Today is International Human Rights Day which celebrates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The principles that the Declaration upholds are as integral to the UK’s foreign policy now as they were 62 years ago. Human rights are indivisible from our foreign policy objectives and the FCO aims to promote and protect human rights in all our work. As Minister with responsibility for human rights policy, I wanted to mark this day with an article to reflect on my experiences since arriving in May.
It has been a busy seven months.
We have been outspoken on human rights abuses around the world, including the pressing human rights situation in Burma. We have called for the immediate release of the 2200+ people imprisoned for their political beliefs and made clear that the recent elections were not free and fair. I was moved by the global support for Aung San Suu Kyi upon her recent release - our focus is now on the release of other prisoners of conscience.
I have made human rights a priority whilst overseas, pushing for progress on areas of concern when in Colombia and Central America, and during my visits to SE Asia in the summer and China and Japan in the autumn.
I have made it a point early on to seek the views of those in the UK working to advance human rights around the world. Shortly after taking on my role, I met the major UK-based human rights NGOs at Amnesty International headquarters, and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights. Over the last few months I have met many more human rights defenders and organisations working to promote human rights, most recently the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. I have also been working closely with the government’s Forced Marriage Unit to tackle forced marriage overseas, highlighting earlier this year the issue of an increase in male victims of forced marriage seeking help.
We have also seen promising developments in our multilateral activity, not least the successful completion of the first trial of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia, which the UK helped finance, and the success we achieved at the UN in increasing support for the Resolution on the Moratorium on the use of the Death Penalty - reinforcing the international trend towards global abolition.
I have also been working on Freedom of Expression on the internet - trying to establish how best people throughout the world can benefit from access to free information and knowledge online, and today I met Google executives to explore this issue further.
We publicly launched the UK Government’s Strategy for Abolition of the Death Penalty in October and, last week, I joined the Foreign Secretary at the first meeting of his new Human Rights Advisory Group which will help further our thinking on human rights challenges. I look forward to the Group’s second meeting next year. I will also be delivering a speech on Democracy on Monday next week where I will launch the new FCO/DFID election guidance.
What I have set out above is only a small fraction of the FCO’s work which continues on a daily basis around the world. I am proud of the progress we have made so far during this first seven months. The whole ministerial team are committed and working hard alongside dedicated FCO staff on human rights issues in the UK and throughout our overseas network.
The Foreign Secretary launched the FCO’s new human rights Twitter account this morning in his video message. I would encourage you all to follow this to keep up to date with all our latest work.