Dan Dolan is Head of Policy at Reprieve, an international human rights organisation.
We’ve heard a lot about British values in recent months, but not a huge amount of detail on what exactly they are.
At the recent Conservative Party Conference the Foreign Secretary described them as “our most important export”. Theresa May touched on a definition when she said that, as Britain leaves the EU, “we will provide a moral lead in the world.”
I agree with the Prime Minister that we, as a wealthy, powerful and thoughtful nation, should be leading the world in standing up for high ethical standards. But what are those standards? And if we look at the actions of the government rather than the rhetoric, what do we learn about what British values mean in practice?
British governments of all political stripes have long had dealings with countries who do not share our values. Values like a respect for the rule of law, a commitment against torture, and opposition to the death penalty.
But in recent years we have become the leader in the service industry for some of these oppressive regimes. It’s not banking or legal services that are at issue here, but UK Government-sponsored consultancy for the security apparatus of states that brutally suppress domestic dissent.
Across the Middle East and North Africa, different arms of the Whitehall machine have been quietly, but actively, helping to undermine some of the core British values we aspire to at home.
Since May became Prime Minister, the UK has trained Saudi Arabian secret police in the techniques needed to hack activists’ phones; helping to sentence young men to death for protest-related offences; paid for prison guards in Bahrain’s notorious torture prison; and a UK state-owned company fitted Egyptian courtrooms with “waterproof seats” for mass trials involving teenagers faced with execution.
We have also been very generous to oppressive police forces overseas. UK money continues to fund Pakistani counter-narcotics officers who target vulnerable drug mules over the protected kingpins, and who have boasted about the number of death sentences they’ve achieved as “prosecution achievements.”
None of this means that we should stop working entirely in parts of the world with poor human rights records. It is important that we engage with countries with whom we disagree and do not simply shout from the side lines, as the Foreign Secretary regularly preaches (though does not always practice). Conservative MPs, including Crispin Blunt, have made thoughtful interventions on where this balance should lie.
The critical point is that we can engage with foreign governments without being taken for a ride.
British police and security services are among the best skilled and resourced in the world. If a country cannot show it will use these skills for good and not to torture political prisoners, we should have the self-respect to tell these governments “no”. We should be aiming to raise global standards, not lowering our own by placating rulers who show no real desire to change.
The obvious solution is to consider each request on its own merits; apply a simple set of tests to make sure it complies with our values; and come to a conclusion Ministers can feel confident defending to Parliament and the public. A year after he became Foreign Secretary, William Hague introduced a system that was designed to do this: the “Overseas Security and Justice Assistance” policy, or OSJA for short.
The OSJA was introduced to ensure there was no UK complicity in abuses abroad following the Arab revolutions, when it was revealed that Tony Blair’s Government had sent British agents to train foreign security forces including Colonel Gaddafi’s notorious secret police. The intention was to hold decision-makers to account for providing such assistance and guard against future complicity in such abuses.
But accountability only works if there is transparency. The starting point must be knowing what decisions are being made and why.
Unfortunately, May’s Government has effectively castrated William Hague’s well-intentioned policy by keeping the public and Parliament in the dark and refusing to disclose the risk assessments departments and agencies are producing. Last year, MPs on the Home Affairs Committee condemned this approach as “totally unacceptable” and questioned wither the policy was “fit for purpose.”
Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, said this week how he wanted to open up the UK to new markets. But as trade envoys fan out across 108 countries, in one crucial area things are become increasingly closed and secretive. More and more British assistance to foreign security forces falls under the auspices of a shadowy cross-Whitehall slush fund with a budget of more than £1 billion, the full accounts of which are not available to the public.
Last year, Parliament’s Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy warned that this fund “has not yet struck the right balance between security and transparency” noting that “the patchwork of information that is available from Government sources… is high-level, incoherent and occasionally incorrect.”
Hague took on this issue directly when he spoke of the importance of “tackling issues related to security and human rights in an open and transparent way.” If that vision is to be realised, then this government must turn the tide of secrecy and expose its dealings overseas to proper, democratic accountability.
British values may be hard to define, but we should all be able to agree that actively aiding organisations and institutions that engage in torture and suppress peaceful protest goes against the very core of the principles that bind us.
If, as this Government says, we are to become a more global and outward looking nation, we must ensure we are a force for good, not just rhetorically but in the practical steps we take. The British values we project should be ones that reduce suffering and promote humanity. The best way to do ensure that is to allow Parliament and the public to see what’s really going on with our dealings overseas.