It was standing room only in the Winter Gardens’ Theatre Bar at lunchtime today, as hundreds of delegates missed Osborne’s speech and umpteen other fringe meetings to attend the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission event chaired by Stephen Crabb.
Simon Coveney, a senior spokesman for Fine Gael and a former author of the European Parliament’s annual human rights reports, offered an inspiring vision of how the Conservative Party and Britain could take a lead in using its power to protect people around the world. He said the Party should use its influence to try to change bureaucratic international institutions so that they are more responsive to crises like Darfur, "the biggest scandal of our time". He also passionately challenged Conservatives to see how it is in our interest to invest in developing countries because it reduces the supply of immigrants in the long-term, but more importantly because it is the right thing to do.
William Hague has twice said in speeches that human rights should be
"at the heart of our foreign policy" and there was no backtracking
today when he spoke of the "deeply held belief of the primacy of human rights". He attacked the government’s prevarification on Darfur and the UN Security Council’s failure to take action. The audience clapped loudest when he expressed admiration for the bravery of the monks in Burma, and spoke gravely of the "full-scale humanitarian disaster" in Zimbabwe.
Activist Ben Rogers, well-known to readers of this site, vividly described the brutality of the Burmese regime. One of the recent incidents he recounted was of the junta roasting a number of prisoners over a fire, stabbing them in the sides, and then rubbing salt into their bodies. They died in agony. He went on to criticise the Foreign Office’s "can’t do" culture, shown earlier this year when the Pakistan desk meekly shrugged off the "convert or die" threat to 500 Christians in North Western Pakistan as "an internal matter" that they wouldn’t raise with the government. He also rightly expressed concern that Mark Malloch-Brown’s huge array of responsibilities mean he is far from an effective human rights spokesman for the government.
Mohammed Nasheed, the leader of the Maldivian democratic opposition
who has himself been tortured and incarcerated, spoke very warmly of
what the Conservatives had done for him and his country. Nasheed blames
the beauty of his country for masking the hell that many
of its inhabitants endure. He stopped short of saying that tourists
shouldn’t visit the country (long-time dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom,
who has actively sought to radicalise Islam in the country, has spuriously blamed boycott-advocates for the recent beach bomb) but they shouldn’t, or at least not use regime-supporting resorts. Nasheed said he was "extremely, extremely grateful" for the Conservative Party’s help in building the MDP up, and for the HRC’s pressure on the government that has reaped real results.
Human rights campaigners will tell you how much work it took to get Brown to say what he did about Burma, we can be proud that such effort wasn’t required with the Conservatives. One of the stars of last year’s conference,
Burma campaigner Zoya Phan, will be speaking in the main hall again
tomorrow, in the same session as Rwanda’s President Kigame. Will Cameron devote a speech to human rights issues soon?
It can’t be long before the major political parties in this country
and others belatedly get in on the act and set up HRCs of their own.
This would be very welcome indeed, so long as they didn’t fall into the
left-wing trap of focusing on the West out of all proportion!