Almost a week into the election campaign the focus is still firmly on the economy. The debate over tax breaks for married couples showed a few dividing lines between the parties in terms of social standpoints but the emphasis remains on the financial side. Cuts, spending and saving policies are the order of the day.
It'll probably be that way for the next couple of weeks but things will change on April 22nd when Sky holds the televised leaders debate on foreign affairs. This is the one that really interests me. I guess the big question is: if the Conservatives win on May 6th will the UK's foreign policy significantly change?
In terms of human rights and foreign development - key electoral issues for a lot of activists - there are some promising signs. The Conservative Human Rights Commission, set up to guide the party's foreign policy down a pro human-rights path, has taken a strong line on issues such as Burma, modern day slavery, child soldiers and the use of rape as a weapon in war. Some of the Commission's senior members, such as Benedict Rogers, are amongst the most committed human rights activists in the UK and they've worked closely with NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty to formulate feasible and robust policy proposals.
There are also signs that William Hague will take human rights issues seriously if he becomes Foreign Secretary; he's been tough in his criticism of the Burmese dictatorship and in 2008 called on the government to withhold recognition of Mugabe's regime after Zanu-PF violence forced Morgan Tsvangirai out of the presidential race. To top it off the Tories are committed to increasing international aid to 0.7% of the GDP (including £500 million to fight malaria) and to setting up an Independent International Aid Watchdog to monitor the Department for International Development's performance.
Could this be a welcome change from a Labour stint marked by a very dubious record on human rights? Certainly the current government's complicity in torture, silence on human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet amongst other issues have led many activists to believe that it is time for a change. The sacking of Craig Murray over revelations about UK’s work with Karimov’s regime in the ‘War on Terror’ was another key sign that Labour’s support for human rights hit a cut-off point when strategic interests are at stake.
But how different would a Conservative administration be? The Conservative Human Rights Commission is a very good initiative - there is no doubt about that. But there is a question about how much those at the top of a Tory government would listen to its recommendations. While the Commission asserts that "freedom and human dignity should be at the heart of foreign policy" the official Conservative website suggests that "Foreign policy is above all about the protection and promotion of our national interest, and will be crucial in charting Britain’s path out of recession." The emphasis on UK interests and the economy suggests that (like the current government) financial gain could trump human rights concerns.
It's unlikely, for example, that a Conservative government would risk loosing British jobs over criticising the Saudi government's execution of homosexuals and use of torture. In fact, David Cameron met King Abdullah when he visited the UK and showed no sign of raising human rights concerns. Similarly the party’s desire for a "strong and effective relationship with China" suggests that, whilst the Conservative Human Rights Commission displays a link to Free Tibet on its website, Cameron and Hague would be reluctant to rock the boat over Tibet or East Turkestan. A recent Free Tibet/Students for a Free Tibet campaign for a reassessment of the UK's engagement with China on human rights issues was strongly supported by some individual Conservative MPs but received little support from the party as a whole (a list of MPs who signed the campaign EDM can be seen here).
And it would be unfair to ignore the good things that Labour has done on the human rights and development front. Like Hague, Miliband has taken a tough stance on Burma including leading calls for the regime’s referral to the ICC and a global arms embargo. Labour too are committed increasing aid spending to 0.7% of GDP (the current figure is 0.4%) and made sure that the ban on Vulture Funds was passed before the dissolution of Parliament.
Overall then its likely that a Conservative victory would see a continuation of the current trend: a decent line on human rights issues but stopping as soon as there is a real threat to UK interests like the economy or the ‘War on Terror’. That’s not to say the Human Rights Commission is irrelevant – not by a long shot. If it is taken seriously – and that is a possibility – then things could really improve. In any event, if the Conservatives are elected in should definitely be a focus point for activist groups and could provide a valuable in-road to the government.
Of course there’s also the Lib Dems- who could very well end up playing a part in the next government. They’ve certainly taken the toughest line on issues such as Saudi Arabia (Cable refused to meet King Abdullah in London) and Tibet (Clegg urged Gordon Brown to boycott the Beijing Oympics opening ceremony) – but its questionable how much weighting would be given to human rights issues in coalition negotiations.
Ultimately the ethical-extent of the next government’s foreign policy probably won’t be altered by the party in power. But it can be altered by the UK public – because if there’s one thing a government values above strategic or economic interests its domestic support. Groups likes CAFOD, Greenpeace, Free Tibet and Amnesty are more active than ever in telling the candidates that human rights and international development are voter issues.
It’s a slow process – but the more noise we make the greater chance that our government- whichever party it is –will realise that sometimes the UK has to put others first. The future of worldwide human rights and poverty reduction isn’t dependant on the Tories, Labour or the Lib Dems getting into power. Its dependent on us making our voices heard when they get there.