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.

Owen Smith MP – my commitment to tackling poverty at home and abroad

owen-smith-2Owen Smith MP, candidate in the 2016 Labour Leadership contest, blogs for LCID on his commitment to international development – @OwenSmith_MP

Anyone in any doubt about the right-wing agenda of this new Tory government should take a look at two of Theresa May’s lesser commented-on appointments over the summer – that of Priti Patel as International Development Secretary, and her Special Adviser Robert Oxley – formerly of the Brexit campaign and the ideological Taxpayer’s Alliance.

Both Patel and Oxley have spent years attacking the very department that they now lead, arguing for the aid budget to be redirected, cut or even scrapped – and even at one point suggesting that DFID should be abolished or reformed. Even more shockingly they appear to be willing to undermine the cross-party consensus on the 0.7% aid target to spend a small but guaranteed proportion of our income on supporting education, health and responding to disasters around the world. They must be stopped.

Establishing DFID, leading the way on both the quality and quantity of our development assistance, and while abandoning the type of policies that led to the Pergau dam scandal – was one of the proudest achievements of the last Labour government. An achievement that literally saved lives around the world, and showed the type of outward looking internationalism that Britain and Labour should represent.

It is clear that there is a moral case for international development assistance – and focusing this on those who need it the most. Who can say that we should turn by and walk on the other side when so many children remain unable to go to school, when millions face the threat of HIV/Aids, Malaria or TB, and when women and girls often bear the brunt – not least in conflict zones. And as we see the effects of climate change and disorganised war and conflict impacting on many more – we also have to prepare for the challenges of the future.

It’s why the agreement of the Sustainable Development Goals was so important – recognising that tackling poverty and injustice requires concerted action in many areas, and in the richest countries domestic policies as well as their international action – not least when it comes to sustainability, climate change, taxation and corporate behaviour overseas. I want to see a Labour government that leads the way in delivering the goals domestically and internationally.

But as well as the moral case – international development is clearly in our national interest. Whether it is the tragedy of poverty and conflict driven thousands drowning in boats in the Mediterranean – or the threat of instability and poor governance in countries across Africa and the Middle East leading providing the space for extremism to grow – we ignore these challenges at our own peril. There is no zero-sum game between our Defence, Development and Diplomatic efforts around the world. We must ensure there is coherence and collaboration to ensure a safer, fairer and more just world for all.

But I believe there is something more fundamental at stake. Many understand the need for charity – but only Labour has historically recognised the need for justice – whether for garment workers in Bangladesh, women fleeing rape in the DRC or the refugees of Syria. We need to address the immediate impacts – but also the economic and political structures that drive injustice, poverty and conflict – for example through global tax transparency or fair trade. DFID and our aid budget have been at the heart of that fight for justice since 1997, and I will fight tooth and nail as Labour’s Leader to ensure the Tories don’t take an ideological axe to its work – and pledge to put tackling poverty at home and abroad at the heart of my programme as Labour’s next Prime Minister.

 

Owen Smith

Owen Smith MP signs LCID pledge for Leadership candidates

owen-smith-mpAs with previous leadership contests in 2010 and 2015, LCID will not be endorsing a leadership candidate in the current contest.

However we have asked candidates to sign the International pledge for 2016 Leadership candidates.

We are delighted that Owen Smith MP has signed the pledge and agreed to uphold the principles it contains.

We are awaiting a response from Jeremy Corbyn MP.

 

International pledge for 2016 Leadership candidates:

 

  1. I believe tackling poverty and inequality is what Labour governments are for. Any government I lead will take a ‘whole government’ approach to global justice, ensuring that our policies on tax, trade, climate change, home affairs, education, business regulation, defence, and security deliver for the world’s poorest people.

 

  1. I back British aid. I will ensure we spend 0.7% of GNI on aid and spend it well, focusing our aid exclusively and explicitly on tackling poverty and inequality, even in the hardest to reach places.

 

  1. I want DFID to be a development department, not just an aid administrator. I will ensure DFID is an innovative, independent department with a seat at the cabinet table and representation on all the relevant cabinet committees

 

  1. The Government I lead will pursue an ethical foreign policy and champion a progressive approach to humanitarian intervention in line with our international obligations, such as the UN’s Responsibility To Protect Civilians commitment.

