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Ben Rogers: A Wilberforce agenda for the Coalition’s Foreign Policy

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. He is the author of a new book, Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant, published by Silkworm Books.

In opposition, Foreign Secretary William Hague made repeated pledges to put human rights at the very heart of foreign policy. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, gave a speech to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which he promised “to people in Burma, in Russia, in Sudan, in North Korea – and indeed in Zimbabwe - whose rights are denied, I say that the Conservative Party will stand up for you in opposition and, if we are elected, in Government.” Now they have the opportunity to turn those promises into action.

Over the past five years, the Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission has put forwarded a range of policy proposals, covering UN reform, sexual violence as a weapon of war, supporting women human rights defenders, genocide, crimes against humanity and the Responsibility to Protect and, perhaps most importantly, reform of the structures of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to strengthen the institutional mechanisms for addressing human rights. In opposition, William Hague and David Lidington were hugely supportive of the Commission’s work, and took a strong line on human rights. I hope, in Government, they will implement our recommendations.

Firstly, I strongly believe that as William Hague reviews the structures of the FCO, he should appoint a Minister of State whose sole responsibility is the promotion and protection of international human rights and democracy. In the previous government, as I have explained on these pages before, the Minister responsible for human rights also had numerous other large responsibilities, including regions such as Africa and Asia, the Commonwealth, the G8, NATO and the UN, to name a few. It is disappointing that in the early stages of the new Coalition government, David Lidington, who was shadow minister for human rights, appears not to have that portfolio, and Liberal Democrat Jeremy Browne is responsible for South East Asia and the Far East, Central and South America, Public Diplomacy and the Olympics, to name just a few, in addition to human rights. I hope in time a Minister of State responsible solely for human rights will be appointed, to co-ordinate efforts and give the issues full attention.

The Commission has also recommended the appointment of an Ambassador-at-Large for International Human Rights, who would work with the Minister of State to co-ordinate the efforts of diplomats and embassies in addressing international human rights, and oversee the work of a range of Special Envoys on thematic human rights issues – genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes; religious freedom; human trafficking; women’s rights, for example. These could either be diplomats with a proven track record in these areas, or respected human rights campaigners from the NGO sector. The United States, the Netherlands and France have similar positions, and it is time the United Kingdom did too.

Such appointments would be an important demonstration of human rights being a centre-piece of foreign policy, not simply an after-thought. They would represent a serious expansion of the currently woefully under-staffed human rights and governance unit at the FCO. In contrast to the US State Department, which has an entire Office of International Religious Freedom, with an ambassador-at-large, the FCO has had until now about a third of a person – a relatively junior official who has several other responsibilities besides religious freedom. This must change.

I agree with much of Charles Crawford's advice. Under Labour, as he argued on Platform recently, the FCO was dumbed down. Just one illustration of that is the sloppy attitude of the front-desk receptionists, who are, whether they like it or not, the shop window for the FCO. I have numerous stories of my experiences entering the FCO, some of which I described here two-and-a-half years ago. More recently, I turned up for a meeting on Indonesia. I informed the receptionist, who was doing her nails at the time, that I was there for a meeting on Indonesia and she looked at me blankly and, I promise you, replied: “Indo-neee-siya ... is that in the Great Lakes region?”. Dumbing down is an understatement.

I agree with Charles Crawford that geographical expertise should be restored, although I think, as I have argued earlier, some new thematic roles should be created. I agree that DFID offices overseas should be run from our embassies, as is the case in Rangoon. I agree with his sentiments about DFID’s wastefulness, its vast armies of consultants, but I don’t think establishing DFID per se was a mistake, though reform within that department is required. I agree that ‘judgment and analysis’ should be restored to the internal appraisal system, and I believe that outstanding work on democracy and human rights promotion should be recognised and rewarded.

I disagree, however, with Crawford’s suggestion that ambassadorial blogging should end. I believe in this day and age, such blogging – especially on democracy and human rights – is a very valuable source of information to the outside world, and solidarity with courageous dissidents and activists. Our former ambassador to Burma, Mark Canning, now in Zimbabwe, blogged regularly during key events such as Cyclone Nargis and Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial, and I admire him for it. His successor Andrew Heyn has followed suit. I also disagree with the idea of freezing all FCO training. I think preparing diplomats for understanding the key human rights issues in countries to which they will be posted is essential, and it needs to be strengthened not cut.

Crawford’s conclusion, however, that the FCO should “make a difference for good, be confident in British democratic values, lead not follow” is one I wholeheartedly share. The one thing Gordon Brown got right was policy on Burma, which he led. In the past three years, Britain has led the way in the international community on Burma.

So, some thoughts on how the new team can turn Britain into a consistent leader on human rights:

First, I hope Burma will remain a priority and Britain under David Cameron and William Hague will continue Gordon Brown’s work in this area. In opposition, William Hague pledged support for raising Burma at the UN Security Council, and David Cameron, William Hague and Andrew Mitchell all at different times called for crimes against humanity to be addressed. I hope that the new Government will maintain Britain’s support for the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry, and will work proactively to build an international coalition to take this forward. They must maintain current sanctions, consider introducing targeted financial sanctions to hit the Generals where it really hurts, including a ban on insurance, seek a universal arms embargo and emphatically reject the regime’s sham elections planned for later this year, which have no shred of legitimacy or credibility.

