The future of the left since 1884

Human rights should be as important as trade for UK foreign policy

Back during his first few months in Number 10, David Cameron committed to “a more commercial foreign policy”, “placing our commercial interests at the heart of our foreign policy”. But to what extent is this compatible with the foreign secretary’s...


Back during his first few months in Number 10, David Cameron committed to “a more commercial foreign policy”, “placing our commercial interests at the heart of our foreign policy”. But to what extent is this compatible with the foreign secretary’s assertion that “the promotion and protection of human rights is at the heart of the UK’s foreign policy objectives”?

Ed Miliband’s responsible capitalism agenda is not just about achieving a fairer, more prosperous and equal UK. It is also about the UK’s standing on the global stage. In government, it will inform our foreign policy and the UK’s leadership on issues such as climate change. In particular, responsible capitalism means balancing the UK’s commercial interests and human rights abroad.

Let’s take China as an example. China is the world’s largest country and the second largest economy. We cannot ignore China’s global standing and the UK cannot be left behind by its resurgence. But the government only sees China through the prism of its economic value, neglecting China’s wider, strategic importance and overlooking the human rights situation there.

Yes, David Cameron did meet the Dalai Lama in 2012. But it resulted in freezing our bi-lateral relationship with China, who apparently refused to grant him a visa for a proposed prime ministerial visit. So when Cameron was eventually allowed into China in December 2013 with the largest UK trade delegation ever seen, raising human rights concerns was apparently not exactly at the top of his list of priorities.

By contrast, Douglas Alexander, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, has set out how the UK must develop a more effective partnership with China that is not limited to the commercial sphere but recognises China’s wider influence in the world. We need to engage on global security, climate change and technology, and we need to have robust conversations on China’s human rights record as well.

In the month before the prime minister’s visit, the Mayor of London and the chancellor also travelled to China in pursuit of business opportunities for the UK. When asked if he’d raised human rights concerns Boris Johnson told us – “I don’t just walk into a meeting and say, ‘I say, you chaps, how’s freedom doing?'”.

Did George Osborne have a more considered, less flippant strategy? I tabled some parliamentary questions to find out, but they were answered by the Treasury’s economic secretary, who was not even on the trip so, not surprisingly, did not provide much clarity.

I tried again, calling on David Cameron before his visit to discuss specific human rights concerns; the UK and China’s roles on the Human Rights Council; and climate change. He provided one cursory answer, over a week late, after he had actually returned from the visit: “The government is committed to engagement with China on a full range of subjects as part of a broad and mature relationship. Nothing was off limits in my conversations ….”

“Nothing was off limits” – this was the same line the prime minister had used twice before when I asked about his trade mission to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, in pursuit of arms deals. It’s a convenient phrase that tells us little about the detail of the prime minister’s discussions with foreign leaders but reveals a lot about his priorities.

It’s not only the prime minister who is evasive. I asked the Deputy Prime Minister if he would provide parliament with a list of all the organisations accompanying him on the trade mission to Colombia in February, but he deflected the question, replying: “Information about ministers’ visits overseas are published on a quarterly basis.”

I asked five further questions, such as whether he would be accompanied by a human rights advisor or meet with Colombian trade unionists. Each received one line answers, either referring me to my previous question, or informing me “Information relating to internal discussion and advice is not normally disclosed.” I have since raised this as a complaint with the Parliamentary Procedures Committee, but their correspondence with Mr Clegg has not produced anything more enlightening.

Responsible capitalism means not dodging the questions on trade missions to human rights countries of concern. It means not ignoring Labour shadow ministers when we suggest that the FCO ought to brief companies accompanying ministers on overseas visits on the government’s own business and human rights action plan. What, after all, is the action plan for, if not to influence how British companies do business abroad?

William Hague has said: “We believe firmly that the promotion of business and respect for human rights should go hand in hand”. He needs to demonstrate this with deeds, not just fine words.

I am not suggesting the government faces an easy task. But Labour in government will reject the coalition’s low ambition of strategic shrinkage, and an over-simplified mercantilist approach to Britain’s foreign policy.

Labour will achieve a better balance in government, by demonstrating our international commitment to human rights, to environmental protection, and to upholding labour standards – all intrinsic to responsible capitalism. A Labour government that champions responsible capitalism at home and overseas: that should be our objective.

Kerry McCarthy is Labour MP for Bristol East and shadow minister for foreign affairs   

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