 

On International Women’s Day call on the Government to back up UN Women

Today is International Women’s Day, Labour is holding the Conservative-led Government to account on its promise to women around the world. This comes a week after support for UN Women was left out of the aid review. In an email, Harriet Harman asked people to ask them why:

Today is International Women’s Day. Join me in calling on the Government to answer the question they failed to answer last week when they published their review of the UK’s international aid programme – how much will they commit to spending on the new UN women’s agency?

This new UN agency has the potential to make a real difference to the lives of women in both the developed and the developing world but it needs resources.

The Government say they are putting women and girls at the heart of their development work. Sign up and ask the Government to put their money where their mouth is and show the world that the UK is still a leader for women

The Labour Government played a key role in establishing “UN Women”. The new Government must continue that support. Empowering women is not only right in principle but essential for fighting poverty and achieving all of the Millennium Development Goals, such as reducing the number of women who die in childbirth, and increasing the number of girls who go to school.

It is women in developing countries who are best placed to fight for maternal health care, and for their daughters to go to school. UN Women must help them in that fight. Support UN Women by signing up to ask the Tory-led Government for a real commitment to back up women throughout the world

Decisions are being made on this now and women the world over need the UK to play its part. The women of the world shouldn’t have to wait any longer for this Government to make up its mind.

Best,

Harriet Harman
Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

 

Labour government refused to sell guns to repressive regime

The Wikileaks cables reveal that the UK Government refused a US$60M export licence for assault rifles, heavy machine guns, armoured personnel carriers and helicopters to be exported to Swaziland in 2008.

The Swaziland government is dues to spend 10% of its budget on police and the army and has, in recent years has used force to viciously subdue internal dissent. ACTSA says, “King Mswati III rules a population of just over one million people by authoritarian means; political and civic activists are threatened and imprisoned. There is less political freedom than in Zimbabwe.”

Official UK Government documents show that there was enough worry that the arms would be used by the government of Swaziland against its own people. For that reason, the last Labour Government refused the licence; an action that was exactly right.

“We are pleased that the British Government blocked this shipment of arms to Swaziland. We hope they did not get the arms from anywhere else.  The Swazi government has an appalling record of crushing dissent. For a country enduring a major financial crisis, where 70 per cent of the population live in absolute poverty, it can not be right for a government to prioritise repression over tackling poverty and supporting democracy.”

Tony Dykes, Director of ACTSA

The principle that values come before profit is an important one and one that we at LCID will be working hard to ensure the current Conservative-led Government respects.

You can find out more about this story on the ACTSA website.

LCID reaction to Report on Labour’s Education record

A Nigerian teacher in training. Photo credit: Chris Morgan, DFIDThe difficulty of being part of a political party is that sometimes you stand accused of being too tribal, too colour-blind, too willing to defend the party line. LCID it is not beyond criticising and critiquing the Labour Party’s own policy and record, but we will defend it passionately when we think it has come under attack unfairly.

Just before Christmas, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee released a report criticising Labour’s record on education spending.

As the report pointed out, DFID has focused on educational programs to improve and expand state primary school networks in 22 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia most of these have increased school enrolment from 50% or even lower to 70 to 90% and 14 on schedule to meet the UN MDG on education by 2015.

There is of course a major challenge for all those committed to education for all to ensure that the increase in the quantity of children receiving education is matched by an increase in the quality of education that they receive.

But despite huge and rapid increases in school enrolment in several countries supported by DFID, there has been no reduction in the levels of learning achievement – Tanzania is a case in point. That counts as a major achievement given that most new entrants are not only very poor but also often malnourished.

In addition, Labour and the DFID actively supported strategies aimed at strengthening achievement levels in countries such as Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Zambia, Tanzania, and Bangladesh.

The criticisms laid out in this report must not be used as an excuse to reduce the amount of aid our country spends on supporting children to learn. Kids kept out of school by poverty tend not to learn very much.

In terms of the allegations regarding the Kenyan government, we know that the Labour team at the time took pretty tough and rapid action and were very careful with any subsequent budget support to Kenya.

Most importantly, whilst improvements can be made to UK aid, this report must not be used as an excuse to reduce budget sector support. Without national government-run health and education systems, free at the point of use, countries will never get the healthy educated workforce they need to lift themselves out of poverty (and reduce their need for aid).

Our national health service is the envy of the world – UK aid should support countries to develop their own national health services and national education systems. Before the election, we and others including UNESCO warned that Mitchell and the Conservatives favoured private education initiatives including vouchers schemes in their manifesto – let us be clear, the overwhelming evidence across the world is that public health and education services deliver best for poor people – and this report must not be used to try and justify otherwise.