Global Britain and the International Rules-based Order

Part of Brexit, Science and Innovation – in the House of Commons at 4:32 pm on 6th September 2018.

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Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Foreign Secretary 4:32 pm, 6th September 2018

I thank the Foreign Affairs Committee for initiating this vital and timely debate, and I thank all Members who have contributed to it this afternoon. I will say more about those contributions in a moment, but at the outset, I believe that this is an apt debate in which to pay tribute to the great Kofi Annan, who sadly passed away three weeks ago. I was looking back at a speech that he made to this Parliament in 2007 to mark 200 years since the abolition of the British slave trade. What he said that day resonates just as strongly now. He talked about the men and women who fought to abolish the slave trade, saying that they

“represented a moral truth…a moral passion that must at first have seemed utterly impracticable. Yet by persistence, by resolve, by eloquence, and by imagination, they changed history. They showed that moral suasion could prevail over narrow self-interest.”

For me, this entire debate today boils down to that same basic challenge. When we talk about global Britain, do we just mean aggressively pursuing our economic self-interest around the world in the shape of trade deals? Or do we believe in a Britain that acts as a global force for moral truth, moral passion and moral suasion and that seeks to change the world in which we live? We only have one planet.

When we talk of a rules-based international order, do we mean that those rules should be applied equally, consistently and with the same moral force to all countries, whether friend or foe, or do we decide in practice that there is one set of rules that we rightly apply with great vigour when it comes to countries such as Russia, Syria, Libya, Venezuela or Iran but another that we apply to America, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel or China? That is the crux of today’s debate and why I have been so interested to hear speeches from both sides of the House. I applaud the many excellent contributions about Russia and the crimes committed by agents of the Russian state on our soil.

My hon. Friend Mike Gapes rightly challenged the Government about suspicious deaths of Russians that have happened in the UK over the past few years, and he called again for those investigations to be reconsidered. He is right that the evidence is clear that there is no doubt of the culpability of the Russian state in the Salisbury poisonings. We also heard a condemnation of Russia from the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and he was quite right to do so. I was particularly interested to hear the speech of Mr Seely, who is creative and used lateral thinking in his contribution, which was of great value. I did not necessarily agree with all of it, but it is important to have people with an independence of thought who can help to inform not just the Government’s thinking but, frankly, that of the Opposition.

My hon. Friend Darren Jones is right to say that, given that we continue to recklessly warm up our planet, it only has any chance if we work together with internationally recognised rules. At a time when the very rules that we have been abiding by until now seem to be being undermined, we must also face the challenge of having to develop new rules in order to maintain the planet on which we all live. I was very impressed by Julia Lopez—I hope that this is not a blight on her career—and her extremely thoughtful speech. Kirsty Blackman said many things that we agree with, particularly about the importance of a change of policy on Yemen and the importance of us having a proactive role with regard to the Rohingya.

All the speeches were timely, not just because of yesterday’s revelations, but due to several other factors that we must discuss today. We are living through a period in which the world order and the international rules that are supposed to underpin it are under greater threat than at any time since the 1930s. In every instance, the problems that we face come down to countries simply ignoring the rules that should govern our world. From Venezuela and the Philippines to Turkey and Egypt, we see the rule of law ignored. What were once democratically elected Governments have turned into autocratic regimes. From Yemen and Myanmar to Cameroon and South Sudan, we see the indiscriminate killing of civilians in flagrant breach of international humanitarian law. From the battlefields of Syria to the streets of Wiltshire, we see the convention on chemical weapons brazenly ignored and innocent victims injured and killed.

In North Korea, despite Donald Trump’s efforts, and in Iran, because of Donald Trump’s efforts, we see the threat of hostile states becoming nuclear states in breach of the non-proliferation treaties. In Russia, Israel and the United States, we see three leaders behaving as if none of the normal laws apply to them and actively trying to undermine the institutions that uphold them. Faced with such challenges, it is incumbent on us all to stand up for the world order, to stand up for human rights and international treaties, and to insist on working for peace through the United Nations. We cannot do that if the concept of global Britain, if our entire foreign policy approach, is not driven by values, ethics, rules and principles but is a simple case of what works best for our balance sheet.

For example, on 7 June 2018 The Guardian ran a special feature on the brutal campaign of violence by the regime of Cameroon’s President Biya against English-speaking communities in the west of the country, which was formerly known as British Cameroon. We owe those communities a historical responsibility. The Guardian quoted the ordinary men and women who saw their villages attacked by Biya’s military, who saw their neighbours and family members killed and who were forced to flee for their lives. It quoted the charity workers who are looking after thousands of displaced women and children, for whom they warned that going home would be suicide.

By any normal moral standard, the UK Government would be expected to be appalled by those reports, but not this Government. The very next day after that report was published the British Secretary of State for International Trade announced a £1.5 billion deal with a British natural gas company and President Biya’s regime, a deal which, in the words of the Department for International Trade’s press release, will generate a “huge revenue stream” for Cameroon’s public treasury. Cameroon’s regime is ranked as the 25th most corrupt in the world. Its ruler, in his 43rd year of autocratic power and with personal wealth of more than $200 million, is engaged in a systematic campaign of brutality and killings against the English-speaking community in his country, and all the UK Government can do is boast of doing trade deals that will only enrich him further. That is what this Government mean by global Britain.

Under the previous Foreign Secretary we saw the same approach over and again, where the sole consideration on every foreign policy issue was how to help British businesses make a quick buck. We saw that in Libya with his horrific talk of British developers turning the country into a paradise of beach resorts just as soon as they could clear away the dead bodies of the Libyans who died fighting Daesh. We saw it again in Yemen, where there was literally nothing Saudi Arabia could do—not using starvation as a weapon of war; not cutting off supplies of food, clean water and medicine; not bombing farms, schools and hospitals; and not killing thousands of innocent men, women and children—that would persuade the former Foreign Secretary even to suspend the supply of arms for use in that conflict, pending a proper war crimes investigation.

We saw it in Myanmar with the Rohingya, where the former Foreign Secretary toured the killing fields of Rakhine state and called out what he saw as industrial ethnic cleansing, but he refused to take the next logical step of asking the UN Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court. The Government were afraid of upsetting China and jeopardising future trade deals.