Sixty years after the birth of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, human rights are in retreat in some parts of the globe.
For each of the last four years political rights and civil liberties have been eroded worldwide, as Freedom House has documented. It is tempting to think of history as a continuum, with a steady progression towards universal adherence to the values that we hold dear in this country. But in historical terms the battle for human rights is still in its relatively early stages, and it is still undecided.
Not all the rapidly growing economies of the world are defenders of human rights. Many countries still dispute the universality of human rights or are not prepared to criticise their peers. And any ability to impose our values will decline even further as the European economy shrinks as a proportion of that of the world. Added to this, we have paid the short term price of damage to our own moral authority when allegations of British complicity in torture were left unsatisfactorily answered for several years.
Serious and pervasive abuses in Iran, Zimbabwe and elsewhere often escape the censure of the UN Human Rights Council. In every case of inaction it is the victims of human rights abuses who suffer and who end up feeling abandoned by the international community.
In Britain we believe that human rights are universal and that they apply to all people, of every religion, ethnicity or culture, and in all places. It is not in our character as a nation to turn our back on the suffering of others. And neither is it in our interests. Where human rights abuses go unchecked our security and prosperity suffers, as we see with the instability emanating from countries like Yemen or Somalia. Furthermore, our international standing in these matters is a vital component of our weight in the world.
From our first day in office we have made a determined effort to show that the UK is committed to upholding international law and human rights and to advancing democratic values.
In less than six months we have set up the Gibson Inquiry into UK allegations of complicity in torture and published the guidance given to UK Intelligence Officers and Service personnel overseas. We have reached a settlement with former Guantanamo Bay detainees. We are seeking the return of Shaker Aamer, the last remaining UK resident in Guantanamo Bay, while supporting US efforts to close the prison. And I have committed us to publishing the Foreign Office’s own advice about reporting allegations or concerns of alleged torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
I have also set up a new external Advisory Group on human rights, made of up leading academics and members of NGOs and the legal profession. I chaired the first meeting of the group last week, for a discussion lasting several hours that covered Afghanistan, counter-terrorism, religious freedom and the role of business in promoting human rights among other complex and challenging issues.
As a government we will seek to use intensified diplomatic partnerships as a way of promoting human rights alongside our other objectives, urging these countries to take seriously their international responsibilities. The closer ties we seek with the emerging economies of the world will not come at the expense of human rights. And we will use our increased engagement with the Commonwealth as an opportunity to work with states like India, the world’s largest democracy, and to encourage individual states as well as the organisation itself to do more.
Our diplomats will continue to raise human rights cases week by week across the world from our global network, and so will our Ministers. In our opening months we have pressed for access for humanitarian aid to Gaza and lobbied Iran over women’s rights, religious freedom and the use of the death penalty, in particular the case of Sakineh Ashtiani. We have raised cases of concern in Vietnam and Kyrgyzstan and called for the release of prisoners of conscience in Burma and in China, including Liu Xiaobo. And last month I chaired special session of the UN Security Council to draw attention to the situation in Sudan, where on top of persistent humanitarian and human rights abuses comes the risk of violence around the referendum next year. As we have begun we will continue, raising human rights cases persistently and wherever they occur.
Over the last 60 years the world has seen the end of apartheid, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of democracy in Eastern Europe. All these things should give us the fortifying knowledge that change is possible, and redouble our determination to stand up for human rights in all we do. There will be no downgrading of human rights under this Government. Pursuing a foreign policy with a conscience is the right thing to do and is in the long term enlightened national interest of our country.