In the 18th century William Wilberforce confronted the House of Commons with the horrors of the slave trade. His appeal to them rings down through history: “whilst we were ignorant of all these things, our suffering them to continue might in some measure be pardoned; but now, when our eyes are opened, can we tolerate them for a moment?”
The task of exposing abuses is as vital in our time as it was in that of Wilberforce. Today we know far more about the lives of people in other countries. But we still need governments to be spurred into improving their human rights records; and many victims of gross injustice will rely on organisations like HRW to bring their plight to world attention.
I pay tribute to Human Rights Watch, and to its fellow NGOs. Their work is supported and admired across British political life, and they are an indispensable feature of our democracy.
I am extremely grateful for example that senior representatives from Human Rights Watch, Oxfam, Article 19, Amnesty and the Red Cross sit on the Foreign Secretary’s Human Rights Advisory Group, advising Ministers on issues ranging from the death penalty to freedom of religion and the prevention of torture.
We share the same objectives of a world in which human rights are universally respected, and I believe we also share the same conviction about Britain’s responsibility to work tirelessly to help bring that about country by country.
At the same time HRW and its peers play a vital role in holding British governments to account when they to fall short.
The Foreign Secretary gave a speech two weeks ago about the role of Secret Intelligence in UK foreign policy and our government’s efforts to restore confidence in the work of our Intelligence Agencies and how government uses Intelligence, caused in particular by the Iraq War and allegations of UK complicity in extraordinary rendition leading to torture. This is an area where human rights organisations and Parliamentarians played a vital role. We have responded by setting up the Gibson Inquiry, by publishing for the first time the guidance given to UK personnel on the treatment of detainees overseas, and by bringing forward a Justice and Security Green Paper.
Human rights are a subject close to the Foreign Secretary’s heart. They are not the only consideration that we have to weigh in foreign policy, but they are central to it.
Our belief in democracy, our values of tolerance, fairness and justice all compel us to act when others are denied the rights that we enjoy in this country, or live in fear of their lives. MPs have received hundreds of letters over the years from people up and down the country about Burma, Belarus, Zimbabwe and other countries where people suffer appalling injustices. The Shadow Foreign Secretary will make some remarks shortly, but I know that his Party too shares our deep conviction about these issues, and our human rights work is always stronger for the bipartisan support its receives across public life.
Where human rights abuses and conflict occur, our security suffers in this country, poverty endures and opportunities for human development and economic progress are blighted. That is why, for example, we will host an international conference on Somalia in February. For too long we have not succeeded in addressing the root causes of the problem, and face a growing risk to our national security as a result. Somalia does present extraordinarily difficult problems; but we have to start to build a better international approach.
This inter-dependence is also why we did not stand by as a nation when Qadhafi was on the verge of orchestrating a massacre in Benghazi. If he had been allowed to overrun the country not only could we have seen massacres on the scale of Srebrenica, we could also have seen greatly increased terrorism, migration, economic disruption and the destabilising of Egypt and Tunisia. So despite siren voices warning us that involvement in Libya was too risky, we sought and gained a UN mandate to protect civilian lives, acting in concert with nations in the region.
Events in the Middle East have enormous potential to bring about the greatest advance in human rights and freedom since the end of the Cold War - as we have seen in Tunisia, Jordan and Morocco for example - but they are also producing terrible human rights abuses in countries like Syria which we are working to bring to an end.
Our Government is also devoting enormous effort, along with other nations, to urging countries in the region to take rapid steps for peaceful reform. This is a message I have carried to the Gulf, to the Maghreb, to the Sahel and also to Israeli and Palestinian leaders, where we argue that moves to peace must be made now if the chance for a two-state solution is not to be lost altogether. We are supporting reform projects in 47 countries through our Arab Partnership Initiative, and we will continue to intensify these efforts in the coming year.
As important as this work is, it is only a fraction of the work that that the men and women of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office carry out on a daily basis in 140 countries across the world and at UN bodies in Geneva and New York.
The Foreign Secretary and I am extremely proud of the difference that they make, along with the Department for International Development. We have maintained our aid spending commitments because we are determined not to balance our nation’s books on the backs of the world’s poorest people, and DfID’s programmes on justice, community security and women’s rights make an essential contribution to advancing human rights worldwide.
Today there is a stronger imperative than ever before for British foreign policy to support our economy and help create jobs and opportunity for future generations of Britons. We are putting intensified effort in the Foreign Office into commercial diplomacy and building stronger ties with emerging markets.
This is not incompatible with tough and effective promotion of human rights. Promoting human rights in our foreign policy requires steady and creative diplomacy with our allies, including through the use of the EU’s collective weight in the world, and in all our bilateral relations.
So as we strengthen our links with the China, India and the other emerging economies of the world we will promote human rights too with every means at our disposal, just as we will work to strengthen the instruments of international justice, to reform UN bodies that deal with human rights, and to strengthen multilateral agreements in this area.
Finally, we are constantly looking to future threats, not only to our security but also to human rights, and we have identified cyberspace as a crucial dimension of the future struggle for human freedom. The internet is bringing vast benefits to people across the world - but it is also opening up new avenues for criminal activity like human trafficking, and gives repressive regimes new means to crush dissent and curtail freedom of expression. There is an important international argument to be won about the future of cyberspace if it is to be a future that promotes freedom and opportunity rather than a cyber free-for-all, and we have offered our leadership to steer that debate by hosting the London Conference on Cyberspace earlier this month.
So our Government will continue patient, painstaking and determined efforts to promote human rights in every area of foreign policy. This is not a struggle which can be won overnight. But we will work tirelessly ensure that the rights of the vulnerable are protected across the globe.