Global Policy Forum

Human Rights - A Priority of Britain's Foreign Policy


By Robin Cook

March 28, 2001

Four years ago, I met many of you here when I set out our priorities on human rights. I am glad to see you here again, because this is an appropriate time to give a report on the past performance and to look forward to new challenges.


Four years ago, I concluded my speech by inviting Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) to join the Government in a spirit of partnership with a common objective in promoting human rights. We have given practical expression to that partnership by introducing a programme of exchanges and secondments between human rights NGOs and the Foreign Office.

Our global campaign against torture had been greatly strengthened by expertise from a former employee of the World Organisation Against Torture. Former staff of organisations such as Amnesty International and Save the Children have shared their experience and perspective by working with us in this building. The new Head of Planners in the Foreign Office originally came on a sabbatical from Oxfam and we have decided not to let her go back. Now we are trying to tap into the fresh approach and new ideas of the NGOs in the field. And we have appointed a human rights officer from an NGO to our Embassy in Manila to help us with our work in civic society.

It has been a two-way channel of communications. Younger members of the Diplomatic Service have spent a spell on secondment to NGOs, such as Article XIX and the Minority Rights Group. I know they have been useful to NGOs during their time with those organisations. But I hope to get out of such exchanges future Ambassadors who understand the contribution that NGOs can make and are sensitive to their concerns.

I want to make the FCO's commitment to human rights irreversible. The best way to secure that is by changing its culture. Since we took office, we have made human rights training an essential component for policy staff. Around 300 members of the Diplomatic Service have now benefited from it. We have sought to be real partners for human rights by working together. And the NGOs in this room can claim their share of credit for the advances that we have made in human rights policy over the past four years.


When I made our commitment to human rights, I was criticised in some quarters for sacrificing the national interest for principle. There is something odd with a national interest that is in conflict with principle. I would robustly argue that the British national interest is promoted, not hindered, by a commitment to human rights.

Governments which are democratically accountable will be more reliable partners for peace. Governments which respect freedom of expression will be more honest as trading partners. Countries which observe the rule of law at home are more likely to accept their international obligations against organised crime and weapons of proliferation.

That is why our pursuit of human rights is both principled and practical.

It is an asset for Britain, not a problem, that we should be respected as an advocate for human rights. Britain now has a reputation that is recognised in distant countries. In Jakarta, it was to the British Embassy that Xanana Gusmao, the East Timorese Leader, asked to be taken for refuge when he was released from captivity.

And we also reject the false argument that civil and political rights must first wait on the delivery of economic and social rights. On the contrary, we know that the promotion of human rights is an essential for economic development. And this Government has promoted both human rights and economic development as one single joined-up project.

Under Clare Short, the new Department for International Development has focussed aid on the poorest people in the poorest countries. Britain is bucking the international trend by increasing our international development assistance and untying it from trade. Over six years, we will have boosted our aid spending by almost half as much again. We are committed to continuing to make steady progress towards the UN target of 0.7 per cent. An immediate priority is the launch of a WTO Development Round. Free trade will always ring hollow as a slogan while the developed world spends more on subsidising its own agriculture than sub-Saharan Africa's entire GDP.

Four years ago, I warned that despite all we might do we could not make the world a perfect place. But I totally rejected the cynical view that, because we cannot put everything right, it is double standards to try to put anything right. The reality that we cannot do everything does not free us from our duty to do what we can. And we have done a lot.


We have intervened to defend human rights from West Africa to the Balkans. In Sierra Leone, the role of British troops has been crucial in driving back a rebel force of unparalleled brutality and compelling them to accept a cease-fire.

In Kosovo, our robust action halted systematic ethnic cleansing and enabled the most rapid refugee return in the post-war history of Europe. It opened a new chapter in Balkan history. Where once extremists filled the political vacuum left by the Former Yugoslavia, today each of the five successor states has elected democratic, moderate leaders. These governments recognise that their future lies in the democratic European mainstream, not the lunatic fringe of nationalism.

