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Ben Rogers: Ten ideas for a Conservative policy on human rights

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist specialising in South Asia. He works for the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide and serves as Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. He was Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham in the 2005 General Election.

Over the past four years, the Conservative Party has changed in so many ways for the better. The focus on the broken society and social justice at home has transformed the party, and it is so clearly now at its heart. Similarly, the focus on the broken world beyond our shores is now at the centre of foreign policy.

A few years ago, inside and outside the party, I was seen as a unique character – a human rights activist who is also a Conservative. In 2003, James Mawdsley and I wrote a paper called New Ground: Engaging people with the Conservative Party through a bold, principled and imaginative foreign policy. In the 2005 General Election campaign when I stood in the City of Durham, I spoke regularly and from personal experience about international poverty and human rights, to the genuine surprise of many voters, and helped shatter some stereotypes about Conservatives.

Soon after the last election, the Shadow Foreign Secretary established the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. And now, an encouraging number of Conservative activists, including several candidates, have become passionately engaged in international human rights and many Conservatives at all levels in the party have taken part in Project Umubano and the social action visit to Bosnia. People no longer express surprise when they hear what I do.

William Hague has reiterated his pledge to “put human rights at the heart of foreign policy” many times. In his conference speech yesterday, he took the argument a stage further, by linking the promotion of freedom, democracy and human rights with our own national interest and character. “It is not in our character,” he said, “to have a foreign policy without a conscience: to be idle or uninterested while others starve or murder each other in their millions is not for us.” Our belief in a “free, open, outward-looking society” would be at the heart of foreign policy. And in a reference to William Wilberforce’s legacy: “We must all the more uphold our own values, doing so not by imposing them on others but by being an inspiring example of them ourselves. The country that drove the slave trade from the seas two hundred years ago can still be one of the greatest forces for common humanity.”

Jailed dissidents, refugees, women victims of gang-rape and female genital mutilation and child soldiers around the world could not have found a Shadow Foreign Secretary more vocal on their behalf than William Hague. On multiple occasions he has made strong statements, attended key events, raised important issues in Parliament and demonstrated his commitment to international human rights. No one is more appreciative of this than me. Bono’s message of encouragement prior to David Cameron’s speech yesterday was the icing on the cake.

As we approach the next General Election, however, the task of spelling out in more detail exactly how a Conservative government will put human rights at the heart of foreign policy will become ever greater. That is why the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission has been working so hard over the past four years, and why we will step up our activities in the next six months by conducting inquiries into two key themes: Women and Human Rights, and International Justice in response to Crimes Against Humanity. In the meantime, however, let me set out just ten ideas – some of which we have already recommended to the frontbench – which could help cement the pledge on human rights.

1. Prioritise and strengthen Foreign and Commonwealth Office resources for human rights promotion. Under Labour, the Minister of State at the Foreign Office responsible for human rights, Chris Bryant, also has responsibility for, among other things, South America, Overseas Territories, the Olympics, Consular policy, Protocol, public diplomacy and leading on Europe in the House of Commons. When does he get time to work on human rights seriously? A Conservative Government should appoint a Minister of State within the FCO with responsibility solely for international human rights. The Minister should be invited to attend relevant Cabinet committees including the new National Security Council. He or she should be supported by an Ambassador-at-Large for International Human Rights, who could be either a career diplomat with proven experience in commitment to these issues, or a prominent human rights campaigner from outside government. The Ambassador-at-Large should co-ordinate the work of the diplomatic service in promoting and defending human rights, and oversee a number of Special Representatives on thematic issues, such as freedom of religion, torture, genocide and crimes against humanity, women’s rights and trafficking. The Netherlands, Sweden and France all have ambassadors-at-large for human rights, and the US has an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom. The United Kingdom has none, and that must change.

2. Use embassies and reward diplomats. Embassies should, where possible and appropriate, do more to provide dissidents in totalitarian societies with space and platforms to gather, share ideas and receive recognition. Diplomats who champion human rights should be rewarded. Former Reagan speechwriter and US ambassador to Hungary, Mark Palmer, sets out these ideas in more detail in his book, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil and I would recommend that book as mandatory reading for the foreign policy team in preparation for government.

