Daniel Korski

A Human Rights Minister?

A Human Rights Minister?
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Britain’s role in protecting the downtrodden and protecting the weak has significant historical pedigree. The British role in abolishing the international slave trade was one of the first liberal interventions. And as Abigail Green's biography shows, Britain’s Sir Moses Montefiore was not just a pre-eminent Jewish figure of the nineteenth century, but his pioneering approach to the problem of Jewish persecution helped transform the international response to abuses of human rights.

No party, though, is going to the election with the kind of commitment to promote human rights abroad as Robin Cook did when he unveiled his ideas for an “ethical” foreign policy. This is hardly a surprise. Ten years of Tony Blair’s liberal interventionism, the neo-conservative sway over the Bush administration, and the fetishisation of rights domestically during successive Labour governments, have cured most voters of an interest in human rights internationally. The FCO and DfiD have accordingly downgraded the issue of human rights in recent years.  

Yet each party mentions the issue. The Conservative manifesto talks of Britain being “open and engaged with the world, supporting human rights and championing the cause of democracy and the rule of law at every opportunity.” it goes so far as to say; “A Conservative government will always speak up for freedom and human rights. Torture is unacceptable and abhorrent, and we will never condone it.” The party even set up a Human Rights Commission, which produced a number of reports. In turn, Nick Clegg said during the last TV debate that Britain was built on "human rights, democracy, the rule of law" but “in recent years our governments, under the two old parties, have let those values down.”  

If there is to be some kind of Con-Lib coalition -- however informal -- this issue of human rights may be one of the easier areas for cooperation. One way to cement both parties’ commitment to the issue could be to follow Nicolas Sarkozy’s example and create a Human Rights Minister, as a Tory proposal once flagged up. Right now, Foreign Office minister Glennys Kinnock covers human rights, but also Africa, the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the Caribbean and Central America. If the parties hope to “speak up for freedom and human rights” a future government should appoint someone to focus on the issue full-time and to sit in both the FCO and DfiD, so that a human rights policy can be funded. The likes of Lord Anthony Lester or Tory MP Stephen Crabb would be obvious candidates for such a job.