The crucial change was the downfall of Milosevic, triggered by his defeat in Kosovo, where we demonstrated that his poisonous policies of ethnic hatred were a dead end for Serbia.

But Britain will have unfinished business in the Former Yugoslavia until Milosevic faces justice for his war crimes before the Tribunal in The Hague. This Government has given robust support to the War Crimes Tribunal. No other nation has provided such a wide range of support for The Hague Tribunals. And the troops of no other nation have apprehended as many indicted war criminals as the British contingent to SFOR in Bosnia. But we cannot rest while the ringleaders escape justice and the lesser figures stand trial.

One of the lessons of the Balkan war is that the world needs a permanent mechanism for securing justice against dictators and war criminals. On taking office, we propelled Britain from being a back-marker in the International Criminal Court and put it in the front rank.

It was Britain that successfully pressed for the Court to have competence over crimes of sexual violence, such as the use of mass rape as an instrument of ethnic cleansing. It was Britain that proposed that the Court should have the power to order those who were found guilty to pay reparation to their victims. Dictators who abuse power tend to get wealthy in the process. That wealth can now be returned to their victims.

It takes 60 states to ratify the Rome Treaty in order for the Court to become a reality. I promised Britain to be one of those first 60. Our Bill to ratify the International Criminal Court has completed its passage through the House of Lords and next Tuesday I will be introducing it in the House of Commons. It will be a key test of the Opposition commitment to human rights whether they cooperate with us and whether they join the Liberal Democrats in enabling this historic Bill to complete all its stages expeditiously.


There are three documents on display on the backdrop all representing new innovations of the Government.

First, the Annual Report on Human Rights which this Government has introduced in order that you can comment on our response and criticise the work that we are doing on human rights around the globe. For instance, the new Human Rights Project Fund, which has allocated £15 million on projects in ninety countries.

This is not state to state diplomacy. It is not international diplomacy with other Foreign Ministers. It is people to people diplomacy. Its flagship is our joint project with the BBC World Service, which has produced an education series on the human rights to which its listeners are entitled. It has now been broadcast in 12 different languages, reaching out to a potential audience of over 100 million. Pressure on governments for reform can come not just from international diplomacy but from equipping their people with the knowledge of their human rights.>

The second innovation is the Torture Reporting Handbook. I am grateful to the collaboration of Essex University and of Sir Nigel Rodley, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, in producing this Handbook. Torture can thrive only in secrecy and one of the best ways of combating it is to expose it to the light of knowledge, of debate. This Handbook outlines international mechanisms available to the victims of torture and to their relatives to expose torture to the international community. It has now been translated into Arabic, Russian, Spanish and Chinese.

It is a handbook available to our sovereign posts abroad, who have been engaged in our campaign to lobby more countries to sign the UN Convention Against Torture.

The same posts now also lobby against the death penalty in all circumstances. We have solved the inconsistency of Britain's retention of the death penalty on the statute book for certain rare offences by removing the death penalty for all offences in peacetime and signing up to the relevant international protocols. Britain can now lobby against the death penalty and is no longer an obstruction to campaigns on the death penalty in the Council of Europe or the Commission on Human Rights.

But of the three innovations on the backdrop I personally get the greatest satisfaction from knowing that the British Government now produces the fullest and most transparent Annual Report on Arms Exports of any European nation. I am pleased to hear Lord Justice Scott, who conducted the Inquiry into Arms for Iraq, say on radio that he was 'amazed at the difference between the present position and the position I was looking at, so far as transparency is concerned'.

I know that transparency has also given pleasure to a number of the people in this room as you have plundered the contents to put extra pressure on the Government. That is an entirely proper relationship between Government and NGOs. And the fact that Ministers know the Annual Report will disclose all our decisions on arms exports obliges us to anticipate and take into account the likely criticism from NGOs when we make our decisions.

Nor is that effort now confined to Britain. One of the major steps which we have taken in the past four years was to reach an unprecedented agreement within the European Union on a Code of Conduct that enables each of us to object if another Member State takes up an arms order which we have rejected. For the first time the countries of Europe are bound by the same standards on human rights when they assess licences for arms exports.