North Korea should be given more attention, not simply for its nuclear programme, but for its gulags. Its human rights record must rank as one of the very worst in the world. The new Government should support a dual track approach, seeking engagement with the North Koreans on human rights and prise open the doors, as advocated here by David Hawk and here by Lord Alton, while at the same time seeking the establishment of a UN commission of inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity. The new Government must urge the UNHCR to fulfill its responsibilities to North Korean refugees in China, and pressure must be exerted on China to live up to its obligations. It should also seriously consider funding radio stations broadcasting into North Korea. As Korean-American pastors wrote to the two US presidential candidates, John McCain and Barak Obama, in 2008, “the goals of liberty and security are intertwined; the international community must pursue them on a linked, coordinated and interactive basis.

The new Government is right to seek to strengthen a strategic partnership with India, but in doing so it must not shy away from seeking ways in which to address the horrendous plight of the 167 million ‘Dalits’ or ‘untouchables’ stripped of all human dignity as a result of caste-based discrimination.

Lastly, Internet Freedom. Four hundred million Chinese are online, as are several million Iranians, and thousands in Burma, Cuba, central Asia and various other oppressed regions. Yet their regimes are doing their very best, as Shiyu Zhou, deputy director of the Global Internet Freedom Consortium put it, “to stifle dissent, control information and block citizens from communicating with the outside world”. The Global Internet Freedom (GIF) Consortium offers a way round this, which is now enabling millions of people in countries such as China, Burma and Iran to avoid the censors. Using software such as Freegate and Ultrasurf, users can secure proxy servers around the world with encrypted connections. Server IP addresses are constantly switched, at a rate of up to 10,000 shifts per hour, in ways GIF claims “make it impossible for censors to block effectively”. Most remarkably, GIF is run entirely by volunteers, who maintain operations out of their own pockets and provide the services for free. The GIF founders, former Tiananmen Square protestors turned exiled Chinese internet experts, note that in these countries, state-controlled media “confounds right with wrong, incites hatred, and institutionalises ignorance”. They conclude that “it is our belief that free flow of information is the most effective and powerful way to peacefully transform closed societies and promote human rights and civil liberties”.

We saw how powerful Internet technology was during the Saffron Revolution in Burma, and the protests in Iran last year. One Iranian summed up the importance of the lifeline thrown to them by technology in an email to GIF:

“I am writing you on behalf of the Iranians in Iran, those who are beaten, killed, and threatened but still making history. If it was not because of flicker, twitter, facebook and simply email, nobody would have known what is happening in Iran ... If not for Internet, these events would have been 1000 times uglier and more brutal ... These days Iranians cannot even access the Internet ... The only hope for Iran is Freegate software. Please help the movement in Iran. Please make the software available to Iranians for free.”

Zhou argues that:

“When people in closed societies gain a taste of freedom and are given a way to share information, it becomes harder and harder for regimes to force their people to acquiesce to tyranny and injustice. If fax and Xerox machines helped bring down the former Soviet Union – as they did – Internet freedom protocols and systems have an even greater potential to transform closed societies in peaceful and powerful ways.”

The only thing holding back the ability to circumvent the censors is funding. Zhou claims that “for every dollar we spend on anti-censorship technologies, repressive governments must spend hundreds – perhaps thousands – of dollars to block us.” I hope William Hague will see it as in our national interest to support such work. Extra funding would enable providers such as GIF to buy more servers and make access more widely available. I know we have to make cuts, but I believe we could cut wasteful consultants and politically correct schemes and spend FCO or DFID money on promoting Internet freedom – and that would be a good use of taxpayer money.

There are of course plenty of other ideas and issues which the FCO and DFID should focus on too as part of this agenda – fighting efforts at the UN to introduce religious defamation laws, helping convince countries like Pakistan and Indonesia that their blasphemy laws promote religious extremism, intolerance and hatred and therefore contribute to violence and insecurity, tackling the worldwide scandal of human trafficking, and providing aid money to tackle the treatable horror of obstretic fistula in the developing world, described powerfully here. All these measures, and more, would make the pledge to place human rights at the heart of foreign policy a concrete reality. I would urge William Hague and other ministers to read Breaking the Real Axis of Evil by former US Ambassador to Hungary, Mark Palmer, and Natan Sharansky’s The Case for Democracy, and build a manifesto for change by adapting their ideas. As Palmer said in a recent testimony to a Congressional commission:

The single most strategic failure of our best minds in the intelligence, journalist and academic communities over the past half century has been their failure to anticipate, indeed even allow for, peaceful democratic revolution. And yet some sixty such revolutions have occurred in countries as divergent as Indonesia, the Philippines, South Africa, Chile, and Ukraine. We have neither understood what is going on in the minds of elites beneath the closed surface of dictatorships nor the power of students, women and others once they organize.

It is time to put that right. We can, through peaceful means, make a meaningful difference to the lives of billions of people living under tyranny. As the biographer of the great anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, William Hague has an opportunity now to continue the work of his political hero. If he follows these ideas, he will have a legacy of which Wilberforce would be proud.


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