3. Focus on the Worst. Burma, Sudan and North Korea should be immediate priorities for the next government. In the case of Burma, the United Kingdom should take the lead in seeking the imposition of a universal arms embargo on the regime, and a UN commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity. The case has clearly been made in several recent reports, including Harvard’s Crimes in Burma, endorsed by several leading international judges and lawyers. Similarly, a commission of inquiry on North Korea should also be sought, as argued in a report published two years ago by Christian Solidarity Worldwide called North Korea: A Case to Answer, A Call to Act. The Henry Jackson Society’s new publication by Julia Pettengill, A Guilt Beyond All Crime, should be required reading.

4. Focus on the Forgotten and the Transforming. In addition to working to end the worst violations around the world, a Conservative government should not neglect small, often ignored countries struggling for freedom. The Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s own experience with The Maldives provides a good example of what can be achieved. In 2006, I visited the Maldives and met Mohamed Nasheed, the leader of the opposition who was under house arrest. I also visited a photo-journalist in detention. I published a report calling for their release, and within a few months they were released. They tell me that my efforts played a significant part in securing their freedom. The Maldives then went through a transition to real democracy, ending decades of dictatorship, and Mohamed Nasheed was elected President last year. Yesterday, he delivered a moving address to the party conference. In government, we should continue to do all we can to help small states transition to democracy, and to maintain support for them even after the transition as well. It is shameful, for example, that Britain no longer provides aid to East Timor – one of the world’s poorest countries, and one of the world’s newest democracies. I hope under a Conservative government that will change.

5. Raise human rights concerns with our friends and fellow democracies. Our values and policies must be consistent – it is inconsistency that undermines governments’ ability to raise human rights issues. So we must be prepared to challenge our American friends if necessary; and we must work to help India end the scandal of caste-based discrimination and liberate the Dalits. Similarly, the crisis in Sri Lanka requires our urgent attention, to seek the freedom of thousands trapped in camps from which they should be released.

6. Champion individual prisoners. I have seen how effective it can be to provide a voice for prisoners of conscience, and demand their release. A new government should give priority to advocating for the release of political or religious prisoners in countries such as China, where human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng has disappeared, or in Sri Lanka, where journalist J.S. Tissainayagam has been jailed.

7. Address women’s rights. Women are subjected to some of the worst human rights violations around the world. Rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war is widespread, as the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission has detailed in a report. I hope a new government will study this report and its recommendations closely.

8. UN Reform. A new government should seriously consider ways to make the UN effective in addressing human rights. The Conservative Party Human Rights Commission set out recommendations in a report last year.

9. Expand the role and resources of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD). Compared with the US equivalent, the National Endowment for Democracy, the WFD’s resources are miniscule. Greater prominence and a larger budget should be given for their work.

10. China’s foreign policy. A new government will need to work wisely and creatively to encourage a more responsible Chinese foreign policy. China provides political, economic and diplomatic cover for some of the world’s worst regimes, including Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and its influence throughout much of Africa and other parts of Asia, including Sri Lanka, is significant.

There are many other ideas for a new foreign policy too, including the need to turn the UN’s Responsibility to Protect mechanism from what Andrew Mitchell has called a “bumper-sticker slogan” into meaningful action. There is the need for government to take freedom of religion more seriously, and I would recommend two books in this regard – Madeleine Albright’s The Mighty and the Almighty and Thomas Farr’s World of Faith and Freedom.  Currently, there is only one person in the FCO working on religious freedom, and even she does not do it full-time. She is subsumed into the Equality and Communications Team in the Human Rights, Democracy and Governance Group! Yet as Albright and Farr both argue, religion – and religious persecution – affect so many of the world’s population.

Other recommendations set out in the Conservative Party Human Rights reports in previous years will I hope be given serious consideration and turned into policy.

At the end of the day, that great American Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson was right when he issued this challenge: “If you believe in the cause of freedom, then proclaim it, live it and protect it, for humanity’s future depends on it.” I look forward to seeing a Conservative foreign policy with human rights at its heart translated into action in government on behalf of the world’s poor, oppressed and persecuted.

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