Of course there is still much to be done. In the case of arms exports, the most urgent priority is to achieve better control of the trade in small arms and to stamp out the illegal trade.

In the last decade, conflicts fought with small arms have killed over three million people, mostly in Africa. The self-loading rifle is today's real weapon of mass destruction.

The British Government intends to take a strong role in tackling this issue at the forthcoming UN Conference on Small Arms, which I will be attending. We will be taking three key proposals to that Conference. First, an International Arms Surrender Fund to support the collection and destruction of surplus arms in return for development aid. Second, an internationally agreed system of marking for firearms to help us track the legitimate trade and stamp out the illegal trade. Third, Britain would support agreement that export of military firearms should go only to legitimate governments and not to non-state actors such as rebel groups.


There are also cases where our pressure has not yet produced the changes which all of us would like to see.

Burma is a case in point. Since taking office, this Government has ended support for trade with Burma, called on the tourist industry to stay away from Burma and invited Premier Oil to reconsider its presence in Burma. In the international community we secured a widening of the EU visa ban on members of the regime in Burma and the unprecedented step in the ILO of measures against Burma to end its forced labour. In Burma, the British Ambassador led the international protest at the brutality with which Aung San Suu Kyi has been prevented from travelling to meet her supporters.

I welcome the contacts that the regime has now put out to Aung San Suu Kyi and I hope they will lead to real, genuine, democratic reform. But I give you a commitment that the Government will not let up the pressure on Burma until its people are free.


Nor has our human rights dialogue with China produced immediate progress. As I told the Foreign Affairs Committee, we never expected rapid results. It has been a frank dialogue which has enabled us to discuss in depth many issues of concern from the use of the death penalty to religious freedom in Tibet. And the period of dialogue has seen China accepting the international mechanisms on human rights, such as its accession to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and its engagement with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Our dialogue has enabled us to offer practical help with this process, such as the technical expertise that we are providing to help China make the legal changes necessary to accede to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

But there is a paradox. While China has engaged more fully rights at international level on human rights, in the domestic arena the record on human rights is grave and even more dissidents are being arrested. As a result, the European Union has strengthened its common approach to this year's UN Commission on Human Rights. The EU makes a bigger impact when it speaks with a single voice and this year all the EU states are committed to vote for the resolution on China if we are successful in defeating the procedural motion for no action.

I believe that it is important that we continue with our critical dialogue on human rights with the Chinese authorities. But dialogue can never be an end in itself. It must lead to practical change on the ground.


So far, I have reported on work in progress. Before I conclude, let me look at three priorities for reform which could strengthen the capacity of the international community to promote human rights and which will be human rights priorities for us in the immediate future.

Can I begin on the first of those by expressing my regret that Mary Robinson did not feel able to offer herself to us for a second term in office as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She has brought drive and commitment to the post. Her outspoken criticisms have helped keep human rights at the top of the international agenda. The field activities of her office have made a real contribution from Colombia to Cambodia, from Bosnia to Rwanda.

Mary Robinson has spoken of her frustration with working in the UN environment. The best way in which we can pay tribute to her record is by carrying through reform of the UN institutions that deal with human rights. A good starting point must be to address what she has said about the need for more secure funding.

We also need to think more about the reform of the United Nations itself. That reform has to start with reform of the Security Council. We need a more modern and representative Security Council. A body that represents the world of the 21st century and not that of the middle of the last century.

But I believe it is not only in the composition of the Security Council that we must seek reform. We must see a Security Council more willing to engage with human rights. The Security Council should no longer treat human rights at arms length and leave it to the Commission in Geneva. To that end, the UK has taken the initiative to bring human rights into the agenda of the Security Council. Last weekend, for example, Britain sponsored a seminar attended by members of the Security Council, including the 'Perm 5', to underline the fact that human rights had a necessary place in the work of the Council.


The second challenge for reform is in the Commonwealth.

We have made good progress in getting human rights high up the Commonwealth agenda. The Commonwealth is not a trading or financial organisation and it therefore does not readily have economic sanctions in its armoury. But it does have great strength in exerting peer group pressure and none of its members relish being subject to criticism by the rest of the family of Commonwealth nations.

