Ask any politically-engaged Britain what values they hold dear and many will speak of human rights. Indeed, the UK has a long history of commitment to basic human rights which although imperfect has for a long time been ahead of most of the world. However, despite the high importance we place on our rights at home there appears to be considerably less appetite for defending and advancing human rights on the international stage.
There is no single definition of human rights – its conceptual umbrella is broader for some and narrower for others. Even in the UK alone one can find many different ideas of just what constitutes a human right and what doesn’t. That said, at its most basic level almost everyone would agree that human rights encompass liberties such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion (and also freedom from religion) and the right to a fair trial.
Whilst these are rights that we have enjoyed for quite some time, a very large number of the world’s population are entitled to none or few of these freedoms. According to Freedom House, only 46% of the world’s countries can be classified as free while the remainder are either “partly free” or “not free”.
Unfortunately, the response to such widespread human rights abuse is a proverbial shrug of the shoulder which all too often cuts across the political spectrum. At best, they insist that these injustices are “not our problem” and at worst try to pretend that these abuses do not even exist in the first place, the latter being a common sentiment of both the far-left and the far-right with regards to states such as Russia and Syria.
Britain has a proud history of advancing human rights across the globe from anti-slavery squadrons of the Royal Navy in the 19th century to the battle against Fascism and Communism in the 20th century. Britain alone did not win these battles (and indeed the above still exist) but for a long time it has been a shining beacon of liberty and justice. While we may not have the same military or economic clout on the world stage that we did in the past, the fact remains that even today we are active in promoting democracy and human rights abroad.
Of course, it is important to remember that there are many places in the world where it is very difficult to bring about any meaningful change. Take North Korea for example; arguably one of the most oppressive states in modern history. As hard as it is hearing stories of concentration camps and mass starvation, neither the UK nor indeed the US can do much to change the situation while the current geo-political realities remain.
Having said that, this does not mean that we shouldn’t do what we can – slow change is still better than no change at all. The same applies to oppressive states that we do business with out of necessity, such as Saudi Arabia and China. Cutting them off completely as some would have us do is not the answer but at the same time we must use these relationships to advance economic and personal freedom because in the end a freer world benefits us all.
Sometimes, a commitment to human rights also needs to be backed up with force. To speak the language of freedom on the world stage yet stand idly by on the sidelines as massacres take place abroad which we have the power to stop (such as in Rwanda in 1994) is one of the gravest hypocrisies imaginable. A failure to act on numerous occasions to stop such bloodletting is one of the main reasons why the reputation of the United Nations is so poor, despite its admirable goals.
Interventions have understandably come under a lot of criticism over the past decade or so but the answer is not to cut ourselves off from the world’s problems but rather to learn the lessons from the past and improve our response.
Ultimately, if we are for freedom at home we should also be for freedom abroad. If we give up the advocacy of freedom internationally we not only let down the hundreds of millions of people who rely on the Western democracies to pressure their own governments into reforms but we also undercut our own moral authority and drive weaker developing states into the arms of powerful authoritarian countries such as Russia and China.
As we enter into a new year, the government must speak up louder than ever for freedom abroad to ensure that the 21st century is not marked by a slide back into authoritarianism.
Ben is an international relations postgraduate from the University of Kent. Follow him on Twitter: @btharris93
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty