Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist, a former Parliamentary Candidate, and is Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.
An Open Letter to Philip Hammond
“Dear Foreign Secretary,
Firstly, and belatedly, may I offer sincere congratulations on your appointment.
You take up this vital role, responsible for the United Kingdom’s foreign policy, at a time when there are very extraordinary challenges in the world: Iraq, Gaza, Russia and Ukraine, to name just three. Add the continuing suffering in Syria, the horrific rampage of Boko Haram in Nigeria, the appalling human rights, humanitarian and security crisis in North Korea, and you have three more.
Then add Libya and Burma – two countries which just a year or two ago seemed to be rare success stories. Burma – despite some positive steps forward, which the international community greeted with premature euphoria – faces a political stalemate over constitutional reform, steps backwards in terms of media freedom, and (according to international experts) the seeds of genocide for the beleaguered Muslim Rohingya population, as well as a wider campaign of religious intolerance leading to a series of anti-Muslim pogroms resembling a mini-Kristallnacht.
Add again the complexities of the European Union, the domestic political pressures in that regard, and the need to play your part in promoting trade, attracting investment and advancing Britain PLC. On top of this, two of your junior ministers have resigned since you were appointed – one on principle, the other in order to spend more time with his family.
No one would underestimate the scale of difficulties piling up in your ministerial box. No one, either, would underestimate the size of the shoes you have to fill. In replacing William Hague, you are succeeding a man who strode British politics as he strode the world – with a gravitas, intellect, oratory and conviction that was positively Churchillian in the stature of its statesmanship.
Some previous holders of the same office, of both parties, have also been impressive: David Miliband, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Douglas Hurd, Sir Geoffrey Howe, Lord Carrington, David Owen, Anthony Eden, Lord Halifax and Sir Edward Grey. A few have gone on to greater things, such as John Major, Jim Callaghan, Alec Douglas-Home and Harold Macmillan, while some – such as Jack Straw – have been recognised as competent, but uninspiring. A few, such as Margaret Beckett, have fallen by the wayside as mere footnotes in history, while others distinguished themselves as men of principle – Robin Cook – even if they weren’t always consistent in their principles. The office you now hold has been filled previously by giants, mediocrities and pygmies. Which will you be?
There is a clear and urgent need, Foreign Secretary, to set out what you stand for. A prevailing cynicism suggests that you have a reputation as a very competent minister, but that is all. In stable times, competence may be enough. In troubled times such as the ones we face today, we need more. Vision, idealism and principle are needed.
A defeated Conservative local councillor that I know greeted your appointment as a triumph of “substance over style”, claiming that the electorate wanted more of the former and less of the latter. My humble suggestion is that actually we want both. We want to be inspired and assured at the same time.
Tony Blair’s foreign policy was beset with rumours of sofa government – or beanbag loungers. There is, dare I say it, a danger – perhaps premature in your short tenure – that your foreign policy is beset with rumours of “beancounter” policy-making. Foreign Secretary, you must of course be your own man. No one should compel you to be like your predecessor. But we must hope that your foreign policy will be hostage neither to beancounters nor beanbag loungers.
A foreign policy that is entirely idealistic, without any practical, pragmatic, realistic way of delivering the ideals, is not sensible. It is the stuff of beanbags. But a foreign policy which lacks any ideals, any values, any vision, and is realpolitik-extraordinaire lacks soul, and is certainly the preserve of the beancounters. I humbly urge you to chart a course that combines the two – setting out your values, what you, and Britain, stand for, while also mapping out how you will implement those values in reality.
Your predecessor, William Hague, pledged that a Conservative government would put human rights “at the very heart of foreign policy”. I know, because I wrote speeches about it for him. He embraced and advanced the work of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, set up by Liam Fox as Shadow Foreign Secretary, and chaired, in turn, by Gary Streeter, Stephen Crabb, Tony Baldry and Robert Buckland.
The Commission has, over the past nine years, published a series of reports, on issues as diverse as child soldiers, sexual violence, religious persecution, human rights abuses suffered by professionals such as lawyers, journalists and doctors, UN reform, North Korea, Burma, Iran, Eritrea and Afghanistan. It built on ideas set out in a paper I co-authored with James Mawdsley eleven years ago. The question for you now is whether you will continue, develop and deepen that Conservative pledge to put human rights at the heart of foreign policy, or whether you will pursue the foreign policy of an accountant? Will you champion the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative established by your predecessor, and continue to prioritise freedom of religion now that Sayeeda Warsi has resigned? Will you introduce any new initiatives of your own to promote universal human rights as a centrepiece of foreign policy?
It is right to put Britain’s national interest at the centre of our foreign policy. But as William Hague said, it is always in our national interest to promote around the world the values we cherish here at home, and to promote abroad the principles that make us Conservative: human rights, freedom, democracy, the rule of law. We should do so consistently, universally and unashamedly. Dictators sow instability and corruption; tyranny breeds terror; and neither tyrants nor terrorists make good trading partners. Free trade depends on free spirits, open societies, peaceful and stable environments, and the rule of law.
So far, Foreign Secretary, I have not heard your vision. I’ve heard you rename the Foreign Office ‘the British Office’. This may well be well-meant; it might please the party faithful; and it may well tie in with the thoughts in this article, if you consider it in British interests to strengthen human rights, democracy and the rule of law around the world.
But you have not yet said so. This may be for very good reason. You may well be adopting a quieter, more modest approach. You may still be learning your brief. I don’t hold any of this against you. But now, as a genocide unfolds in Iraq, as the crisis in Gaza continues, and as other major challenges develop, it is time to step up to the plate. It is time to articulate what you stand for. It is time to put beancounters and beanbags aside and put into action the ideals which make Britain Great. It is time to defend freedom and human rights, for practical reasons of self-interest as much as for great moral reasons, for the threats to our cherished values challenge not only the people of faraway places of which we know little, but threaten our interests close to home as well. It is time to stand up and count the values and principles, as well as the beans.
Deputy Chairman, Conservative Party Human Rights Commission”