The New Zealand meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government adopted an Action Programme which set up a new mechanism for monitoring human rights and exerting that peer group pressure. The body charged with implementing the Action Programme is the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (or CMAG for short). It has provided a constant forum for the review of human rights in the Commonwealth and proved its value in the timely and robust response which it provided to the military coup in Pakistan.

But CMAG is confined by the common perception that the Action Programme limits its role to cases of the unconstitutional overthrow of government. This has the effect that the Commonwealth gets involved when the situation may already be irretrievable. It would be much more constructive, much more healthy, much more creative, if CMAG could act as an early warning system working with member states to prevent the rise in abuse of human rights rather than wait until they have generated a constitutional crisis. The current High Level Group, which is examining the role of the Commonwealth, gives us an opportunity to make such a reform and I hope in Australia this autumn we will be able to agree that Commonwealth also means Common Rights.


The last need for reform is the most challenging.

No-one can claim any longer that massive violations of humanitarian law or crimes against humanity are solely an internal matter. As Mary Robinson has said, 'Today's human rights abuses are the cause of tomorrow's conflicts'. It is not enough to react after the event. It is far better to prevent genocide than to punish the perpetrators after the mass graves are discovered.

The biggest unresolved question in upholding universal values is when is it right for the international community to intervene and who decides that it is right? The United Nations Charter declares that 'armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest'. But what is the common interest and what defines it?

When it was formed in the 1940s, the United Nations was based on the presumption that the threat to peace was international aggression and the role of international law and international organisations was to halt wars of aggression. It was an understandable preoccupation given the two World Wars in the lifetime of those who wrote the UN Charter.

And their initiative has been very successful within its own terms. Wars of aggression between states are now a rarity. Sadly, internal conflicts are only too common. The UN needs new rules on when it can intervene to keep the peace within a state rather than between states. This is a real dilemma for an organisation created to protect national sovereignty against threat. But it cannot be acceptable for oppressive regimes to claim the protection of sovereignty to carry out major violations of international law, such as genocide in Rwanda or ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

Britain has proposed a number of new rules of the road to help the international community decide when it is right to act:

• first, any intervention is by definition a failure of prevention. Force should always be the last resort;

• second, the immediate responsibility for halting violence rests with the state in which it occurs;

• but, third, when faced with an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe and a government that has demonstrated itself unwilling or unable to halt or prevent it, the international community should act;

• and, finally, any use of force in this context should be collective, proportionate, likely to achieve its objective, and carried out in accordance with international law. Britain will be working to build a consensus around these principles. But I do not want to disguise from you the difficulty of achieving that consensus. There is still deep suspicion among the members of the Non-Aligned Movement about any proposal which, in their eyes, would increase the scope for military intervention. We will all need to make a concerted effort if we are to get across the message that the real objective is not to pressurise legitimate governments but to halt gross abuses by governments that have forfeited their legitimacy.


It is easy when discussing the principles of high diplomacy to forget the reality of human rights abuse. Human rights is not an abstract concept. For too many real people, the loss of human rights is a highly personal matter of genuine suffering. My most vivid memories as Foreign Secretary are not of Summits or of diplomatic conferences. They are of the victims of human rights abuse.

The women and children in the camp for amputees in Freetown, holding out stumps and pleading for British protection so that the rebels could not come back. The youngsters in the rehabilitation camp for child soldiers in the same country. Kids who had no trade or skill, but who knew how to strip and assemble a self-loading rife.

The refugees from Burma whom I visited in their camp on the Thai border. Including a man in his 80s who had walked for four days and nights across the mountains to escape from the terror.

And there are those whom I saw only in death. Such as the Kosovar Albanians who had been gunned down crammed into a small farm outbuilding. Their bodies being meticulously examined and recorded by a British forensic team.

Those are the experiences that keep me motivated. And those are the people to whom we owe it to keep up the partnership between us that ensures human rights must remain a priority of Britain's foreign policy.

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