When Robin Cook launched the Foreign Office’s annual human rights report in 1997, many of us working with lobby groups breathed a sigh of relief. The FCO was finally going to put in print the British Government’s concerns over international human rights abuses. Not only did the report highlight incidents of torture and oppression around the globe, it also served to influence MPs and businesses about which countries were ethical trade partners. For a time, the FCO’s various desk officers were noticeably more enthusiastic about consulting with and receiving information from those NGOs campaigning on behalf of human rights.
I was Director of English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) from 1991 to 2006 and our hey-day, as far as influencing British Government foreign policy, was undoubtedly the period between 2001 and 2005 when representatives from all the major NGOs were invited to join the FCO’s Freedom of Expression panel. We worked closely with two brilliant and deeply committed leaders of the human rights policy department, Jon Benjamin and his deputy Chris Bowers.
Following Cook’s death it was disappointing to see the Human Rights shrink in size from a hefty 310 pages in 2004 to a meagre 190 pages in 2009. In case you are in any doubt, this is not because human rights abuses around the world dramatically abated during those five years.
Now the print version is to be cut altogether. Given the British Government’s widespread consultation with NGOs, and their eager provision of information, it is hard to believe that the official time and expense used to research details of abuses is suddenly considered unsustainable.
But it is the inevitable fallout from this downplaying of British human rights policy that is the most calamitous. I am currently a director of the Sri Lanka Campaign. An organisation that lobbies for an end to human rights violations and campaigns for a lasting peace in Sri Lanka based on justice and reconciliation. As with PEN, the importance of our work rests on the country in question’s knowledge that they are coming under international scrutiny. True, the British government doesn’t curry much favour with Sri Lanka at present, but just its inclusion in the FCO’s 2009 list of 22 ‘Countries of Concern’ will have caused embarrassment to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government. Outside scrutiny certainly helped the case of Tamil journalist Jayaprakash Sittampalam Tissainayagam (‘Tissa’) who was targeted for reporting on the country’s brutal civil war and sentenced to twenty years in prison. After an international outcry, Tissa was released on 3 May 2010, suggesting that the Sri Lankan government remains sensitive to external criticism.
Outing a bully is always effective and the FCO’s report excelled at that. More often than not, an authoritarian regime will temper its abuses when these are publicised or it becomes aware that it is being watched.
Undeniably, there was terrible bloodshed during the Saffron Revolution in Burma in 2007 and in the post-election demonstrations in Iran last year, but just imagine how much worse this would have been if there had not been the widespread protests from Western governments.
In 2002 and 2003 I attended the trials of political prisoners in Belarus and Uzbekistan, respectively, on behalf of PEN, and in subsequent years PEN sent observers to trials in Egypt and Turkey. These missions were part-funded by the Foreign Office’s human rights policy department and we were often accompanied by representatives of the British Embassy in the respective country. Because of the diplomatic attention, the accused either received lesser sentences than expected or were acquitted altogether. Their stories were often included in the FCO’s human rights report.
Is this all to be lost in the blind pursuit of commercial interests? If the UK takes its eyes off the ball, by cutting £560,000 a year from its monitoring of human rights failures around the world, I have no doubt that atrocities will escalate and that the end result will be multiple casualties around the world.
Human Rights are universal and the British government has a moral responsibility to continue its championing of these rights. David Miliband has noted that the report has “saved lives”. I can attest to that.
Lucy Popescu’s latest book The Good Tourist is about human rights and ethical travel. She is a Director of the Sri Lanka Campaign and former Director of English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee.