Emily Thornberry Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury
I was very pleased to take part in a virtual panel today organised by the brilliant campaigning charity, War Child, called ‘A Force For Good In The World’, which looked at the role the UK should be playing across the globe in protecting children from the misery, suffering and death caused by conflict. Below is the speech I made at the event, which talked about the wider connection between our decisions on trade and the protection of human rights overseas, and the legacy we owe to the great Robin Cook, who wrestled with these same issues twenty years ago.
Thank you Baroness Stern. And thank you to everyone from War Child for inviting me to be part of this event today, and to all of you joining us online.
I’ve been thinking about the title of this event, and the phrase ‘A Force For Good’, which is one that many of us will associate with Robin Cook, and his famous speech at the dawn of the new Labour government in 1997, talking about the need for an “ethical dimension” in our foreign policy.
And when we think about the years in which Robin tried to realise that goal, in his words, “to make Britain once again a force for good in the world”, one of the great success stories we think about was the intervention in Sierra Leone in May 2000, when British troops stopped the fall of Freetown, turned the tide of the civil war in favour of the democratic government.
But what people often forget, was the trip Robin made to Sierra Leone a month after British troops went in.
It was no victory parade, no ‘mission accomplished’ moment, no premature celebration like Cameron and Sarkozy basking in cheering crowds in Libya in 2011.
No, Robin had flown into Freetown because of the stories and images seen in British newspapers, of young child soldiers fighting on the government side, and holding automatic rifles made here, in Britain.
Robin went there to tell the government in Freetown that if they wanted the continued support of Britain and our armed forces, then those child soldiers would have to be immediately demobilised and given the care and rehabilitation they required.
Robin didn’t make any excuses. He didn’t say ‘it’s just the nature of war’. He didn’t say ‘come on, both armies are doing it’. He didn’t try and cover it up, or turn a blind eye, because it was the side we were supporting, who stood accused in this case.
He was instead clear that having an ethical foreign policy meant holding ourselves and our allies to the highest possible standards, and admitting when we – or they — had fallen short.
But twenty years on, look where we are, gone from a foreign policy with Human rights at its core, to a foreign policy where Human rights are at the very best an uncomfortable, embarrassing afterthought.
We have a government which, right now, is in court defending its decision to continue selling arms to Saudi Arabia for use in the conflict in Yemen, having dismissed the twenty thousand civilian deaths caused by Saudi air-strikes as, I quote, “isolated incidents”. Isolated incidents, which, in the government’s own words, do not indicate either a lack of capacity or a lack of intent to comply with international law.
And there are times during our debates on the war in Yemen, and the government’s support for it, when I have tried to reason with them.
It is a documented fact, I say, that the Saudi coalition has used child soldiers to fight its battles on the ground in Yemen. For goodness’ sake, this is not an allegation. We have seen dozens of Saudi-paid child soldiers involved in formal prisoner-swap agreements between the warring parties.
And yet, if I ask government ministers, ‘how can you claim that the Saudi Coalition has the capacity and intent to comply with international law, when it is knowingly deploying child soldiers to the front lines of this conflict?’ They just fall back on the same old excuses; ‘it’s just the nature of war’, ‘come on, both armies are doing it’, and of course: ‘why are you criticising the Saudis, don’t you know we’re on their side?’
It is literally the opposite of the values that Robin Cook stood for, the vision that Robin Cook espoused, and the sense of responsibility and accountability that Robin Cook exemplified.
However, while that is all true, let me make an important point which goes to the heart of our current debates here in Westminster, about human rights and the protection of children.
In the comparison I am making, about the UK’s arms sales in different decades to Sierra Leone and to Yemen, the instincts of the respective governments may have changed, but there has at least been broadly the same legal framework in place, to inform those decisions about who the UK may sell arms to, and what those arms may be used for.
And as we see at present — in relation to Yemen, those decisions can at least be challenged in the courts.
It may be a deeply flawed and outdated legal framework, but at least there is one.
However, my great fear at present is that we are seeing a new frontier open up, in terms of our responsibility for what happens to human rights overseas, where there is no legal framework, no right to challenge the government’s decisions, and not even any guarantee of proper Parliamentary scrutiny.
And that new frontier is, of course, in relation to the trade agreements that the UK has been free to enter into outside the European Union.
So it is no longer just a question of the government deciding to which countries it is legally able to sell arms.
It is now also, just as importantly, a question of the government deciding to which countries it is ethically willing to extend preferential terms of trade.
And the signs are so far deeply worrying, with the government showing no apparent concern whatsoever for the human rights records of potential trade partners, before signing agreements with them, and resisting all attempts over the past year to place legal or Parliamentary constraints on its ability to negotiate those deals.
We saw that exemplified just last week, with the astonishing decision by the government to reject a proposed amendment to the Trade Bill, demanding that it not maintain trade agreements with countries found guilty of genocide.
But while it was that decision, which rightly attracted all the controversy and criticism last week, I also highlighted in the same debate, something much more mundane but equally pernicious, and that was the trade deal signed by the government on the 30th of December, to maintain free trade beyond the Brexit transition period, with President Biya’s regime in Cameroon.
A country where millions of children have been displaced from their homes and denied schooling, as a result of the conflict between regime forces and separatist militias, in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions.
A country where children are routinely targeted by both sides in the conflict, with hundreds killed and maimed.
That trade agreement with Cameroon was signed by the government, with no apparent consideration over whether it was appropriate or right in light of the conflict in that country, and four weeks on there has not just been no Parliamentary scrutiny of that agreement, the agreement itself has still not been made available for Parliament even to read.
In twenty years, we have gone from an ethical foreign policy, to an unaccountable foreign policy. And when it comes to the government’s new trade agreements, we are just at the beginning of seeing where this will lead.
So I am not exaggerating when I say how crucial and urgent it is that we join together in a forum like this one today, to say simply, that we still care.
We still care if British-made arms are being used to kill children overseas, or being put into the hands of child soldiers.
We care if British trade agreements are giving legitimacy and financial support to regimes which attack children, and deny them an education.
And we care if the government is able to take decisions in these areas, not just without an ethical dimension, or a legal framework, but without even a bare minimum of proper Parliamentary scrutiny.
So I am very grateful to War Child, and to all of you taking part today, for making clear that you still care. Because I cannot state my conclusion any more starkly than this;
We may all want to return to Robin Cook’s ethical foreign policy and his vision of Britain as a force for good in the world, and that is certainly our commitment for when Labour is back in government.
But right now, our collective job is not to put this train in reverse, but to stop it heading, ever more rapidly, out of control, in exactly the opposite direction. That is going to take a hell of a lot of effort, but that’s precisely why we need to come together today.