The rise and fall of human rights

Stephen Tunstall, Palestine & Israel Programme Manager for Embrace the Middle East blogs about why Labour should adopt a humans rights focused foreign policy

@SCTunstall

Tony Blair’s famous 1999 Chicago speech set out a foreign policy doctrine to guide Britain through the twenty first century. It makes for a fascinating read in hindsight. Predicting that the biggest decision Britain would have to make in the following twenty years would be its relationship with Europe, it’s as if Blair could foresee a Conservative Foreign Secretary resigning in July 2018 on precisely this issue. Blair finished by warning America not to look inwards or isolate itself from the rest of the world. As President Trump visits the UK, something Blair surely could not have imagined, one wonders what he would have made of that warning had he been listening in 1999.

The Chicago speech gave Britain’s foreign policy a firmly internationalist agenda: “mutual self-interest and moral purpose in defending the values we cherish…. liberty, the rule of law, human rights and an open society… that is in our national interests,” Blair proclaimed.

The rhetoric of human rights was an organising principle of Britain’s foreign policy under Labour.  Labour came to power in the post-Cold War years when there was a genuine, albeit naïve, belief that an era of peace and human security would characterise the new international order. I would not attempt to assess how successful Labour actually was in advancing human rights around the world; it was a mixed bag to say the very least. However, human rights served as a frame through which the government considered Britain’s role in an international community.

Fast forward twenty years and Britain’s Prime Minister is quite clear that human rights are not a pillar of her foreign policy. On the surface, Theresa May’s government makes similar overtures about foreign policy – all the talk about Global Britain and desperate pleas for international cooperation to pull us out of a Brexit quagmire. But that’s where the comparison ends. May’s infamous statement that “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere” derided the idea of international solidarity and a common humanity. Her Conservative government prioritises the traditional concerns of nation states, or ‘valuing stability and respecting sovereignty’ in the words of her former advisor, Nick Timothy. Defending humans’ rights is no longer in Britain’s national interest if it risks infringing on states’ sovereignty/impunity (delete as appropriate).

I’ve seen this posture repeatedly manifested in the government’s response to recent events in Palestine and Israel. For the past five years I’ve been working with civil society groups there and witnessed the increasing confidence with which Israel violates the rights of Palestinians with complete impunity. Take Gaza; the illegal 11 year closure of Gaza has had disastrous humanitarian consequences and is an appalling violation of the rights of innocent Palestinians. The recent protests at the heavily fortified fence separating Gaza from Israel and the rest of Palestine culminated in the killing of over 100 unarmed Palestinians and the maiming of thousands more, including children, journalists, and medics.

There are potential policy options which would help protect human rights and secure accountability for violations, but the government has shamefully rejected all of them. It could be working with international partners to reform the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism, a supposedly temporary arrangement which restricts the import of essential goods into Gaza. It could be freezing arms sales to Israel because Israel’s use of those arms for internal repression would be in violation of Britain’s own export licenses. Or it could have meant backing a UN Commission of Inquiry to investigate claims of war crimes committed in Gaza.

Britain has done none of these things. In fact, it is actively working against efforts to uphold accountability for human rights violations. Just last month, the government confirmed that Britain would automatically vote against any resolution which specifically addressed Israel’s treatment of Palestinians at future sessions of the UN Human Rights Council. May’s government will vote against a resolution even if it is consistent with British policy, for example condemning the stalled demolition of the Khan al Ahmar Bedouin village to make way for illegal settlement expansion.

It is hard to imagine a British government more hostile to human rights protection that the current one. The new Foreign Secretary is not going to change that. While human rights was fashionable in the nineties, it is very much out of favour in the Brexit and Trump world we now inhabit.

So would a Labour government be any better? Jeremy Corbyn is, of course, well known as a staunch supporter of the Palestinians’ struggle against occupation. But Labour, along with the rest of the political and media establishment, is so wedded to the dogma of a two-state solution that its approach is overly state-centric, liable to approach this as a matter of diplomatic policy rather than a human rights emergency. Its most recent manifesto announced that a Labour government will immediately recognise a theoretical state of Palestine. Labour MPs proudly tout this policy, but recognition alone doesn’t address the daily rights violations that make Palestinian lives insufferable.

Labour needs to get human rights back on the foreign policy agenda. Human security must be elevated as a priority informing diplomacy, defence, and development. For too long Britain has shied away from seeking accountability for Israeli rights violations with the excuse that it won’t help the peace process. Well, there is no longer any peace process and a two state solution is not going to happen. Labour needs to realise this and switch to viewing the situation in Palestine and Israel through a human rights lens, with policies to enhance protection for vulnerable communities and international accountability for violations. Not only will this help protect Palestinian lives and livelihoods, it may help the pendulum swing back towards a political culture where human rights are once again a credible foreign policy priority.

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