Speech delivered at the Foreign Office’s International Human Rights Day reception on 9th December 2015.
A warm welcome to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the eve of International Human Rights Day.
I am delighted to see so many human rights champions and experts here today.
With all of you here – and with this year marking the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta - I am conscious how privileged we in the United Kingdom are to have:
- A vibrant civil society;
- A centuries-long tradition of seizing and defending our rights; and,
- Strong, impartial institutions that enshrine and protect them. This tradition makes the United Kingdom a partner of choice for countries working to improve their own systems of human rights protection. It also makes us implacably critical of regimes bent on depriving their people of human rights.
It is a tradition that I - and this Government - are determined to uphold.
That is why the Foreign Secretary and I value immensely our close partnership with civil society. We can learn from your perspectives. You play a vital role in delivering projects overseas.
Together, we make a real difference.
Today I want to explain the Government’s approach to human rights diplomacy, and highlight some of the progress we’ve already achieved.
Let me be clear from the outset: this Government is firmly committed to supporting universal human rights.
That is why we reconfigured our human rights work around three themes, enabling the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s global network to focus its effort where it can have most impact.
Those three themes are:
- Democratic values and the rule of law;
- Strengthening the rules-based international system, for example through our membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council and;
- Human rights for a stable world - ensuring that universal human rights are central to the global effort to prevent and resolve conflict, terrorism and extremism.
We make the point to our international partners that human rights are vital to the success of any society.
The Prime Minister has called this insight the “golden thread” of democracy, rule of law, and accountable institutions.
I am proud that determined British diplomacy has helped put this golden thread at the heart of the UN’s new Global Goals for Sustainable Development.
I am also proud of the way British diplomacy promotes human rights among our international partners.
Now, our critics accuse us of pulling our punches. Of putting trade before values. They implore us to speak out critically – and in public.
I agree that there are times when speaking out is the right approach. When Governments - like those in Syria and North Korea - show contempt for human rights, private diplomacy falls on deaf ears.
However, I strongly disagree with the view that we are failing to hold countries to account on human rights.
The real question is: what works best when discussing human rights with countries whose values, histories and cultures are often so different to our own?
The answer lies in our own experiences. From Barons in a water meadow at Runneymede, to the sacrifices of the suffragettes. From the steadfast abolitionists, to Paul Stephenson’s defiance against racial prejudice, the UK’s experiences teach us that rights in our country have taken hold when they have been forged from within. Not when imposed from outside.
So to those who say we should simply shout louder, I say we should focus on what works.
Where we can, we will work with and persuade - rather than shout down - international partners.
Achieving results requires commitment to building a trusted relationship. Focusing on issues where the UK’s example and credibility can persuade states of the benefits of reform.
Private diplomacy does not mean pulling our punches.
I believe that tough messages, delivered by trusted partners, hit home. Whereas tough messages, shouted from a distance, are barely heard.
Sometimes the impact of our private diplomacy is very clear. As it was in the case of Karl Andree, recently spared a barbaric punishment in Saudi Arabia. More often, though, our impact has no fanfare.
Indeed, seeking credit for our diplomacy could blunt our influence - undermining the trust and respect we’ve built so painstakingly.
However, I am in no doubt that across the world in 2015:
- NGOs have been able to resume their operations;
- Prisoners have had cruel punishments commuted;
- Detention conditions have improved and;
- Journalists and bloggers have been released All as a result of our private diplomacy.
Private diplomacy is not the easy option. In fact, it is a resource-intensive choice.
Megaphone diplomacy only requires a small team. Conversely, delivering real-world improvements on human rights with international partners requires the whole FCO team. We call this ‘human rights mainstreaming’.
It is a network-wide commitment, requiring the support of many other government departments and agencies – with human rights training made compulsory for British Diplomats seeking promotion.
Using the network in this way, we have delivered 75 human rights projects this year, in 40 countries.
Through mainstreaming human rights into our network; through reconfiguring our human rights work around three themes; and through speaking out or speaking privately, depending on what works – this Government’s broader and more agile approach is getting results.
Let me give you just three examples:
- To defend LGBT rights, we have lobbied the Commonwealth - most recently at the level of Prime Ministers in Malta - and governments around the world: from Belarus to Uganda; from Nigeria to Belize. After lobbying by the British High Commission in Maputo, Mozambique revised its Penal Code, which led to so-called “acts against nature” - widely interpreted as homosexuality- being decriminalised. And we have backed civil society organisations in the Caribbean and Eastern Europe to make their voices heard. To foster peace, the Conflict, Stability & Security Fund will grow 30% by 2020. The fund anchors human rights and governance into our response to instability. It has new dedicated good governance programmes in North Africa, parts of the Former Soviet Union, and the Western Balkans, helping civil society organisations like yours promote reforms.
To prevent sexual violence, I continue to take the agenda from theory to implementation. We have seen practical progress in Burundi and Bosnia. Last month I visited Iraq and - after two years of facilitation by the UK - I witnessed the launch of the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict. In Somalia we have now provided medical and psycho-social services to over 1,500 victims of sexual and gender-based violence.
I look forward to sharing further details of our progress in the 2015 Annual Report on Human Rights.
Before I finish, I have one final, important, thing I would like to say.
I am delighted that the United Kingdom will run for re-election to the UN Human Rights Council, for 2017 to 2019.
The Human Rights Council will mark its tenth anniversary next year. During our current term we have seen the positive impact that the Council can have, facilitating further access in Sudan, maintaining scrutiny on Burundi, Burma, Cambodia, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The UK has played a key role, securing strong resolutions on Somalia, Syria and Sri Lanka. Through the Council I have been able to push our work on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict.
Many of you in the room are active participants in the Universal Periodic Review, holding governments to account, face-to-face. As we approach the third cycle we want to refine and strengthen the UPR’s processes, keeping civil society engagement front and centre.
Let me conclude by sharing the pledges we have made for our election to the Human Rights Council. Pledges grounded in UK priorities at home and abroad, drawing on our tradition of democratic and inclusive values.
We pledge to strengthen the protection of human rights in the UN’s work; translating the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development into action, determined to leave no one behind.
We pledge to make a stand for freedom of religion or belief at a time when too many are persecuted for their beliefs.
We pledge to work to end violence against women and promote their full participation and leadership in political and economic life.
We pledge to promote open societies and challenge threats to civil society.
We stand for re-election to work with all those who defend our freedoms and uphold our rights.
As we take this agenda forward, I hope I can count on your support.
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