The Independent today (3rd October) reports that the Foreign Office is placing human rights below trade in its international efforts.
Sir Simon MacDonald, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, said this to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt – a Conservative MP. The outrage to this frank admission from those like Amnesty International is understandable but the news is not a surprise. The UK has a default mechanism – overseas trade at almost any costs. It is this default that has, at times, been tempered by those heading our foreign ministries (such as Robin Cook and his “ethical foreign policy” and Douglas Hague more recently) but over more than 200 years, Britain has pursued a trade policy which has been usually unyielding.
From the 17th Century onwards, this island nation has pursued conquests and material gain in overseas territories that enabled a minor nation (by population) to erect a massive empire. It was a mixture of bravery, opportunism, single-mindedness and adventurism that took Britain throughout the world as searchers for new lands and the rewards that would come with them. Along with the supreme invention of the joint-stock company that somewhat de-risked such ventures, companies like the East India Company not just took advantage of these overseas territories but set themselves up as military governors of them. This company ruled India until as late as 1858 (after the rebellion of 1857).
From then on, British military might was handled directly by Government. Thus, the mercantile underpinning of our international trade, by then as much as the need to export the produce of the industrial revolution as the need for raw materials, was in place. This was an extrovert linkage between might and trade in the nineteenth century, now it is implicit. One of the worst examples of mercantilism were the Opium Wars in China where Britain fought to ensure that the sale of opium into China would continue.
20th Century Mercantilism
More recently and especially since the end of World War II, when British military might was used to vanquish an evil Nazi regime and almost bankrupted this country, Britain has used its ability to aid overseas trade more subtly. We have now ceased to follow the Palmerston gunboat diplomacy of the nineteenth century but our ability to promote trade along with military capability is still firmly in place.
For much of the twentieth century an example was the Defence Services Organisation (DSO) that promoted our arms exports throughout the world. This was an effective sales force for arms exports that retained the UK’s ability to remain in the top three or four internationally until very recently. Our embassies were (are?) and our military attaches in particular represented not just our Government but the companies that sought to trade in the countries where they were situated.
Alongside this, the UK has developed a record on human rights that is one of leadership on a world-wide scale. In the nineteenth century, our Gladstonian free trade mindset was tempered with a humanity in a section of the population that sought to restrain the might of an empire and restrict its natural tendency to the Benthamite utilitarianism that sought to consider overseas peoples as no more than collateral. While we may seek to measure natural resources in 2015 as “natural capital”, in the nineteenth century, even after we abolished slavery in Britain in 1809, we would still value people our dominions numerically as we would a piece of equipment.
Liberal Free Trade was built on this and while Tories (Conservatives) may have initially tried to stem the Free Trade tide (because of their natural affinity to those that ruled by their ownership of land), they became as fervent in their pursuit of capitalism and mercantilism until now they have adopted the mantle to themselves.
So, while this country spends 0.7% in overseas aid (and trumpets this, rightly, as an example of our desire to alleviate poverty and disease), in this progressively post-Industrial world (where all countries are now so interlinked by trade) we maintain an extraordinary linkage to many tax havens around the world that ensure that companies can reduce their tax burdens at the expense of much of the world’s poorest. London is itself a crucible of money laundering and Tax Justice Network assesses London and its affiliated tax havens in places such as the Cayman Islands, Jersey, British Virgin Islands and elsewhere, as the most secretive combined jurisdictions in the world. This is today’s example of the UK and its desire for financial trade above the rights of the poorest.
Trade vs Human Rights in the 21st Century
Since WWII, the UK has (as stated above) been at the forefront of much that is good in the development of human rights world-wide. Apart from our leadership in the establishment of UN and other basic norms for human rights, this country houses many NGOs that lead in this sector. This is now at risk.
Not only is the current government suggesting that we opt out of various human rights bodies (unable it seems to allow ourselves to be subject to best-case international norms), not only are we potentially removing ourselves from the historical capability of being a home for immigrants that are subject to terror in their own countries, but we are looking to enhance our ability to trade in nations that continue to abhor basic human rights in their own countries.
This is a pandering to economic welfare and materialism that has not been seen since the days of Bentham and the focus on such utilitarianism (then at the expense of the poor working class in this country but now internationalized) is a stark throwback to the default mechanism of our forbears – those who maybe knew they were wrong but had no experience to turn to.
Now, we have no such excuses. The desire to trade unabashed world-wide and not concern ourselves with the dire consequences of the countries with which we trade points to a shallow materialism that is in danger of throwing aside all that so many have worked for so many years. That this country, one of the world’s richest, should consider that the problems faced by those in the countries with which we do business are not of any concern to us is not just wrong but a short-termist mistake.
George Osborne’s recent visit to China is a good example of this. He is not just a head of finance but a senior Cabinet Minister that goes with the blessing of the Government. He left China with the endorsement of the Chinese government as voiced through their newspapers for not overstating human rights issues. Apparently, the UK cares less about people than about profits or increasing our GDP.
So, Mr MacDonald’s statement before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee is no surprise but it is a statement that will have chilling effects. It states that we are giving up our responsibilities on the back of a desire to enrich ourselves at the expense of those outside the UK that suffer oppression and poverty. While we maintain out 0.7% (although some of that is being deflected into defence spending) much of that, in effect, buys us more ability to sell products and services.
Robin Cook did not last long in office as a result of his ethical foreign policy beliefs. We no longer even hint that this remains our aim but the lesser aim of maintaining human rights and challenging those that do not follow our example is now not just under threat but clearly is seen as history. It may be that quantity of life is the belief of this government (and the defocusing on climate change is another example) rather than quality of life and the desire to lead lives that are worth living. We do have average levels of material wealth in this country that are envied in many countries and much that our democracy and ability to live relatively freely within out nation that propels many to want to live here.
Yet, in a global economy, it appears that materialism is now the only objective as we go back in time to the nineteenth century. This time, we have no excuses. Human rights as enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights are essential components of how we should not just run our own country but how we should see the world.
On December 10, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the full text of which appears in the following pages. Following this historic act the Assembly called upon all Member countries to publicize the text of the Declaration and “to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories.”
- Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people, Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law, Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations, Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,
Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.
- All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
- Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.
- Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
- No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
- No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
- Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
- All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.
- Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.
- No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
- Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.
- (1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence. (2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.
- No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
- (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
- (1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. (2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
- (1) Everyone has the right to a nationality. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.
- (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. (2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses. (3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
- (1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.
- Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
- Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
- (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. (2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.
- (1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. (2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country. (3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
- Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.
- (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection. (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
- Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.
- (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
- (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
- (1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. (2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
- Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.
- (1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible. (2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society. (3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
- Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.Human Rights