Benedict Rogers is the East Asia Team Leader at the international human rights organization CSW, the co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, the co-founder of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea, the co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, and author of three books on Burma.
Jeremy Hunt is the first Foreign Secretary since William Hague to really articulate a values-based foreign policy, and a plan to implement it. Even when Brexit dominates, when the Government is fragile, and when others are more concerned with trade deals than human rights, he appears to be thinking bigger.
He wisely avoids Robin Cook’s “ethical” terminology, but speaks actively of Britain’s role in defending our beliefs. While Boris Johnson hinted at similar themes, with talk of ‘Global Britain’ and girls’ education, his tenure was so overshadowed by his ambitions, character and Brexit that he never developed the narrative. Philip Hammond’s two-year stint was associated only with bean-counting. Not since Hague as Shadow Foreign Secretary promised to put human rights “at the very heart of foreign policy” have I heard an articulation of a vision for a British foreign policy that I could wholeheartedly cheer. Until Hunt.
And it is not simply his rhetoric. The Foreign Secretary has already taken some bold steps. On his first visit to Beijing he met the wives of imprisoned human rights lawyers in China. His foreword to the Foreign Office’s six-monthly report on Hong Kong was noticeably stronger than previous reports, and his statement in response to the expulsion from Hong Kong of Victor Mallet, the Financial Times’ Asia Editor, was robust.
In his Diwali message he spoke of the “victory of good over evil” and the need to defend freedom of religion or belief, and in the Evening Standard he pledged to make the defence of press freedom a priority. His statement in response to the appalling death of Jamal Khashoggi was good. His decision to visit Burma in September was welcome, and his call for accountability for appalling crimes against humanity and genocide there, while long overdue, was further than his predecessor had gone. “What is essential now,” he said, “is that the perpetrators of any atrocities are brought to justice, because without that there can be no solution to the huge refugee problem. We will use all the tools at our disposal to try and make sure there is accountability.”
So where does he go from here?
In his recent speech to Policy Exchange, the Foreign Secretary set out his vision. Post-Brexit, Britain must establish a new role for itself as a defender of democratic values and human rights, and a builder of multi-lateral coalitions to protect liberty in an era when it is under increasing threat. As the home of parliamentary democracy, and “an outward-looking, seafaring nation,” with a network of friendships that is “unparalleled”, Britain has the opportunity and the responsibility to lead. “Our democratic values are under greater threat than at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall,” he said. “We can use our influence, our reach and power to defend our values by becoming an invisible chain that links the world’s democracies.”
How will he do this? Through the biggest expansion of our diplomatic service for a generation, the opening of more embassies, increasing the languages taught to our diplomats and reform of major multi-lateral institutions – the United Nations, NATO, the World Trade Organisation and the Commonwealth. These are bold, necessary and welcome steps.
There is, however, much further to go if this vision is to develop into a lasting narrative. There will be many competing areas in which Britain could develop multi-lateral leadership, but two different but equally important focuses come to mind. Both are areas where Hunt has shown interest and could shape further.
The first is ensuring accountability for mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. In the case of Burma, will he lead an international effort to ensure that the perpetrators of crimes are brought to justice, either through the International Criminal Court or an ad hoc tribunal? Will he work to build international support, to invite other countries to follow if he leads?
Similarly, will Britain step up to hold China to account for its horrific repression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, investigate allegations that prisoners of conscience are targeted for forced organ harvesting, and put pressure on China to stop the intensifying persecution of Christians and Tibetan Buddhists?
Will the Foreign Secretary play a leading role in ensuring that North Korea’s crimes against humanity are not swept under the carpet in the rapprochement with South Korea and the United States?
Will he hold IS/Daesh accountable for genocide?
Will he study the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s recent report on Russia – Poison, Torture, Lies and Repression: Human Rights in Russia Today – and act to end the impunity with which Vladimir Putin’s regime behaves by ensuring that targeted sanctions under the global Magnitsky legislation are implemented?
Hunt’s willingness to call on the Security Council to act to stop the war in Yemen was right, if overdue. Let’s hope such boldness can be applied to the world’s other mass atrocities.
The second area in which Britain should lead is in response to the erosion of basic freedoms, the rule of law and autonomy in Hong Kong.
Over the past five years, democratic values in Hong Kong have taken an enormous hit. Booksellers have been abducted, peaceful protestors jailed and pro-democracy legislators and candidates disqualified. I was denied entry to the territory a year ago, and the Financial Times’ Asia News Editor, after being expelled, was then barred. The undermining of press freedom, academic freedom and freedom of expression is spiralling daily. “Asia’s world city,” as its slogan puts it, is increasingly closing its doors and becoming just another Chinese city.
Here Britain has a special responsibility, as a signatory to the Sino-British Joint Declaration. We have a legal as well as moral duty, and it is in our own interests too. If Hong Kong’s openness, transparency, rule of law and autonomy continue to unravel, it puts at grave risk British business and trade.
But it is also a matter of international concern, and I was encouraged that in China’s recent Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations, twelve countries, including the UK, raised Hong Kong. In the previous review Hong Kong was not mentioned. In Washington DC, Ottawa, Berlin, Geneva and Brussels this year, policy-makers have indicated to my colleagues and me growing concern and willingness to work with like-minded allies to address the deteriorating situation. It is in everyone’s interests, including China’s, that Hong Kong remain an open, free international business centre.
“When we act in concert, we are strong. When we act together, the price for transgression becomes too high for the perpetrator,” Hunt said. “We must be better at standing together to defend the values we share. Whether that is: the prevention of sexual violence in conflict, the struggle against the illegal wildlife trade, or threats to freedom of expression. Because access to fair and accurate information is also something we should remember is the lifeblood of democracy.”
He is absolutely right. So I hope he will lead the international community to build coalitions of like-minded nations to ensure accountability for mass atrocities, and a coalition to ensure that the promises made to the people of Hong Kong are honoured, not trampled on. The early signs are welcome. I encourage him to go on and build that “invisible chain” to defend and promote democratic values and human rights for everyone. Not only because it is right, not only because we have a responsibility, but also because it is in our national interests to do so.