Do foreign policy and human rights mix?

31 August 2010 by

The Foreign Secretary William Hague has sought in today’s Daily Telegraph to re-emphasise the “centrality of human rights in the core values” of UK foreign policy. On the face of it, this is a laudable aim. But does it really mean anything? And may it in fact amount to an unrealisable promise?

The editorial evokes Mr Hague’s early commitment to put human rights at the “irreducible core” of UK foreign policy. This pledge has been questioned recently due to the potential reduction in scope of the Foreign Office’s annual human rights report. Mr Hague addresses this directly, although with little new detail:

We want to improve how the Foreign Office reports on human rights worldwide. In addition to an annual report to Parliament, we want to make such information more accessible to the public. British diplomats raise human rights every week on every continent, pressing for the release of political prisoners, urging free and fair elections, rallying other countries to take action in international organisations, and acting as an early warning system alerting us to crises around the world. We will ensure that more of this real-time reporting is available for all to see.

The article raises a question which I posed in a recent post; namely, what human rights from an international perspective actually means, and whether – as Samuel Moyn suggested in a new essay – international human rights mean so many different things to different people that the concept may have become almost meaningless. Mr Hague puts his case in grand terms:

We cannot have a foreign policy without a conscience. Foreign policy is domestic policy written large. The values we live by at home do not stop at our shores. Human rights are not the only issue that informs the making of foreign policy, but they are indivisible from it, not least because the consequences of foreign policy failure are human.

Is foreign policy really “domestic policy written large”? The problem with this view from a human rights perspective is that our domestic human rights law explicitly accepts that a certain basic level of control and influence over the state is needed in order to enforce human rights. As a result, under the Human Rights Act, court actions can only be brought against public bodies, that is, organs of the UK state. They cannot be brought to bear against private individuals or companies; nor should they.

The logic is that only public bodies are powerful and pervasive enough to guarantee basic rights. Following this reasoning, the domestic courts have been very slow to expand the state’s human rights reach beyond the UK borders – for example ruling that the Human Rights Act does not apply on the battlefield in Iraq – or to increase the range of groups which are “public bodies” within the meaning of the Act.

The essential point arising from the public/non-public limitation is that the further one travels from home, the harder it is to make any real human rights change. Following Mr Hague’s argument, how can the UK seriously expect to enforce human rights abroad – where it has no or practically no influence over the mechanics of state – when it has accepted at home that it can only realistically protect rights when it is in full control of the apparatus of state?

The obvious counter-argument is that the UK can expect to have at least some, albeit small, influence on human rights in other countries through the support of domestic NGOs, targeted aid as well as (although this may be less likely now) refusals to trade with states with poor human rights records. We may not be able to enforce rights, but at least we can promote them. And what harm does it do to call this international human rights promotion, even if it only represents a fraction of the UK’s protection of its own citizens?

Mr Hague does accept some limitations of UK power, in that “[t]here is no single country that has the power to transform this situation alone.” Rather, he says “strong institutions and the rule of law are the only lasting guarantee of freedoms, and we all know that these things take a long time to build and must be constantly nurtured.”

But this does beg the question as to whether the alluring suggestion that human rights are “indivisible” from foreign policy is in reality a grand misrepresentation, amounting to a vacuous promise rather than a serious foreign policy aim. The potentially pernicious effect of  this narrative may have been, as the late Tony Judt put it, to have “misled a generation of young activists into believing that, conventional avenues of change being hopelessly clogged, they should forsake political organization for single-issue, non-governmental groups unsullied by compromise.”

In other words, the allure – even glamour – of international human rights work may be diverting too many activists away from the less sexy but arguably more valuable (in the sense of the impact one can have) rights work at home. The Foreign Secretary is arguably reinforcing this trend.

There are areas where the UK can make an effective and important difference internationally, for example in sending money to reduce harm from natural disasters. But, as laudable and important as pledging UK money is, as Mr Hague highlights, it can only be about human rights in the sense that “the consequences of foreign policy failure are human“. This amazingly bland statement may reflect a rather woolly and indeed problematic understanding of human rights in UK foreign policy. Human rights are “human” in the sense of being universal, but are also necessarily “rights” in that they are legal instruments which can only be properly enforced, as opposed to promoted, by a willing state.

An even more difficult follow-up question is how much time, effort and money should go into international “human rights” promotion when our own justice budget is being cut by 20%. Is it right that money should be spent on foreign justice systems if our own is not fit for purpose? And surely we will fail to “inspire others with our values“, as Mr Hague seeks to do, if our own justice system becomes an underfunded mess. Whilst international human rights promotion – although not enforcement – can be effective, claiming that it is at the centre of our foreign policy may ultimately amount to a laudable promise bearing little relation to reality.

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1 comment;


  1. James Moore says:

    What is it about this government which they have against human rights. All around both domestically and internationally they are limiting their commitment to human rights and are slagging it down as a negative thing. Britain has always given leadership in this area and now it looks like it is turning tail both internationally and domestically to the values and ideals of human rights. Why is there a constant attempt to water this down ? and what is the real reason for removing this or clearing the way as it were ? It begs the question if we about to take away human rights from our citizens ? and will we be supporting countries despite their human rights records ? What is our gain in all of this ??

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