Several months before his resignation this week, the UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson claimed that standing up for human rights creates a “more prosperous and progressive world,” and spoke of “championing” human rights. But despite this, the current UK government’s approach to human rights has been weak, inconsistent, and often incoherent.
For example, the UK remains one of the Saudi-led coalition’s strongest supporters. The UK refuses to call out the coalition’s massive violations of the laws of war in Yemen, even though the coalition continues to unlawfully kill Yemeni civilians, strike weddings, and bomb homes. The UK has sold at least £4.6 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since the beginning of the conflict, and the UK government’s refusal to halt Saudi arms sales puts it at risk of being complicit in future unlawful attacks. Documents made public in a court case last year suggest that Johnson played a crucial role inside the government in pushing for a continuation of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
London’s diplomatic record on Myanmar, where a military campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya – which constitutes crimes against humanity – has forced more than 700,000 people from their homes, is equally problematic. The UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee said as much when it sharply criticized the government’s lack of leadership on the global stage, saying its efforts had “struggled to achieve a clear sense of direction.”
Despite being a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the UK has failed to advance a resolution for a vote to refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court, leaving hundreds of thousands of victims of atrocities without redress. Meanwhile, the UK’s efforts to combat sexual violence in conflict – a landmark initiative created by one of Johnson’s predecessors William Hague – has been left wanting in the face of widespread rape against the Rohingya.
The UK’s policy on Egypt has also been very weak. Under the leadership of President al-Sisi, more than 60,000 people have been imprisoned, protests have been effectively banned, and the Egyptian army is committing terrible abuses in Sinai. Human Rights Watch has exposed the widespread torture of political detainees by Egypt’s security forces. Yet the UK government has remained silent, with Foreign Office Middle East Minister Alistair Burt even praising Sisi’s abusive counterterror operations.
If the new Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt wants to advance Britain’s diplomatic reputation and voice in the world, he should make sure that human rights return to the centre of UK foreign policy.