. In the past week alone, there have been further chilling developments and signs of growing intolerance toward those that challenge Putin’s authority. These included the theft of a documentary which Putin was “desperate not to have shown” about Khodorkovsky due to be screened at the Berlin Film Festival, the arrest of opposition leader Boris Nemtov and just last week the expulsion of Kremlin critical, Guardian journalist, Luke Harding.
Ignoring these violations has implications far beyond the human rights of the individuals concerned. As David Cameron recognised in his speech at Davos, authoritarian regimes pose a grave risk to business. If the Russian government can seize Yukos assets and imprison businessmen such as Khodorkovsky what is to stop them doing the same to British businesses and investment?
This case wasn’t a one off – in fact President Medvedev went so far as to threaten businesses that they too could face the same fate and the death of Hermitage Lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky is a chilling example of what can happen when businesses crosses the establishment. Other businesses, including Shell and IKEA have seen the risks of Russian investment and pulled out of deals in the country. We should surely question whether it was right for us to trust a country with a culture of corruption and legal abuse with such a large stake in BP? The USA for one think we made the wrong decision.
Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, has repeatedly warned of the danger that an authoritarian Russia poses to our future energy security. A UK foreign policy focused purely on economic gain risks strengthening Russia’s hand in future gas wars – if we do not act to rein in Russia’s bully-boy tactics now, then we risk seeing energy crises across Europe becoming the norm as Moscow flex’s its political might.
Building up our trade relations with Russia is long overdue and William Hague was right to say that a permanent state of antagonism towards Russia is in no one’s interest. But he must also use Lavrov’s visit to show that the UK will not simply sit idly by whilst political opponents are arrested and press freedom curtailed. Hague must make it clear that economic engagement will not become an excuse to sideline human rights issues. He should respond to Lavrov’s calls on other nations to “mind their own business” by informing him that he cannot pick and choose when Russia wants to be a part of the international community and that being a part of that community entails respect for property rights, an end to corruption and commitment to human rights and the rule of law.
The UK, especially when governed by the Conservatives, has a proud history of punching above its weight in the international arena. Lavrov should leave the UK carrying a message back to his Prime Minister that the British advocacy of our values – fair play, respect for civil liberties and equal treatment under the law – is stronger than ever.